If there are certain flavors that sing of the holidays -- nutmeg and cinnamon, ginger and cloves, a dash or two of good bourbon -- cardamom is certainly not on the list.
For most of us, cardamom is that exotic, elusive note in so many of the Indian dishes we love. We have a vague notion that it comes in a pod and requires some special handling, and, well, who needs to think about that at this time of year when there’s baking -- serious baking, and mounds of it -- waiting to be done?
But, dear baker, this is a mistake. Take a chance, just once, with a batch of butter cookies, or maybe a dish of ice cream. Cardamom adds a powerfully sweet, somehow magical note to the simplest pastry or dessert. It’s deeply, transportingly aromatic, and maybe that’s why it’s so perfect for holiday baking: It’s like a gift the magi could have brought. Somehow, cardamom seems celebratory.
In Scandinavia and Germany, cardamom is traditionally used in cakes and breads and cookies. American bakers and cooks are flummoxed, though, by the idea of cardamom.
But in the course of developing recipes using cardamom, something very simple struck us: You can reach for cardamom whenever you would use cinnamon. It’s that versatile.
Over the course of a few weeks, we found ourselves amazed by the results. We made traditional, yeasted sweet rolls using cardamom instead of cinnamon, and they were suddenly something very special and festive. We made spritz cookies with a sprinkling of cardamom and pistachio that quickly became addictive.
You might think adding it to Italian panforte sounds odd, but this too made us swoon.
Easiest of all: We sprinkled some freshly ground cardamom and a drizzle of honey over vanilla ice cream. It was an instant hit -- and so sophisticated and wonderful that you could serve it at a dinner party and hold your head high. Now we’re thinking about French toast, creme brulee, Madeleines....
There are just a few things to know before you start baking.
First, there are three kinds of cardamom: green, white and black. Green cardamom is the one you want. Bakers should avoid the other two types: White cardamom is actually green cardamom that’s been bleached, a process that leaches out flavor and makes it inferior. Black cardamom is not true cardamom; it’s a bigger, rougher pod with an aggressive camphor flavor. It’s used mainly in savory Indian dishes.
Green cardamom, a relative of ginger, is grown in southern India and other tropical areas including Asia, the Pacific and South America.
When you buy it, look for plump pods; they have the most flavor. Inside are three compartments containing small seeds -- about 15 or 20 total. When the cardamom is fresh, the seeds are slightly sticky. Although you’ll find green cardamom in a good supermarket, the best place to buy it is an Indian or Middle Eastern market, where it’s available in bulk and more likely to be fresh.
Although some recipes for stews or rice use pods added whole, pastry recipes call for ground cardamom. Always grind it yourself -- the essential oils responsible for the beguiling flavor and aroma dissipate soon after grinding.
But that’s a good thing: Crush the seeds using a mortar and pestle, and that heavenly, pungent fragrance will fill your kitchen. Using a coffee grinder dedicated to grinding spices is also an option, but that deprives you of some of the sensory pleasure.
Before you grind, lightly crush the pods with a rolling pin. Pull the pods apart and scrape out the seeds, then go at it with the mortar and pestle or grinder. Store uncrushed pods in a tightly covered container.
Freshly ground green cardamom seeds are used in each of our recipes. The cardamom sweet rolls have a double dose, with some spice incorporated into the dough and some sprinkled along with sugar as a filling. Serve them warm from the oven -- and plan to hang around the kitchen while they bake so you can enjoy the marvelous aromas.
In the butter spritz cookies, cardamom marries beautifully with the crushed pistachios and big sugar crystals that get sprinkled on top. A box makes a great gift.
Making these cookies means rediscovering the cookie press -- a time-saver during holiday baking marathons. This inexpensive tool, which is widely available, allows you to pump out a dozen cookies in a minute. Be sure your dough is room temperature when you load the press. Experiment with sizes and shapes by adjusting the disks.
Our California farmers market panforte combines sage honey, pistachios, almonds and locally grown dried fruits for an L.A. version of the dense Italian confection. There’s very little flour in this recipe, just enough to bind the ingredients. The result is a chewy, rich cake with a haunting floral note -- thanks to the cardamom. Serve it in small slices.
The candied citrus peel that is stirred into the panforte dough is a treat on its own; you might want to make a double batch. Serve the extras alongside the sliced panforte or with a cup of good strong coffee.