Here’s an embarassing admission: I saw the letter “C” and I went with cardamom. Turns out the “C” stood for coriander, but the cookies themselves came out so well that I’ll never look back. Coriander be damned.
Here’s another: I adore frozen beer-battered fish sticks and am making them for supper tonight although I’m presently nursing a debilitating fear that they’re about to cause a greasefire in my kitchen.
But let’s talk about exotic spices!
I’ve been thinking about cardamom lately because I’m gearing up for the Annual Christmas Cookie Baking Extravaganza, and one of my traditional Christmas cookies is a cardamom butter cookie drizzled with chocolate and espresso icings. (And by “traditional cookies”, I mean “Raphael-will-presumably-leave-me-if-I-don’t-make-these-cookies cookies”.) Cardamom was not a part of our holiday cookie-baking activities when I was growing up in Ohio. We mainly stuck to what we knew – chocolate crinkles, chewy molasses cookies, and cookies shaped like Rudolph with Red Hot noses that everyone picked off and left scattered sadly across the cookie plate with the crumbs. I’ve now had cardamom many times since my chilldhood – in curries and in hot spiced drinks like chai or cider – but until relatively recently, cardamon in baking was unexplored territory for me.
In my go-to cookbook, Betty Crocker has little to say about cardamom, and she doesn't go out of her way to make it sound like something you'd choose to consume, given any kind of choice at all. It's a seed (she says) and it tastes like menthol and it's pungent. I can practically hear Betty's genteel disapproval of cardamom crackling across the page even as she (grudgingly) notes that you can use it in coffee, curry, custard, fruits, Scandinavian breads, and sausages. If you can get past the whole menthol thing, presumably. And if custards don’t oog you out. And if you trust those so-called “Scandinavians”. Oh Betty!
But I won’t start by lying to you. Not unlike Betty, I was suspicious of doing anything not related to beverage-consumption with cardamom for many years. At least from the time I discovered that it existed (around 2002) and that you could put it in chai (and that chai was delicious) until about three years ago when I made with some trepidation those first cardamom-flavored butter cookies and Raphael’s world apparently shifted on its axis whilst angels descended unto the kitchen and helped themselves to coffee and bagels. As a convert, I wanted to seek out a more appealing description for you, but it’s apparently hard for people to describe cardamom in appealing terms. Renee Loux in her sneakily vegan cookbook “The Balanced Plate” describes it thusly: "Warm, pungent, bittersweet, lemony, eucalyptus-camphor tones, clean aftertaste." Clean! At least she makes it sound more like a candle or some kind of medicinal substance than a cigarette, which must indicate a certain level of affection.
Here’s some stuff I’ve read: Cardamom is a member of the ginger family native to tropical regions in India and Sri Lanka and grown also in Tasmania, Vietnam, Papua New Guinea, and Guatemala. It can be used as a digestive aid and to freshen the breath and is commonly used to flavor coffee, rice, and sweet bready things. You've probably had it in your Indian food and your Ethiopian food, and if you were a Viking (I wish I was a Viking!), you snugged your funny hat down over your ears and carried it back along the trade routes from Constantinople and introduced it to the Scandinavians who subsequently mixed it into their cakes and breads, menthol flavor notwithstanding. I bet that the Vikings were okay with menthol. Anybody who thinks that horns stuck to your hat is the epitomy of style has got to find menthol acceptable. Anyway, cardamom is often used in traditional holiday food and drink throughout Scandinavia, and I suppose we can thank the Vikings for it.
The cookies I mentioned in the very first line of this post aren’t the ones I make for Christmas with the espresso and chocolate drizzlings. They’re more like a crumbly shortbread – dense, salty, and sweet with a subtle cardamom flavor (if you include cardamom instead of coriander, that is), and though they’re not as pretty, I like them even better than the cookies that summoned the angels and actually included cardamom in their original recipe. If you’re nervous of cardamom like Betty and me, these might just be the cookies that change your mind.
Curry Cardamom Shortbread Cookies
(altered from the Curry Coriander Shorties recipe in Gourmet, September 2009)
2 teaspoons cardamom seeds
1 1/2 teaspoon Madras curry powder
2 sticks unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup sugar and additional for sprinkling
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon salt
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
Toast cardamom seeds in skillet over medium heat, stirring often, until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Cool, then grind in a grinder. Toast curry powder in skillet over medium heat, stirring, until fragrant and slightly darker, about 1 minute. Preheat oven to 250 degrees with racks in upper and lower thirds. Blend butter, sugar, vanilla, and salt with rubber spatula. Whisk together flour and spices and blend into butter mixture. Form 1-inch balls of dough and place 2 inches apart on two ungreased baking sheets. With palm, flatten each ball to 1 1/2 inches diameter. Sprinkle flattened cookies with sugar. Bake cookies, switching position of sheets halfway through, 18-25 minutes. Cool on sheets five minutes and transfer cookies to racks.
Cardamom Butter Squares These are the ones Raphael swoons over. In a manly and dignified way, of course.
Postscript I’ve had cardamom-flavored coffee many times in recent years, usually right after making cookies that require ground cardamom. Lacking a fancy grinder reserved specifically for spices, I resort to processing spices in the coffee grinder. It drives Raphael a little bit bananas because I usually forget to clean it out before making coffee the following morning. In addition to cardamom-flavored coffee, we’ve had cumin-flavored coffee, fennel-flavored coffee, and basil-flavored coffee. My advice would be stick to cardamom.