For me, Easter doesn’t bring to mind the sweet richness of chocolate bunnies or the searing burn of vinegar from egg-dyeing. Easter means the haunting scent of cardamom wafting up from my grandmother’s freshly baked Swedish buns.
My grandparents, Gunda and Emil Anderson, immigrated to New York from Sweden in the early 1900s. Luckily, my grandfather’s older brother was established and working, so they had a place to stay. Their English was poor, and so were they. They never owned a home or learned to drive; their social life revolved around the coffee table with family, friends and pastries.
My earliest memories of my grandmother’s baking come from Sunday afternoon family gathering - after church but before dinner. I remember climbing the stairs to their second-story apartment, anticipating the yeasty, sweet scent of freshly baked pastries. I will always associate her with the smell of cardamom. Her billowy hugs were filled with that pungent aroma. As a child I believed the smell came from a special scent she wore. Years later I laughed when I found that cardamom was not a bottled perfume but an exotic spice she used in her pastries.
Her specialty was a sweet braided cardamom bun, covered in sugar. When we left for home she always gave us a tin filled with the leftovers. It was understood that we would bring the tin back on our next visit so she could refill it. Best eaten at room temperature, it was a Monday morning breakfast treat.
Years later, when I was home from college, I had a strong craving for her cardamom braided buns. Fortunately, my aunt had researched our family’s history and discovered my grandmother’s recipe.
But getting it right was a little like the story of Goldilocks. My first attempt resulted in something that looked the same, but I had used powdered cardamom and it did not have the pungent flavor. Not enough. Next I used ground cardamom, but with a heavy hand. Way too much.
My third try happened to be when my parents were visiting for Easter. After the Easter basket wrappings had been cleared away, my dad sat down with his morning coffee and tried a bite. This time his smile was broad and his eyes twinkled. Just right.
How cardamom, which is native to India and Sri Lanka, came to have such a profound presence in Scandinavian cuisine is a bit of a mystery. This member of the ginger family, the third most expensive spice after saffron and vanilla, has been used in Sweden at least since the 13th century. Regardless of how it happened, cardamom has a powerful hold on the Swedes. They consume 60 times as much as the average American, using it in mulled wines, stewed fruits and all types of baked goods.
Cardamom is also used extensively in Indian and Asian cooking and in this country you will find it widely available and at the lowest price if you visit specialty markets. For the strongest flavor, buy whole pods and crush them just before using to remove the brown-black seeds. For the best flavor, use it immediately after grinding, because the essential oils quickly dissipate.
The majority of Swedes are Lutheran, and Easter is one of their special family celebration days, along with Christmas and St. Lucia Day. During the Easter season, breads are baked into animal shapes, a practice dating back to pagan days when animals were burned in rituals and offered to the gods. Farmers too poor to continue this practice burned baked breads instead.
Swedes claim to be the world’s second-largest coffee-consuming group. Coffee is served with every meal and snack throughout the day. On special occasions, family and friends gather around a ceremonial coffee table where the host, by tradition, must serve seven different cookies along with cakes and pastries, covering the top of the table. With the first cup of coffee the guest samples a sweet cardamom yeast bread and several cookies. With the second cup of coffee, an unfrosted sponge or pound cake is eaten. The third cup of coffee accompanies a rich cream or frosted torte.
Modern hosts are taking advantage of bakeries to supplement their own favorite recipes. But there are always baked goods on hand for unexpected visitors. What would Easter be without the haunting smell of cardamom?