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Cardamom Memories

The howling wind and bruised-black northern winter morning were no match for the warm aroma that swept into my room, making me jump into my clothes and dash for the dining room. My mother, Swedish to the bone, was heating the cardamom rolls she had baked the day before, small sweet-but-not-too spirals of dough bronzed with the extravagant spice and studded with walnuts. I loosened one, letting the fragrant steam wind across my face as I slipped in dots of butter. I must have smelled so good to the person riding next to me on the school bus half and hour later.
Imagine the pleasure with which the Vikings must have first encountered cardamom during their voyages east, the powerful aroma that mellows to a complex, gentle warmth on the tongue. Undoubtedly these initial tastes involved savory dishes; in India, which together with Sweden consumes half the world’s yearly intake of cardamom, the spice heavily flavors many meat and vegetable dishes. But the Vikings, innovators ever, knew exactly where cardamom would play best: in Swedish cooking, it is used almost exclusively to enhance the sweet breads and breakfast cakes of which the Swedes are so fond.
This fall, I have been overtaken by an urge for cardamom, which I had abandoned in my kitchen for far too long. Poring over recipes in my giant Swedish cookbook, I can easily believe what I have been told, that Swedes eat more cardamom than cinnamon, despite the relative expensiveness of the former. I have discovered recipes my mother never made, but that have quickly entered my own family’s pantheon of baked goods: orange cardamom cookies and cardamom cake are frequent inhabitants of my kitchen these days, and representatives of each have already been tucked away in the freezer for Christmas.
Earlier this year, when I held freshly ground cardamom up to my five year old’s nose for the first time and asked him what it smelled like, he closed his eyes, smiled, and said, “Everything good.” Since then he has been eager to share his new-found love with others, and last week requested that I bring in a cardamom cake as a special snack for his preschool class. When I picked him up he told me the cake had been a real success (and must have been a nice change from the cloying cupcakes that seem the typical preschool fodder) and that all the kids wanted to know how to make it. Fourteen picky preschoolers clambering for a recipe? I knew I had a winner.

By Lorna Brittan Smith

Episode featured in: 
Vikings and Cardamom
December 16, 2008

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