Walking around Almaty's main bazaar in the winter months, you get the impression that all good things come from Uzbekistan. Aside from the amazing local apples, most of the produce is imported from more southerly climes. It is impossible to find parsnips (believe me, I've tried), but there are seemingly inexhaustible supplies of pomegranates, citrus, and apparently infinite varieties of persimmons.
In my opinion, the chief place among these wonders of the winter harvest is occupied by so-called Tashkent lemons. They look more or less like ordinary lemons, but their peels are darker and they're sweeter, juicier, and somehow more citrusy. Initially I suspected that these were Meyer lemons, which I've never had in the U.S. because I lack the good fortune of living in California. Meyer lemons are thought to be a hybrid between ordinary lemons and tangerines, Chinese in origin,and were brought to the U.S. in the early 20th century by Frank Nicholas Meyer, an agricultural explorer for the USDA who collected plant samples in Asia before drowning in the Yangtze River in 1918.
It turns out, however, that the Tashkent lemon is in fact a special variety created in Uzbekistan by the Soviet citrus breeder Fahrutdinov when he crossed the Meyer lemon with the New Georgian lemon (whatever that might be). In any case, the Tashkent lemon is so good that it's almost enough to make one regret the end of winter.
This week Kazakhstan is celebrating Nouruz, the traditional new year, which coincides with the vernal equinox and announces the beginning of spring. The weather is complying perfectly—Last week it was snowing, and now it's 70 degrees. Since we are officially parting ways with winter, I decided to combine the Tashkent lemon with that other emblem of Uzbekistan's cold-weather bounty, the pomegranate, into what is hands down the best (slash only...) Nouruz cake I've ever made.
Tashkent Lemon Cake
2 cups flour
1 cup sugar
1 tsp baking soda
Juice of 4 lemons (ideally, of course, Tashkent lemons, but you can substitute Meyer or Eureka or whatever else you happen to have on hand)
Zest of 2 lemons
1/2 cup olive oil
1 cup kefir
1 tbs cognac
-Preheat oven to 325F/160C
-Combine dry ingredients
-Carefully mix in wet ingredients
-Pour into a prepared 10-inch cake pan
-Bake 60 minutes
Pomegranate Buttercream Frosting
200 grams (7 ounces) butter
300 grams (10.5 ounces) powdered sugar
1/2 cup unsweetened pomegranate juice
2 tbs milk
-Bring the pomegranate juice to a boil over very low heat. Cook until it has thickened and decreased in volume by about one half. Set aside to cool.
-In a large bowl, beat butter until creamy
-Beat in powdered sugar and milk
-Beat in cooled pomegranate juice
Frost the cake once it has cooled. Garnish with pomegranate seeds.