Esther Clarke's fennel seed and lemon buttermilk pound cake

Author of The Modern Spice Rack, Esther Clarke, shares her recipe for this glorious pound cake flavoured with the warmth of fennel seed and sharpness of lemon. It's perfect sliced thickly and enjoyed with a cup of tea

Serves 8

Preparation time 25

Cooking time 55 minutes

Never underestimate the power of a good pound cake. A combination of a pound of each key ingredient – butter, eggs, flour and sugar, which comes together to make a soft yet rich and tender sponge cake with a comforting texture. With such simplicity, however, finding a pound cake that stands out is sometimes hard. 

A blank canvas needn't be a bad thing, though. As recipe writer and food stylist Esther Clarke proves, a simple pound cake recipe can be turned into something truly special by the addition of spice. That's the notion which runs through her debut cookbook – The Modern Spice Rack, which seeks to encourage the liberal and creative use of spices in cooking and removes the idea that certain spices must be rigidly married to a particular cuisine.

With a simple flourish of liquorice sweetness from the fennel seeds, sharpness of lemon zest, and the slight acidity of buttermilk, a simple cake is reinvented into something sophisticated. Everyone should have a good pound cake recipe in their repertoire, and this might just be the one. 


  • 220g unsalted butter, softened, plus extra for greasing
  • 1 heaped tbsp fennel seeds
  • 200g caster sugar
  • 3 eggs
  • Finely grated zest of 2 large lemons and juice of 1
  • 200g plain flour
  • 1 tsp cream of tartar
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
  • 120ml buttermilk
  • 200g icing sugar


  1. Preheat the oven to 160ºC fan. Grease a 450g loaf tin and line the base and sides with 2 wide strips of baking parchment so that they come just above the lip of the tin (this will help you to lift out the cake later).
  2. Lightly crush two-thirds of the fennel seeds in a pestle and mortar and set aside. In a stand mixer fitted with a whisk attachment, or using an electric hand-held whisk in a large bowl, beat together the butter and caster sugar at a medium–high speed for at least 10 minutes, or until extremely fluffy. It should have a pale colour and a mousse-like texture. Beat in the eggs, one at a time, until they are all incorporated, scraping down the sides of the bowl with a spatula as you go.
  3. In a separate bowl, combine the crushed fennel seeds, lemon zest, flour, cream of tartar, baking powder and salt. Add this to the butter mixture and beat for 20 seconds, or until just combined. Add the buttermilk and briefly mix again. Spoon the batter into the prepared loaf tin and bake for 55–60 minutes (checking after 55 minutes) until the cake is risen and golden and a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean. Leave to cool completely in the tin.
  4. Sift the icing sugar into a large bowl. Add the lemon juice and stir to create a thick icing, adding more lemon juice if it seems too thick. Remove the cooled cake from the tin and peel off the baking parchment. Spoon the icing gently on to the cake so that it slowly drips down the edges. Finish with the remaining fennel seeds. Leave to stand for 1 hour before cutting into generous slices and serving.

Try this

  • Fennel can be added to all sorts of citrus dishes. Try adding 1 teaspoon to homemade lemonade, lemon cookies, the pastry of a lemon meringue pie or in homemade curd.

This recipe is from the 'The Modern Spice Rack' by Esther Clarke and Rachel Walker, available to buy here