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Make the most of culinary herbs and spices.

All About Cardamom

by Sandra Bowens

Most herbs and spices are used in a similar manner no matter where in the world the cooking takes place. Thyme finds its way into soups and poppy seeds into baked goods with little regard for location or cuisine. Not so with cardamom.


This highly scented spice has a variety of typical uses depending on region. Cardamom flavors coffee in Saudi Arabia, baked goods in Sweden and ground meat in Norway. It is a common ingredient in Eastern Indian curries. All of India considers cardamom to be a digestive aide while Scandinavians employ it as a breath freshener.


The Near East and Scandinavia consume half the world's cardamom. It is more widely used than cinnamon in Sweden. Cardamom coffee or gahwa is a symbol of Arab hospitality. The spice is often combined with cloves and cinnamon in all cuisines.


A member of the ginger family, cardamom follows saffron and vanilla on the list of most expensive spices. As with those two spices, the harvest is labor intensive. Grown on plantations, primarily in India and Guatemala, the tall plants flower for eight or nine months of the year. Each pod, or capsule, ripens slowly and must be plucked when three-quarters ripe.


These capsules hold seeds that are considered the spice. After harvest, the pods are washed and dried. The method of drying dictates the final color. White indicates the pods have been dried for many days in the sun leaving them bleached. Green pods have been dried for one day and night in a heated room.


Cardamom is offered commercially in many forms. You might purchase the whole pods and remove the seeds yourself as needed. You may also buy "decorticated" cardamom; the seeds have been removed from the pod but left whole. Least desirable is the ground form. Powdered cardamom loses flavor quickly.


This flavor is intense with a citrus aroma and hints of menthol. Try it with baked goods, curries and meats. Some say it is a must for mulling wine. Just a quarter teaspoon or so will go a long way so use care as you experiment. Roughly 10 pods will give you enough seeds to crush to equal 1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom.


One note regarding pronunciations of Elettaria cardamomum : In the US, it's most often called cardamom although some say cardamon. The plural cardamoms is used in England, the Middle East and the Far East. No matter how you choose to say it, the taste remains the same.



Cardamom Pecan Scones

This method with frozen butter is an excellent way to achieve flaky scones; if you don't have time, simply use cold butter that has been sliced into 12 pieces.


3  cups flour

1/3 cup sugar

2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

3/4 teaspoon salt

12 Tablespoons (6 ounces) butter, frozen

1 cup + 2 Tablespoons buttermilk

1 teaspoon freshly grated lemon zest, minced

4 green cardamom pods, seeds removed and crushed (about 1/4 teaspoon)

2/3 cup chopped pecans

1 egg white mixed with 1 teaspoon water

1/4 cup sugar


Preheat oven to 425 degrees.


Combine flour, 1/3 cup sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a mixing bowl. Use the large holes of a box grater to grate in the butter. Stir until mixture resembles lumpy coarse crumbs. Add the buttermilk, lemon zest, cardamom and pecans; mix gently with a fork. The dough should be just barely moist and won't come completely together until the next step.


Turn the dough onto a lightly floured board (or waxed paper), gather and knead very briefly just until it comes together. Take care not to work too much extra flour into it. Divide the dough in half.


Form each half into a 1/2-inch thick circle and cut into six triangles. Place on an ungreased baking sheet, brush tops with the egg white mixture and sprinkle generously with the sugar.


Bake for 12-15 minutes or until golden. Transfer to a wire rack to cool and serve warm.


Makes 1 dozen scones



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