As we learned from “The Land where Lemons Grow” by Helena Attlee, lemons reached Europe with the Arabs when they invaded Sicily in AD 831. They were first grown in the protective environment of pleasure gardens until the Arabs built a new irrigation system, combining practices from the Islamic (water-challenged) territories in Egypt, Yemen, Mesopotamia and the Levant with the classical Roman water management infrastructure that they repaired and extended.
As for the Romans, not only did they build aqueducts, dams and conduits, they also introduced pistachio cultivation in Europe around AD 35. Until then it was grown in the Levant and Iraq – even in the handing gardens of Babylon during the reign of Merodach-Baladan, the king who fought the Assyrians and sent Hezekiah letters of concern because of his illness. (We can think of him dictating the letters to his scribes among the pistachio trees during a babylonian afternoon).
So both the basic ingredients of this cake were brought to Europe from the near east – were they were introduced from central and southern Asia. The moral is that you should not take the delicate flavours of this cake for granted. It was a long way for lemons and pistachios to reach your oven!
- 50g ground unsalted and shelled pistachios
- 280g all purpose flour, sifted (plus 1 handful for dusting the tin)
- 1 very heaped tsp baking powder
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 250g unsalted butter (plus 1 Tbsp butter for greasing the tin)
- 180g caster sugar
- 4 eggs
- 3 tsp lemon zest
- 4 Tbsp (1/2cup) fresh lemon juice
- seeds from 1/2 vanilla pod
- icing sugar for dusting
Preheat the oven to 180ºC.
Use a pastry brush and 1 Tbsp melted butter to grease the cake tin really well. Take a small handful or spoonful of flour and dust lightly around the inside of the greased tin. Turn upside down over your kitchen sink and knock gently to remove any excess flour. This time I used a bundt cake tin. If you use a loaf tin you should also line its base with parchment paper.
Combine the butter and caster sugar in a mixer fitted with the whisk attachment until light and creamy.
Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition.
Add the vanilla seeds, lemon zest and lemon juice and combine. (At this point the mixture will probably look a little bit curdled. Don’t worry it will improve when you fold in the dry ingredients.)
Mix together the sifted flour, baking powder, salt and ground pistachios and carefully fold into the egg mixture.
To prevent the formation of air bubbles, spoon the batter into the tin somewhat slowly. To release any bubbles that may have developed, tap the tin gently on a work surface.
Bake for about 35 minutes or until a knife inserted in the thickest part of the cake comes out clean.
Transfer the pan to a wire rack and let the cake cool in the tin for 15 minutes. Then tap the tin firmly a few times and shake it gently to help loosen the cake. Invert the tin onto the rack, lift it off and let the cake continue to cool on the rack.
Use a fine-mesh sieve or flour sifter to dust the cake with icing sugar just before serving, as the sugar tends to melt into the cake as it sits.
Enjoy with a cup of coffee!