Selim Pepper, Candied Lemon, and Almond Teacake
In the southern regions of Nigeria, the soil is so fertile, and the growing season so long, that the markets are bursting with fresh fruits and vegetables all year round. My dad has always joked, in his bookish yet playful tone, “Be careful where you discard your fruit; a tree might just sprout up from that spot!” Growing up in Lagos, Nigeria, meals in my home started and ended with cut-up chunks of fruit. Anything more formal was considered dessert and typically required a trip out. In classic Nigerian cuisine, sweets are served as street food or “small chops”—finger food that can be consumed in one to two bites, not often as a course on their own. Moving to the U.S. in my teens allowed me to broaden my understanding of dessert. Full dessert courses can be found nearly everywhere food is served in America. Even the places with the shortest menus—coffee shops, food trucks, kiosks—never fail to stock a sizable sugar rush. America’s fascination with dessert is real, and I got fully on board with it; my years as a pastry chef only furthered my surrender to its charm. These days, the dessert course is the part of the menu that comes most naturally to me at my dinner parties. I like to prepare a composed sweet “small chop,” something easy to prepare and that affords me ample opportunity to plate, serve, and mingle. This is crucial; for me, these dinners are as much about the conversation as they are about the food, so I can’t be confined in the kitchen when joy fills the dining room. A cake with only a brush of syrup might seem too simple to be a real dessert. But not this one. This teacake packs a punch, rooted in my homeland, from selim pepper. Also known as “grains of selim,” selim pepper is the seeds of a shrubby tree found across the African continent. These seeds are also known as Ethiopian pepper, Senegal pepper, and Kani pepper in Cote d’Ivoire. In Nigeria, the Igbo call them uda seeds. They can be purchased ground, or as whole seed pods; the pods are typically dried and smoked. A perfect selim pepper pod should emit a smoky aroma even before you get it out of the bag. (You can order selim pepper pods from Kalustyans.) When heated, the seed pods infuse a dish—candied lemon peel syrup in this case—with their distinct musky flavor. I brush the syrup on the top of the just-out-of-the-oven almond teacake. After it’s cooled, I serve the cake by the slice with a side of soft whipped cream or ice cream. The candied lemon slices work great as a topping and are wonderful to bite into on their own.
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