Underappreciated Cardamom

December 4, 2009 Talk about underappreciated. While holiday recipes often call for that trifecta of cinnamon, clove and nutmeg, poor cardamom gets kicked to the curb.

Cardamom's versatility allows it to be used in dozens of dishes - both sweet and savory. We found two completely different cultures relying on the spice not only this month, but all year long.

The heart of any Indian garam masala - or basic spice mixture - is cardamom. Sure, there are notes of clove, nutmeg and cumin, but the green cardamom pod is the most versatile of the bunch. At Saffron, a Northern Indian-style restaurant in Westmont, cardamom shows up all over the menu.

"It is very much from the appetizers to the main dishes, to the deserts. Basically, it's as they say the queen of the Indian spices," said Prasenjit Roy, owner of Saffron.

Samosas begin with cardamom and peas, sauteed in oil along with tumeric and cumin seeds. This mixutre is combined with roughly-mashed potatoes, then placed into savory dough that is hand-formed and fried. Vegetable biryani is based on basmati rice, but it's the cardamom that gives it its backbone. Chicken tikka masala may contain cream, but again, the green pods provide aromatics. Even dessert is not immune: rice pudding, gulab jamun - the sugary fried dough treat - as well as masala tea... all of these staples of the cuisine are linked by the green cardamom pod.

"It's very refreshing and you can feel that when you have cardamoms in three different plates you have it as a desert. You're having it as a masala tea," said Roy.

Another dessert, another culture: Scandinavians also love cardamom - along with almond paste and marzipan - and you'll find plenty of both at the Swedish Bakery, which has been baking in Andersonville for more than 80 years. One of their best-loved items is the Andersonville coffee cake, which uses black cardamom instead of the more familiar green pods.

"The Andersonville is a beautiful wreath-like coffee cake that you saw… It's a cardamom dough and it has a light almond-cinnamon filling inside," said Kathleen Stanton-Cromwell, the owner of the Swedish Bakery.

They begin by spreading a sweet almond paste over the cardomom-infused dough. Cinnamon is liberally sprinkled over the top, then the dough is rolled up, into a tube shape. It's turned into a circle, placed in a greased pan, then cut with a scissors, to expose some of the filling. This also gives it its beautiful shape when baked. Egg wash is brushed over the top, then a generous shower of almonds. It's a taste of Sweden, made nostalgic with that dose of cardamom.

"With the long history that we have here, the flight to the suburban area has brought them back in when they're looking for the traditional goodies from mom and grandma," Stanton-Cromwell said.

Cardamom comes in white, black or green pods. The best place to find cardamom would be the Spice House which has locations in Old Town, Evanston, Geneva and even Milwaukee.

6020 S. Cass Ave., Westmont

Swedish Bakery
5348 N. Clark St.

The Spice House
1941 Central St., Evanston

1512 N. Wells St.

577 S. Third St., Geneva

1031 N. Old World Third St.
Milwaukee, WI

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