Category Archives: baking

Cardamom: Shifting Cuisines, Shifting Tastes

Spice of the Day (SOTD) - 1/350

Floral or sweet, musty or warm, disgusting or delicious: cardamom demands attention. Some relish the aroma it imparts to a slowly simmered stew. Others claim it douses dishes in grandmotherly perfume. Despite cardamom’s polarising flavour, one’s preference for the spice may have less to do with innate taste and more to do with cultural conditioning. From Indian cuisine to Scandinavian cookery, cardamom occupies a prominent spot on the world’s spice rack. Depending on the cuisine in which it appears, cardamom directs the interpretation of its flavour in both traditional and experimental preparations. Cardamom tastes like the dishes in which it is used.

Ever since cardamom won admirers for its potent aroma and supposed-health benefits, the spice has provoked battles and desires. Forget the mild-mannered powder from plastic McCormick jar: the real stuff is a heady experience. Once removed from their papery pods, slightly sticky cardamom seeds begin to release a menthol-y, floral, musty, sweet aroma that intensifies with a light toasting. Indigenous to Asia, cardamom grows wild in the forests of India, Malaysia and Sri Lanka (Rodale’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs 65). To extend the profits of one of the world’s most expensive spices — only saffron and vanilla rank higher — cardamom cultivation now extends to Guatemala, Costa Rica and Tanzania. While some argue that Indian-grown cardamom is higher quality, the average cardamom consumer would likely be unable to discern the provenance of various pods.

Average consumers might not be able to differentiate between Indian and Central American cardamom, but they will be able to distinguish between the major varieties of the spice. Cardamom can be found in green, black and white varieties. Green cardamom, with its small papery pod, is the most common variety. Black cardamom — with its large, deeply ridged pod and smoky aroma — is used primarily in Northern-Indian and Sichuan cooking. White cardamom is green pods that bleached for aesthetic purposes. Yet, with all these varieties, the sterile plastic jar of ground cardamom remains how most cooks allude to the potent spice.

Cardamom’s floral flavour most frequently imparts warmth and depth to Indian curries and spice mixes. It amplifies toasty rice in a savoury biryani and heightens the warmth of a sweet masala chai. But its prevalence doesn’t mean its strong, slightly strange bouquet is always welcome. Writing for Saveur, Monica Bhide says she eschewed the spice as a child, despite its permanent residence in her house. Although cardamom might seem to be an age acquired flavour, Bhide suggests the secret ingredient that helped her discover cardamom’s friendlier side wasn’t so age-exclusive. It was fat and sugar.

Just as Starbucks’ luscious sweet chai lattes prime the palate for more exotic flavours, combining cardamom with fat and sugar activates a softer, more appealing side to the luxurious spice. While Americans might rightly reply that their chai’s friendly cinnamon and nutmeg obscure the cardamom, Bhide wouldn’t agree. Neither would legions of Swedes and Finns, who enjoy cardamom forward kardemummabullar and pulla. Cardamom-scented treats avail themselves of the spice’s superpower: it’s fat-soluble. When combined with butter, cardamom’s aroma softens into a halo of warmth. This gentler side of cardamom is cinnamon’s exotic cousin, making for a friendlier taste than the pine-y, floral aroma that repelled a young Bhide and legions of Americans, familiar with the spice’s oft-jarring savoury side.

Whereas Indian cookery takes advantage of the country’s indigenous cardamom, Scandinavia’s taste for the spice evolved over centuries. As Vikings pillaged and plundered Mediterranean waterways, they found cardamom in Constantinople and brought the spice home as a symbol of their successes. Scandinavians embrace cardamom to this day. Although there doesn’t exist a record of how the spice was originally used, its presence in contemporary pastry bears little resemblance to its Indian manifestations.

Bite into a dusty cardamom spritz cookie and it’s evident that the cardamom-fat-sugar reaction doesn’t make for a universally delicious treat. The eater needs to find a bridge between sweet cardamom and savoury cardamom. If each dish eaten exists in relation with the previous dishes one has consumed, the overwhelming prevalence of cardamom in Indian curries and sweets prevents their flavour lexicon from accepting both cardamom-Indian-savoury to cardamom-Scandinavian-sweet or cardamom-sweet.

In The Flavor Thesaurus Niki Segnit offers eighteen pairings for cardamom. Twelve of these cite sweet Indian dishes, all of which Segnit describes using various synonyms for cloying. Segnit implies that Indian-inspired cardamom-laced sweets should be avoided for their brash tastes and excessive sugar content. While Indian desserts remain polarizing for Western palates, cardamom’s evocation of excessive sweetness doesn’t seem sufficient reason to urge eaters away from the floral spice. Indeed, recipe aggregators such as Food 52 and FoodGawker present more recipes for sweet uses of cardamom than savoury. Cardamom snickerdoodles use a childhood treat to safely introduce the spice. Spice-spiked granola subtly alters the taste of a routine breakfast. These desserts provide a bridge between India’s floral cardamom and Scandinavia’s honey-sweet use of the spice. Thus, cardamom can be seen as a more exotic cinnamon: imparting warmth and depth, cardamom allows a familiar dessert to hint at something foreign, and indulgent.

Cardamom; the spice hints at the exotic, the rich and the indulgent while oscillating between nostalgia and novelty, according to the eater’s association with the its flavour. While certain Indian dishes may appeal to Western eaters, the American’s nostalgic relationship with Ikea cinnamon rolls makes it easier for them to enjoy a cardamom-laced bun as an exotic, sophisticated twist on that memory.

 

Image via Dave Sutherland on Flickr

Chokladboll: Sweden’s no-bake favourite

Chokladboll

 

One bite and Sweden prevails. Maybe you taste punschrulle, the marzipan log with a chocolate cap. Or possibly you sample a slice of princesstårta, the ethereal layer cake piled high with whipped cream and topped with a regal rose. Most likely, you eat chokladboll. One bite of this sweet, chewy, chocolate-y oat-based truffle and you realise that Sweden contains more than just Ikea, Larsson and meatballs. It contains everyday life the same as everywhere else.

Chokladbollar are Sweden’s generous coconut-dusted contribution to the no-bake sweets pantheon. Made from oats, butter, sugar, cocoa powder and a splash of coffee or whiskey if you’re preparing them for adults. The recipe resembles a child’s project: pour, stir and shape the resulting mess like you used to make Play-Doh cookies. Although they’re easy to make at home, chokladbollar dot café pastry displays, 7 Eleven sweet cases, and grocery store check out queues. They are the ultimate fika, coffee break, companion; less sticky and more satisfying than a cloying cardamom bun.

While Sweden proudly displays their love for chokladboll, no-bake sweets are an international language for which each country possesses a unique dialect. America talks rice krispie treats; the UK banters rocky road; Italy expounds salame al ciccolato; France discourses roses des sables. While these desserts occasionally appear in bakeries, the home kitchen is their true domain. But not in Sweden, where chokladbollar are as common at the grocery store as in the fridge. This isn’t surprising. After all, chokladbollar pair well with dark winter skies and look meticulous enough to please Queen Sofia. If each country has their own no-bake, super-rich dessert that reflects their nostalgic tastes, Sweden’s chokladboll demonstrates the nation’s paradoxical combination of austerity and opulence.

Fortunately, chokladboll are easy to make in your own kitchen and taste regal alongside your non-Swedish coffee. So let’s go: grab your oats, about a cup or so will do — we only need a small batch. Then get your butter, cocoa powder — the good stuff only, please, no Hershey’s here — and coffee (because we can). You’ll need some sugar, grab it from the out-of-the-way shelf it lives on in your pantry. Now, combine. Rub the butter into the oats and pour in the sugar and the cocoa powder. Toss them with reckless abandon into flaked coconut or pearl sugar if you’re fancy. It’s messy; you might want to grab an apron if you haven’t done so already. But they’re good. They’re oh-so good. Not right now, of course. Like all no-bake treats, chokladbollar need to rest so that the oats become soft and chewable. Slap the formed truffles in the fridge and wait. Listen to Robyn, read about Max Burger, ogle pictures of the royal family. By now a few hours should have passed. Go to your fridge, get your cookies, brew some coffee and eat.

Sweden’s refined treats may woo the palate with delicate textures, interesting flavours and plenty of sweetness, but it’s their no-bake chokladboll that effortlessly negotiates borders, allowing anyone with a mixing bowl to understand better understand this Nordic nation. There’s a reason they dominate pastry cases in the country: they are a simple comfort, small enough to be enjoyed frequently and rich enough to steel you against the dark winter. Their ubiquity only makes them more appealing, a reminder that you’re never too far away from the comforts of home. In Sweden you can rest assured a chokladboll is only a few paces away and, along with it, is the warmth and the reassuring taste of nostalgia.

Note: Looking for a proper recipe? I’ve had good luck with this recipe from Food.com. I also like She Simmers’ idea of using instant oats.

On the flapjack

Flapjack

Flickr via Steven Lilley

Granola bars can be fun and baked oatmeal may be a nutritious breakfast, but when it comes to baked-oat treats my alliances lie firmly with the flapjack. Don’t confuse these with American pancakes. Flapjacks are a British treat commonly eaten with tea. At its most simple, the flapjack is a bar cookie made with oats, golden syrup, butter and sugar. But who wants to stop there? You can find them topped with chocolate, with a yoghurt coating, with dried fruit thrown in, with a caramel drizzle and with coconut or chopped nuts. No matter what variation you choose, the end product evokes childhood memories, even if your mother never tucked one into your lunch box.

While a flapjack would be a winter or fall treat in America, England’s constant drizzly grey means the buttery oat bar is a welcome snack all year long. This dense, stick-to-your-bones, bar would feel out of place on a stifling August day in Arizona. But the flapjack’s utter British-ness isn’t limited to the weather. The tendency to fall apart would be incongruous in clean, minimalist New York cafes. It’s amusing to think of the humble, high-energy treat marching into the sweet Italian merenda or the delicate French goûter. Yet, when enjoyed with a cup of tea, a few hours after the cheddar and red onion sandwich you had for lunch, the flapjack feels completely appropriate.

Although every high street café offers a flapjack (or three), this abundance contradicts the essence of flapjack. The tray bake loses its endearing crumbly bits when pre-cut into machine perfect slices. Rather than exercising self-control as the tray cools and hardens once out of the oven — and the subsequent restraint when cutting them into suitably small squares — the café flapjack encourages indulgence. It misguides you into feeling healthy for not choosing the carrot cake with 3 cm of cream cheese frosting, but it’s frosted with chocolate ganache to prevent disappointment. Arriving in the café, the flapjack transforms itself and your interaction with it.

At home kitchen you make your flapjacks as you see fit. You decide if you want them chewy or crunchy. You can make them dense or loose. The same goes for dried fruits: do you add raisins, sultanas, apricots or shun the addition of extra-sweetness? Those looking for an ‘all-natural’ variation can use honey instead of golden syrup, while those baking their childhood can reminisce over Lyle’s classic tin. As opposed to similarly home-y treats — like a chocolate chip cookie, say, or a muffin — the home cook can easily adapt the flapjack without needing a different recipe. Making flapjacks requires following an intuitive formula rather than a prescriptive recipe, marking each variation with the person who made it, the time when it was made and the place where it was enjoyed.

I couldn’t tell you when I first ate a flapjack and I assume the same goes for most people. All the components are familiar enough that the combination of them inevitably evokes nostalgia. The oats are the porridge of your childhood. The butter is what you had on toast, the sweetener what you got drizzled on top of either. No matter what you top it with, the individual components make sure that the flapjack will never become a trendy treat. Toffee? That’s those toffee apples from childhood fairs. Chocolate? Every Brit’s favorite treat. Yoghurt? It’s an icing-like sweetness. Even plain the flapjack’s restraint is impossibly British.

While variations of these memories exist abroad, it seems that there are few countries in which they play as vivid a part in the national character as in Britain. Where else does the grocery store carry ten different types of porridge oats? Is there another country as devoted to milk chocolate, toffee and stiff icing? The flapjack is memory from its craggy edges and simple process to its comforting taste and thousands of variations.

So, when’s teatime?

On Making Cookies and Sunday Lunch

Biscotti di vino

The why of a half-full bottle of wine is never an interesting story.  It may involve an early night, a guest who never arrived or a poor choice at the liquor store.  That’s why you’re not going to hear the story of how I was left with half a teeny-tiny bottle of wine.  Instead, you’ll hear the story of a lunch that finished with cookies.  Because anything that finishes with cookies makes for a good story.

It was midday on a lazy, I-should-be-doing-more-work-than-this, Sunday.  After some procrastination and a dinner invitation, I had the brain-wave to waste time by using the remains of the wine for cookies, biscotti di vino, to be precise.  I had a soup — pappa al pomodoro to cook on the stove as I made the cookies.

I threw a glugg of olive oil into a pan, cut some garlic and ripped up a few leaves of basil.  Within moments, the damp-smelling room became welcoming.  After a bit more preparation — tearing up bread, opening a can of tomatoes — I turned my attention to cookies.

They were simple, the kind of cookie that makes even me — anally aware of authenticity — pretend they are in an idyllic cottage in the Italian countryside, ready to enjoy their good, clean and fair lunch.  It was simple: measure flour, a little bit of sugar and a large pinch of salt all stirred.  Make a well — the quaintest baking technique — and pour in your olive oil and leftover wine.  The wine’s dull story transforms with the few turns of a wooden spoon, coming out as a slightly sticky, but pleasantly smooth dough.  Instead of shaping i biscotti like the recipe suggested, I made them into petite taralli.  I resisted the urge to throw in black pepper and a hefty dose of toasted almonds.

East 12th Street

The soup bubbling on the stove was done.  I turned it off, put some in a bowl for later and some in piatto fondo to enjoy immediately.  Sunday lunch is awkward.  Either too little time has passed since a too-late breakfast to feel justified hunger, or the processing of properly cooking a midday meal shocks your routine, making you vaguely confused.  What’s this?  How did I get here?

I debated these questions — though they invariably went further, considering how I ended up at fourth year in a perpetually damp house — as I ate my soup.  More than the pleasant tomato-taste, I enjoyed the texture.  The just-stale bread was squishy with a satisfying bite.  It was just indulgent enough to make Sunday lunch feel like an event rather than an accident.

And then it was over.  Time to wash up.  The cookies had five minutes left in the over. I trudged to the sink, breathing in the sweet smell of flour, sugar and wine.  I distracted myself from the mundane task with the sunlight streaming in through the window.  There may have been a few gold-medal olympic performances in there as well.

Then I sorted the kitchen out, as if the whole event had never happened.  I was left with a simple bowl of leftover soup and cookies with half a teeny-tiny bottle of wine in them.  All is well that ends with cookies.

Sunday lunch: what does it look like for you?

Holiday Cookie Roundup

Union Square Christmas

Finally, my Christmas music obsession is justified!  Now that Thanksgiving has passed, it’s officially the holiday season.  I am MORE than ready to get celebrating.  While I’m hard at work on my holiday bucket list (I’ve bought my advent calendar and I plan to watch A Christmas Story this weekend), there other ways in which I’m planning to embellish the season.  Baking cookies is, perhaps, a bit too close to the top of the list.

Whether you need a recipe to give as gifts, eat yourself or bring to a holiday party, these recipes look absolutely perfect.  Let’s get in the kitchen and start baking!

  1. Vanilla Sables from Annie’s Eats
  2. White Chocolate Chip Cranberry Cookies from Sally’s Baking Addiction
  3. Chocolate Orange Butter Cookies from Clawson Live
  4. Brown Sugar Shortbread from Budding Baketress
  5. Ginger Molasses Cookies from Orangette
  6. Fruitcake Bars from David Lebovitz
  7. Chocolate Dipped Hazelnut Biscotti from London Bakes
  8. Pistachio Coconut Truffles from Love and Lemons
  9. Cardamom Currant Snickerdoodles from Food52
  10. Speculoos from Eat the Love

What will you be baking this holiday season?