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.

Selim Pepper, Candied Lemon, and Almond Teacake
Photo: Caitlin Bensel
Active Time:
1 hr 10 mins
Total Time:
1 hr 40 mins
Makes 1 (9-inch) cake


Candied Lemons

  • 2 large lemons (about 5 ounces each)

  • 3/4 cup granulated sugar

  • 1 1/2 cups tap water

  • 5 uda pods (also known as grains of Selim), smashed

Almond Teacake

  • 1/2 cup unsalted butter (4 ounces), melted, plus 1 tablespoon for greasing pan

  • 1 3/4 cups sliced blanched almonds, divided

  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour (about 6 3/8 ounces)

  • 2 teaspoons baking powder

  • 1/4 teaspoon baking soda

  • 1 tablespoon kosher salt

  • 4 large eggs, separated

  • 1 cup plus 1 tablespoon granulated sugar, divided

  • 8 ounces plain whole-milk Greek yogurt (about 1 cup)

  • 1/4 teaspoon almond extract (optional)

  • Whipped topping, for serving


  1. Make the candied lemons: Cut 1 lemon in half lengthwise; thinly slice each half into 1/8-inch-thick half-moons. Using a Y-shaped peeler, remove the zest from the second lemon in 1/2-inch strips, and cut into thin strips; set aside. Juice the peeled lemon into a bowl, and set aside 3 tablespoons fresh juice.

  2. Place lemon slices in a small saucepan, and add water to a depth of 1 inch. Bring to a simmer over medium. Drain and rinse under cold running water. Drain and return lemon slices to saucepan. Repeat process until lemon peels are soft and translucent, about 3 times, using fresh water each time. Return peels to saucepan; add sugar, 1 1/2 cups water, and uda pods. Bring to a simmer over medium, stirring occasionally. Reduce heat to medium-low, and simmer until the syrup is reduced to about 3/4 cup, about 25 minutes. Stir in lemon peel strips and 3 tablespoons lemon juice, and cook 1 minute. Remove from heat, and let cool while cake bakes. Remove and discard uda pods. Remove candied lemon slices from syrup, allowing excess syrup to drip off; reserve for serving. Reserve lemon syrup for brushing cake.

  3. Make the almond teacake: Preheat oven to 350°F. Line the bottom of a 9-inch cake pan with a piece of parchment paper, and brush the sides and edges with 1 tablespoon melted butter. Spread 1/2 cup sliced almonds in an even layer on a small rimmed baking sheet, and bake in preheated oven until golden brown, 6 to 8 minutes. Set aside to cool. Pulse remaining 1 1/4 cups sliced almonds in a food processor until a coarse meal forms, about 10 times. Stir together almond meal, flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a medium bowl.

  4. Stir together egg yolks and 1 cup sugar in a large bowl until thoroughly blended and pale yellow. Fold in yogurt and almond extract, if using. Stir in flour mixture until just combined. (If the batter looks stiff you are on the right track! Avoid overmixing.)

  5. Beat egg whites and remaining 1 tablespoon sugar with an electric mixer on medium-high speed until soft peaks form, about 90 seconds. Gently fold whipped egg whites into batter, and stir in remaining 1/2 cup melted butter.

  6. Pour batter into the prepared pan and bake at 350°F until top is golden brown and a wooden pick inserted in the center comes out clean, about 40 minutes.

  7. Remove the cake from the oven, and let cool in the pan 10 to 15 minutes. Invert the cake out onto a wire rack set inside a rimmed baking sheet. While the cake is still warm, brush surface and edges of cake with the syrup from the candied lemons, allowing the liquid to soak in before brushing with more. Do this until all the syrup is used up and has been absorbed by the cake. Top the cake with the toasted almonds, and transfer to a serving platter. Slice into wedges, and serve with the candied lemon slices and whipped topping.

Make Ahead

Completely cooled syrup and candied lemon slices can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator up to 1 week.

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