Sunday, January 9, 2011

ingredient: CARDAMOM

Cardamom is rumored to stimulate your appetite, and I’m not just talking about food. Ancient Greeks and Romans used these peppery pods as an aphrodisiac. The word must have spread east because the love potion described in many of the tales in One Hundred and One Arabian Nights is simply tea brewed with cardamom. My modern love potion is called vodka-tonic, but I do regularly drink tea with cardamom in its other incarnation, chai.

Perhaps they were on to something?

Wondering if you've ever tried cardamaom? If you’ve ever eaten Indian food, you almost definitely have. Cardamom, a plant in the ginger family, is native to India and is a staple of its cuisine. Its pungent, spicy yet sweet flavor is part of the spice mix garam masala, which is used to flavor a wide variety of dishes from chicken vindaloo to saag paneer. Traditional Ayurveda medicine believes cardamom aids digestion and helps to detox the body. I'll buy it because a nice plate of curried vegetables sounds much better than some chili-lemon-water. Maybe my New Years resolutions can stick after all.

Cardamom is definitely a world traveler. Despite being nowhere near warm enough to grow their own cardamom, Scandinavian countries have adopted this spice as their own. You can find cardamom in everything from Danish cookies to Swedish meatballs. Particularly ubiquitous are cardamom buns. This is because the Swedes have made Fika, or the coffee break, a social institution. It makes sense; if for a few months out of the year I was living in near constant darkness, I would definitely need a whole lot of coffee and some sweets to keep me from crawling into bed and sleeping until June. It seems like it'd be hard to turn down that other Swedish coffee break staple, the cinnamon bun, but maybe cardamom has a little something special after all.

Swedish Cardamom Buns
Adapted from the Scandinavian Cookbook

Some kids collect stamps or trading cards or stickers. Some kids are obsessed with video games or ponies or comic books. I was obsessed with Scandinavia. Hear me out.

When I was growing up, my father did a lot of work in Finland. He would bring back gifts and magical stories of reindeer and saunas. I wore Finlandia Vodka sweatshirts to kindergarten (until the teacher asked me to stop) and ate Daim chocolates like you could buy them at the deli. My favorite cartoon wasn’t Mickey Mouse, it was this guy:
(meet Moomin Troll)

I simply loved everything Scandinavian. Ikea was like Disney World. (How do they get those pancakes so thin?) So you can bet it was like a dream come true when we spent spring break in Finland. That’s right. Finland in March was my ten year old dream. My parents thought I was a bit strange. What can I say? At least I wasn’t obsessed with Guam.

Although the Finnish flags may have disappeared from my bedroom walls, my soft spot for all things Scandinavian remains. Which is why yesterday, while the snow fell softly outside my window, I opened the Scandinavian Cookbook and found something to bake that would remind me of being tucked inside a cozy cafe on the Pohjoisesplanadi in Helsinki. The recipe I chose was for cardamom buns, which are essentially fragrant but not too sweet yeasted rolls. These are perfect as a light mid-afternoon snack with some jam and some coffee.

NOTE: Cardamom is at its best when it's freshly ground and it tends to lose its flavor in the jar. You can definitely buy pre-ground cardamom, just be aware of how fragrant it smells and adjust the amount in the buns accordingly.

Makes 12 buns


1 ounces fresh yeast
1 1/2 cups warm milk
2 tbsp butter, melted
4 cups flour
2 tbsp sugar
1 tsp salt
1 tsp ground cardamom (if you are grinding your own pods, you can use more like ½ tsp)
1 egg, beaten

Put the yeast in a small bowl and cover with the warm milk. Let it sit for 10 minutes or until dissolved.

Add the melted butter. Mix in the sugar, salt, and cardamom. Add the flour and stir until a dough has formed (it will pull away from the sides of the bowl and form a ball).

Put the dough on a floured surface and knead for 5 minutes.

Put the dough in the bowl and cover with a towel. Let it rise in a warm place for 1 hour, by which time it should have about doubled in volume.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Knead the dough again for 5 minutes. Shape the dough into 12 round balls and place them on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.

Cover the sheet with a towel and let it rise for 20 minutes.

Brush each bun with the egg wash. Bake the buns for about 20 minutes, or until golden brown.

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