In Sweden, I’ve loved having opportunities to share the tastes of the United States with my non-American friends, especially at Thanksgiving and at semi-regular Mexican food nights. Turkey! Pumpkin pie! Chipotle peppers in adobo sauce! Cheesecake! As an expat, food has become not only a reason to bring friends together, but a vehicle for sharing more about myself as well: where I come from and who I am.
Now I’m quickly closing in on a year of living in Sweden, and my time here has been unlike any other abroad experience I’ve had. I’ve been more integrated into Swedish life in Lund than I ever was into Austrian life in Vienna or Italian life in Perugia, and I can tell when I talk to friends that live in the United States or other parts of the world that I’m picking up some very Swedish opinions.
I’m at home now, visiting my family in Maryland, and I find myself wanting to share Swedish food and Swedish tastes with my foodie family as a way of making my life abroad a little more real to them, to find a way to make my intangible experience a little more concrete. So, of course… (drumroll please)… I made a cake. I had to try to replicate that first experience of cardamom cake myself, and I even learned a few things along the way.
First, quick trivia: Did you know that the much-talked about Swedish cinnamon buns, another baked good which gets its own special holiday, is actually made with a lot of cardamom. Some bakers even skip the cinnamon altogether in favor of an unadulterated cardamom experience, which is kind of funny when you consider that they are called cinnamon buns, after all.
Cardamom works its way into the most unexpected places in Sweden, from cakes and cookies to glögg, the warm spiced wine served in Sweden during the winter. (Glögg is pronounced “glug”, like the sound you make while drinking a lot of glögg.) That’s probably why, as this very-authoritative seeming book says, ”In Sweden… the per capita consumption [of cardamom] is about 60 times greater than that in the US,” far outshining cinnamon.
All that said, here’s my invitation to you to share a part of Sweden with me. And you don’t even have to be daring with the herring (tee hee!). If you want to know what I think traditional, archetypal Swedish baked goods taste like, go ahead and try this coffee cake. It’s less sweet than you would expect, and it works well both as breakfast and a midday snack. (Or a late night snack… or a pre-lunch snack… or a “well I’m not really hungry, but the cake’s still there” snack… you know what I’m talking about, right?)
Do yourself a favor, though: buy whole cardamom pods and grind your own cardamom for this recipe.
Freshly ground cardamom bears almost no resemblance to the pre-ground stuff you get in a jar. If I hadn’t felt obliged to go the distance for this blog post, I would have never known. But let me tell you: I’m a convert now. If you actually happen to have this awesome trio of time, energy, and foresight, plus a mortar and pestle, spice mill, mini food processor, or coffee grinder, or a hammer, or maybe even a nutcracker (I don’t know… I guess you just have to be determined about it), just do it. Go out and buy the pods and grind it yourself.
The smell alone is worth it. Freshly-ground cardamom shocks you if you put your nose too close to the source. It will make your eyes tear up. I couldn’t quite place the smell—somewhere between, perhaps, pepper and menthol, with a taste that lingers long after you’ve finished eating. It is something I wouldn’t have recognized if I hadn’t prepared it myself.
So now, the recipe. Sent to me by my friend Anna, originally from Drakamöllan’s Cookbook, adapted to US/British measurements by yours truly. Drakamöllan is a B&B and restaurant as well as a nature preserve—I’ve never been there, but this is not the only recipe I’ve made from their cookbook, and I can attest to the deliciousness of the food.
Drakamöllan’s Cardamom cake
100 grams butter (7 tablespoons)
2.5 dl sugar (heaping 1 cup)
1 tablespoon freshly ground cardamom (or two pre-ground… if you must)
5 dl all purpose flour (2 3/4 cups)
2 teaspoons baking powder
2.5 dl milk (1/2 pint or 8.5 ounces)
Pearl sugar as a garnish (I’m not a big pearl sugar fan, and I would just leave it off. It’s weird.)
Preheat the oven to 175 Celsius/250 Fahrenheit. Butter a round cake pan (about 2 liters capacity). Mix butter, sugar, and egg and beat until light and fluffy. Grind cardamom (or use pre-ground), mix into dough. Combine flour and baking powder in a bowl. Add flour mixture and milk in alternating batches until dough is smooth and thoroughly mixed.
Pour the dough into the cake pan and sprinkle pearl sugar over it (or skip the pearl sugar altogether, which is my recommendation). Bake in the middle of the oven for 45 minutes to an hour. Let the cake rest in the cake pan for at least ten minutes, then remove from pan and serve sugar side up.
Here’s how to grind the cardamom: split open the green pods (I used a paring knife), and shake or pick out the black seeds inside. Remove any that look too old, brown, or dusty as well as any part of the pods that might fall into your bowl. Then grind. Apparently, if you don’t have any of the tools I mentioned above, it’s also possible to put the seeds in a plastic bag and hit them with a rolling pin or a hammer, but this seems both ineffective and kind of dangerous for your countertops. But hey, maybe you’re renting! (Just kidding.)
In case you’re interested in exploring further, Johanna Kindvall from Kok Blog has again shared some of her recipes featuring cardamom. You may have to wait until it gets cold again to fully appreciate the glögg, but the pear tart might be perfect for this time of year. I also included some of the American recipes I found, which have made their way to the US thanks to the vibrant Scandinavian community in the Midwest. They may or may not be very authentic, but they look delicious. Happy baking!