A Fennel Honey Cake as Sweet as Its Backstory

April 23, 2018

Hayley McKee had been a parent for barely three months when she got her first book deal. Looking back, she told me, “I was learning to be a mum and a cookbook author at the same time.” Now, nearly two years later, Hayley’s son Ray-Lou is a toddler, and her book Sticky Fingers, Green Thumb is out for sale. So it comes as no surprise that the cover of the cookbook—and the first recipe we had to, had to make—is a cake named after Ray-Lou.

The book itself is named after Hayley’s made-to-order business, Sticky Fingers Bakery, based in Australia, established in 2010. All about “soulful, earthy, and seasonal baking,” Sticky Fingers’ menu features native ingredients and fresh vegetables, homegrown herbs and edible flowers. Think chamomile, yogurt, and maple cake. Strawberry, elderflower, and black pepper cake. Purple carrot cake!

And Honey for Ray cake: “It was the first new recipe I wrote for the book. The others I'd been writing on and off for a few years.” She describes it as a “buttery cake with gentle aniseed tones from the fennel and a soft sunny finish from the raw sugar and lemon honey syrup.” We couldn’t have said it better ourselves.

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If your ears are perking up at fennel, well, that’s what Sticky Fingers, Green Thumb is all about: unexpected flavors in familiar places. There are green peas in whipped cream. Potato and kale chips in chocolate chunk cookies. Lavender and bay leaf in shortbread.

“The garden and the local market have always been central to my home cooking, so I had a real epiphany when I realized I could use the same soulful approach towards my baking,” Hayley said. “It changed everything.”

Piece on the left is for you. Piece on the right is for me! Photo by James Ransom

In both her business and book, Hayley takes ingredients usually relegated to savory contexts and invites them into her sweet recipes, wide smile, open arms. And though they’re all baked goods, none of the recipes are that sweet: “Instead, they let the natural ingredients shine.”

To Hayley, herbs are the gateway to garden-inspired baking: “Pinch by pinch add them to your batters and doughs to compliment the flavors of classic recipes.” In her Honey for Ray cake, this means lemon myrtle, which is—well, what is lemon myrtle?

“A native Australian shrub,” Hayley tells me. “Its leaves are dried and ground and used for medicinal properties and cooking.” But she loves it for baking for its “intense zesty flavor with a hint of eucalypt.”

If you can’t get your hands on that, you can substitute lemon balm or lemon thyme. And if you can’t get your hands on either of those: “You could use fresh thyme (leaves) and add the zest of one lemon to replicate the flavor tones.”

We did just that. It was the most unexpected cake our test kitchen has seen in quite some time—and our test kitchen sees a lot of cake. The layers are moist from grated fennel and polka-dotted with crunchy fennel seeds. After these come out of the oven, you drench them in a lemony honey syrup, let cool, then smear with honey–cream cheese frosting.

“It’s soft and lush,” Hayley writes in the book, “just like Ray-Lou.”

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Emma was the food editor at Food52. She created the award-winning column, Big Little Recipes, and turned it into a cookbook in 2021. These days, she's a senior editor at Bon Appétit, leading digital cooking coverage. Say hello on Instagram at @emmalaperruque.

1 Comment

Donna F. April 29, 2018
I imagine the lightest Dustin from of fennel pollen and a scattering of beautiful edible flowers on top- this is going into my recipe box and I look forward to making this after my farmers market trip next week for honey and fennel👍