You may or may not be familiar with the spice cardamom, Elettaria cardamomum. Here's a little history, tips on growing it yourself and some ways you can add it's wonderful flavor to your holidays.
(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on December 6, 2007. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)
Cardamom, Elettaria cardamomum, is a member of the ginger family, Zingiberaceae. It is the aromatic seeds of the plant that are used for their sweet flavor. Most of us know the bite-on-your-tongue, zingy flavor of ginger, from gingersnaps, gingerbread, ginger ale or Asian and Middle Eastern cuisine. Cardamom has a warm, lemony flavor. You may have eaten it in a number of things without knowing it. It is used extensively in Arab and Indian cooking, particulary curries, is a must for Turkish coffee and is an ingredient in some Scandanavian cookies and pastries, liqueurs and even gin. It has also been used in perfume making and is said to aid digestion.
The history of the name 'cardamom' is a little cloudy. If we travel back to Roman times, there were two similar spices, cardamomum and amomum, both of which were of Eastern origin. Cardamomumis generally assumed to have been identical to what we call cardamom today and was the more expensive of the two. Amomummay have been a type similar to black cardamom, Amomum subulatum . Cardamom has come through the ages with very few changes to its name across many languages; cardamom in English and German, kardamon in Polish, cardamomo in Italian and Spanish, kardemomme in Norwegian and Danish, cardamome in French. It is also frequently misspelled as 'cardamon'. The varieties of Amomum available today should not be confused with true cardamom as the flavors are very different; Aframomum melegueta (Grains of Paradise), Aframomum citratum (atzoh), Amomum compactum (Siam cardamom) and Alpinia nutans (dwarf cardamom) are some examples. True cardamom is also known as green cardamom due to the color of the pods; amomem has brown pods and may be called brown cardamom. Confused? Let's get away from the Latin names and see what you can do with it.
Growing Cardamom at Home
A rhizomatous tender perennial, cardamom is a tropical plant hardy in zones 8 though 11. Its native environment is the jungle floor, so it needs warm, moist shade. Best grown as a house plant in zones 7 and below, cardamom dislikes sudden temperature changes, direct sunlight and drafts. It should also be misted or kept on a tray of moist pebbles. I took a virtual trip to Papa Geno's Herb Farm for more information. Their website states that under the right conditions Cardamom can grow 5 to 10 feet tall, but generally will stay small in more temperate climates. In my research, I am seeing sizes in the home garden that average around two feet. One source stated that "cardamom can only be grown indoors in this country" and "won't survive outdoors even in summer. Requires a heated greenhouse or a very warm, shady humid place inside a building...hot steamy bathrooms are ideal."  Obviously, the images at either side of this paragraph refute this statement. They are both of cardamom being grown successfully by DG members. The photo at the right shows cardamom in bloom. When the pods or capsules are ripe, they will separate fairly easily from the stem (panicle) without much forcing. The black seeds should be left inside the capsules and dried very thoroughly before storing to prevent mold.
Cardamom for Baking
One of the most expensive spices, cardamom has a strong flavor, so only small amounts are needed. The biggest producers for export today are in South America because the Eastern countries consume most of their own crops. The most desireable cardamom for use in recipes is green pods. The white pods are bleached and said to be somewhat bitter and have less flavor. While ground cardamom is certainly acceptable, the essential oils that give the spice it's flavor dissipate rather quickly after grinding. You can grind it yourself in a spice grinder or use a mortar and pestle. I had neither, so I improvised and used a small glass bowl with a flat bottom and a tall shot glass, also with a flat bottom. You need to be sure that your two surfaces match. It worked pretty well but was a lot of work. One teaspoon of the seeds yielded 1 1/2 teaspoons of ground spice, so I had enough for both recipes below when I finished.
Try the following recipes for a traditional taste of cardamom in your home this holiday season.
This soft, slightly sweet bread is made with plenty of butter, which results in tender pieces that can pulled apart, bite by bite.
Active time: 45 minutes; Start to finish: 4 1/2 hours
Servings: makes 2 loaves
1 cup baking raisins
1/4 cup water
1 package fast-rising yeast
5 cups all-purpose flour
2/3 cup sugar
1 tsp ground cardamom
1 1/4 tsp salt
1 1/2 sticks (3/4 cup) unsalted butter (cut in small pieces)
1 1/4 cups whole milk
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1 egg yolk and 1 Tbsp water for egg wash
If baking raisins are not available, use regular raisins and soak in hot tap water to cover until plump, about 20 minutes, then drain.
Heat water and milk to 120-130° F. in a small saucepan.
Sift together flour, sugar, cardamom, salt and yeast in a large bowl. Blend in butter with pastry blender or your fingertips until mixture resembles coarse meal. Stir in heated liquids. Add egg and stir with a wooden spoon until a soft dough forms. Turn dough out onto a well-floured surface and knead, dusting surface and hands with just enough flour to keep dough from sticking, until dough is smooth and elastic, 8 to 10 minutes.
Pat dough into a 9-inch square and sprinkle with raisins. Fold dough over to enclose raisins and pinch edges to seal. Knead, dusting surface and hands lightly with flour, until raisins are distributed. (Dough will be lumpy and slightly sticky; if any raisins pop out, just push them back in.) Form dough into a ball. Put dough in a large, buttered bowl and turn to coat. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and a kitchen towel and let sit for 10 minutes.
Cut dough in half. Cut one half into thirds and roll each piece into a 15-inch rope. Braid together 3 ropes to form a loaf, then transfer to a large, parchment-lined baking sheet, tucking ends under. Make another loaf with remaining half of dough, arranging loaves 4 inches apart on baking sheet. Loosely cover with plastic wrap and let rise in a draft-free place at warm room temperature until doubled, 1 to 1 1/2 hours.
Preheat oven to 350° F. with rack in the middle of the oven.
Brush loaves with egg wash made with one egg yolk lightly beaten with one tablespoon of water. Bake until bottoms sound hollow when tapped and crust is golden brown, 40 to 45 minutes. Transfer to a rack to cool.
Note: The original recipe did not call for any furthur decoration. I made a simple glaze out of confectioners sugar and milk, mixed until smooth and fairly thick. The frills are halved maraschino cherries (I didn't have candied ones) and some sprigs of fresh lemon mint that were still surviving in my November herb garden.
Bread can be made up to 2 days ahead and kept, wrapped well, at room temperature or frozen 1 month.
1/8 teaspoon ground cardamom or 1 whole cardamom pod
1 1/2 teaspoons sugar, or to taste (optional)
Bring water and sugar to a boil in an ibrik, a small Turkish coffee pot that is heated. If you do not have an ibrik, a small saucepan may be used.
Remove from heat and add coffee and cardamom.
Return to heat and allow to come to a boil. Remove from heat when coffee foams. Watch carefully or it will boil over.
Again, return to heat, allowing to foam and remove from heat.
Pour into demitasse cup and allow to sit for a few minutes to allow grounds to settle to the bottom of the cup. Cardamom pod may be served in the cup for added flavor. Serve with the foam on the top. Do not stir or the foam will collapse. Never add milk or cream to Turkish coffee.
To serve more than one person, just multiply the ingredients and use a pot large enough to allow the coffee to foam up without boiling over. Be sure you distribute the foam evenly between the cups.
Special thanks to DG members ceejaytown and labama for the photos of 'cardamom in the garden setting' and 'cardamom in bloom', respectively.
While the main focus at Dave's Garden is plants and gardening, it is a community and we have many interests. Please join us in the Cooking Forum, the Recipes Forum (for paid members only) or the Holidays and Special Events Forum for more holiday ideas.
About Jan Recchio
I'm a 'dabble' gardener. Been gardening since I was a child. I will plant anything that will grow for me and some things that won't, indoors or out. Outdoors I have theme gardens: roses, butterfly/hummingbird, heathers/dwarf conifers, a rock garden (in progress) and a new English-style cottage garden with an herb garden at it's 'heart'. Indoors I try to concentrate on orchids, African violets, anything that will flower or has lots of color and unusual houseplants. I try to stay organic and keep chemicals to a bare minimum. My non-gardening interests include quilting, counted cross-stitch and watercolor painting. I am a proud grandma, recently celebrated my 40th anniversary and before my retirement I was a clinical systems analyst (computer geek) for 24 years.