“The smell of freshly ground cardamom is strong and pungent, and it reminds me of eucalyptus or menthol,” said Nichole Accettola, whose new book, Scandinavian From Scratch: A Love Letter to the Baking of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden, hit shelves this week. Admittedly, it’s a difficult flavor to describe, defying easy categorization. Like cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg, cardamom is considered a “warming” spice—but, depending on who you talk to (and the variety of cardamom you’re tasting), it can just as easily be described as “peppery,” “smoky,” “citrusy,” “sweet,” “fresh,” “resinous,” or “floral.”
With origins in South India and grown today in India, Guatemala, Sri Lanka, and Tanzania, the practice of using cardamom in cooking and medicine is not a new one. From the earliest recorded mention of the spice in Vedic texts from 3000 B.C. to its use as a perfume, aphrodisiac, and digestive aid in Ancient Greece and Rome, cardamom has, for the last thousand-or-so years, also maintained a stronghold in Scandinavia’s baking scene. “Historians trace its arrival in Scandinavia back to the Middle Ages, when the Moors settled in Spain and traders from the north got hold of the spice,” said Nichole. When used in baked goods, the spice “has a yellow citrusy (lemony-pomelo) pungency”—akin to lemon zest “but with even more depth in flavor.”
Cardamom—especially green cardamom—is intense, and a tiny amount goes a long way (a plus, considering the spice’s relatively high price point). That intensity of flavor and aroma is one of its best qualities, but it can also make it an intimidating ingredient for home cooks not familiar with the spice. Plus, not all cardamom is created equally: “The cardamom I knew before getting into baking—the one from the supermarket—is very different [from] the spice I know now,” Nichole said. At most grocery stores, cardamom can be found in two forms—ground or in whole pods, but “neither of which are ideal for baking.”
“The ground version has been bleached and then ground, a process that often sacrifices much of the spice’s appealingly astringent smell and taste,” she said. “Cardamom pods in their whole form, contain the small seeds (that’s where the flavor is at!), but it’s quite cumbersome to excavate the seeds on your own, with a lot of labor yielding a depressingly small quantity.”
Instead of either ground or whole cardamom, Nichole recommends investing in decorticated cardamom, where the seeds have been removed from the pod but left whole. All you have to do is grind the quantity you need for your recipe just prior to using it, then keep the rest in a sealed container. “One whiff of the freshly ground seeds and you will never go back to pre-ground again,” she said. “I like to use a mortar and pestle to grind the seeds, but a spice grinder does the trick, too.”
Now, what to make with this decorticated cardamom? Nichole’s cardamom wreath is a good place to start. Inspired by the classic Swedish cardamom bun, or kardemummabulle, this recipe takes the handheld snack and turns it into a large-format, shareable treat—sheets of brioche dough rolled into long ropes, filled with brown sugar, butter, and cardamom, then twisted into the shape of a wreath and baked. (Picture a giant morning bun crossed with a braided challah, and add a hole in the center.) It’s the perfect treat to serve at all your fikas (the Swedish practice of taking a daily break to share coffee and a sweet snack with others) this fall and winter: “I like to serve the wreath in the afternoon for fika, when my staff and I sit down for a break, but it’s a versatile pastry and it’d adorn a holiday table beautifully as an edible centerpiece,” said Nichole.
“I love how the sweet cardamom butter filling entwines with the fluffy, chewy brioche dough, like braided ribbons,” she said. “And in the case of this wreath, the size creates an opportunity for people to gather.”
Entertaining inspiration from Food52
What’s your favorite way to cook or bake with cardamom? Tell us in the comments!