Tag archives for Cardamom Cake

Expat life, cooking, and why I had to bake a cake

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.

MUMS! means YUM! in Swedish. Photo: Kate Wiseman.

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 egg

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.

Photos: Kate Wiseman.

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!

Johanna’s glögg

Johanna’s “Old Ladies’ Sponge Cake”

NPR’s “Swedish Cardamom Bread, Wisconsin Style

Mark Bittman’s Cardamom Scented Pear Crisp

Cardamom and the flavor of life: it’s the little things that stay with you

I will never forget the first time I ate cardamom cake. It was the summer of 2008, and by then, it was my third visit to Sweden. My first two trips had been quite short vacations, though—this was the beginning of my first extended stay.

Simon and I had just gotten back from a road trip to Amsterdam and Bruges the night before after a grueling 12 hour drive back through the areas we had explored at a more leisurely pace the first time around. His parents called in the morning; did we have enough energy to join them at their house in the countryside? “Not really” was my first thought, followed closely by “Please don’t make me get in a car again!” but this was the beginning of my stay and I wanted to be amenable. An hour later, they picked us up: Simon’s parents, his great aunt, their nervous dog, and the two us all folded ourselves in the compact car like the proverbial sardines in a tin.

Vittskövle Castle, Vittskövle Slott, Wikimedia CommonsWe stayed at Simon’s modest country abode. But this is not it. Vittskövle Castle, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA)

By the time we got to their summer house in Vittskövle, the landscape had been transformed. On one side of the house, farms and bales of hay; on the other, a thick forest and a castle. I didn’t speak any Swedish at this point, and I had trouble following the conversation that took place as the picnic basket was unpacked, more family members introduced themselves, and lunch was set in motion. The residual tiredness from the previous day’s drive plus the food and the foreign language lulled me into a sleepy daze. And then dessert was served.

I took a bite of the cake that I was offered and surprise shook me out of my stupor. It tasted good, but unlike anything I had had before. It was almost peppery and not nearly as sweet as I had expected—not spicy per se, but spiced in a way that was totally unexpected. It was cardamom cake.

When you arrive in Sweden, whether as a tourist, an expat, an immigrant, or in some other role, it’s easy to pick out and talk about “the big things,” the differences that create a striking contrast between your country of origin and your destination. For me, my first two visits were defined by the wonder I felt at seeing the wide open skies in central Stockholm, observing the stunning integration of old and new architecture in Sweden’s capital city, experiencing both the effectiveness of public transportation and the mind-numbing cold of winter. But in this third visit, I experienced something new—something that would come to be one of the defining tastes of my expat life in Sweden.

This memory of cardamom cake in Vittskövle came to mind this past weekend when my mother made a Swedish cardamom cake of her own—a recipe that had been handed down to her from her own mother. It was good, but it was missing that sharp, peppery edge that I remembered. I’m often impatient with the mildness of traditional Swedish cuisine, but the prevalence of cardamom in baked goods bucks that trend, occasionally resulting in a pastry that is less sweet than spicy.

I asked some Swedish foodies and friends for their thoughts on cardamom, and I heard nearly the same response from several: it makes me think of mormor. Your mormor is your mother’s mother, or your maternal grandmother. The link between cardamom and these feelings of home, of familiarity, of family is undeniable, especially when it’s featured in Sweden’s most typical baked goods: cardamom bread, cinnamon buns, and a wide variety of cookies and cakes.

Cardamom: in the pod and out
Cardamom: in the pod and out. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA)

But how did such an atypically spicy flavor work its way into the Nordic cuisine? The short version: I’m not really sure. If there’s a food historian/anthropologist that wants to help me out on this, I am now extremely curious. The long version: I’ve found a lot of leads, but nothing definitive.

The explanation that I like the best is the one set forth in National Geographic’s Edible: an illustrated guide to the world’s food plants, and the Serious Eats food blog backs them up. They claim that Vikings encountered it in Turkey in what was then Constantinople and brought it back with them. The Encyclopedia of Kitchen History writes that the growth of the European spice market followed on the heels of the plague in the mid-1300s, as a combination of increased wealth from the silk routes, increased intercultural contact throughout the Mediterranean, “boredom with a bread and gruel-based diet,” “aspirations of the rising middle class,” and simple curiosity enticed the upwardly mobile middle class and the newly rich to imagine a world beyond plain old meat and potatoes. Last but not least, A Baker’s Odyssey claims that the use of cardamom has been found in Scandinavian cookbooks dating back to the 1300s, an addition to the cuisine that the authors suggest was first introduced by Crusaders but was sustained by the Hanseatic League.

No matter how cardamom got to Sweden (and Denmark, Norway, and Finland) in the first place, it’s here to stay, and its presence is ever-evolving. In the middle of writing this blog post, I got a BREAKING NEWS ALERT that there’s a new flavor of drinkable yogurt called “A Touch of Africa,” featuring pomegranate, hibiscus, and (of course) CARDAMOM. I don’t think the Vikings would have thought of that, but maybe they would have approved.