Carrying on with sweet cardamom

This versatile spice can be sprinkled around like cinnamon

December 31, 2003|By Donna Deane | Donna Deane,LOS ANGELES TIMES

If certain flavors sing of the holidays -- nutmeg and cinnamon, ginger and cloves, a dash or two of good bourbon -- cardamom is certainly not on the list.

But, dear baker, this is a mistake. Take a chance, just once, with a batch of butter cookies or maybe a dish of ice cream. Cardamom adds a powerfully sweet, somehow magical note to the simplest pastry or dessert. It's deeply, transportingly aromatic; somehow, cardamom seems celebratory.

In Scandinavia and Germany, cardamom traditionally is used in cakes and breads and cookies. American bakers and cooks are flummoxed, though, by the idea of cardamom.

But in the course of developing recipes using cardamom, something very simple struck us: You can reach for cardamom whenever you would use cinnamon. It's that versatile.

Over the course of a few weeks, we found ourselves amazed by the results. We made traditional, yeasted sweet rolls using cardamom instead of cinnamon, and they were suddenly something very festive. We made spritz cookies with a sprinkling of cardamom and pistachio that quickly became addictive.

Easiest of all: We sprinkled some freshly ground cardamom and a drizzle of honey over vanilla ice cream. It was an instant hit -- and so sophisticated and wonderful that you could serve it at a dinner party and hold your head high. Now we're thinking about French toast and creme brulee.

There are a few things to know before you start baking.

First, there are three kinds of cardamom: green, white and black. Green cardamom is the one you want. Bakers should avoid the other two: White cardamom is actually green cardamom that's been bleached, a process that leaches out flavor and makes it inferior. Black cardamom is not true cardamom; it's a bigger, rougher pod with an aggressive camphor flavor. It's used mainly in savory Indian dishes.

Green cardamom, a relative of ginger, is grown in southern India and other tropical areas, including Asia, the Pacific and South America.

When you buy it, look for plump pods; they have the most flavor. Inside are three compartments containing small seeds -- about 15 or 20, total. When the cardamom is fresh, the seeds are slightly sticky. Although you'll find green cardamom in a good supermarket, the best place to buy it is an Indian or Middle Eastern market, where it's available in bulk and more likely to be fresh.

Although some recipes for stews or rice use pods added whole, pastry recipes call for ground cardamom. Always grind it yourself -- the essential oils responsible for the beguiling flavor and aroma dissipate soon after grinding.

But that's a good thing: Crush the seeds using a mortar and pestle, and that heavenly, pungent fragrance will fill your kitchen. Using a coffee grinder dedicated to grinding spices is also an option, but that deprives you of some of the sensory pleasure.

Before you grind, lightly crush the pods with a rolling pin. Pull the pods apart and scrape out the seeds, then go at it with the mortar and pestle or grinder. Store uncrushed pods in a tightly covered container.

Freshly ground green cardamom seeds could be added to sweet rolls, with some spice incorporated into the dough and some sprinkled along with sugar as a filling.

Serve them warm from the oven -- and plan to hang around the kitchen while they bake so you can enjoy the marvelous aromas.

Freshly ground cardamom is also used in our recipe for butter spritz cookies. The spice marries beautifully with the crushed pistachios and big sugar crystals that get sprinkled on top.

Making these cookies means rediscovering the cookie press. This inexpensive tool, which is widely available, allows you to pump out a dozen cookies in a minute. Be sure your dough is room temperature when you load the press. Experiment with sizes and shapes by adjusting the disks.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

Cardamom Spritz Cookies

Makes 5 dozen

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, chilled

1/2 cup superfine sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 egg yolks

2 cups flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon cardamom seeds, crushed using a mortar and pestle

1/4 cup sparkling decorative sugar

1/4 cup chopped pistachio nuts

Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Using an electric mixer, cream the butter until smooth. Add the sugar and beat for 1 minute. Add the vanilla extract and egg yolks and beat an additional minute. Sift together the flour and salt. Spoon the flour mixture into the butter mixture and add the cardamom. Beat on low speed, then increase to medium and mix until the batter is combined.

Spoon the dough into a cookie press and press out onto ungreased baking sheets. In a small bowl, combine the sparkling sugar and the pistachio nuts, then sprinkle some on each cookie.

Bake just until the edges of the cookies start to turn a pale golden color, about 8 to 10 minutes. Remove the cookies from the baking sheet immediately and cool on a wire rack. The cookies will firm up as they cool. When they are completely cool, store in an airtight container. They may be kept frozen up to 2 months.

Each cookie: 57 calories; 1 gram protein; 6 grams carbohydrate; 0 fiber; 4 grams fat; 2 grams saturated fat; 15 milligrams cholesterol; 20 milligrams sodium

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