Mar 8, 2013

Shimmering Silver Cardamom

I have had a strange week. No reason for it, but nonetheless out of nowhere I woke up this morning feeling like my life had been reduced to small pieces of paper with indecipherable things written on them. My purse is filled with lipsticks, open bottles of Excedrin Migraine that spill their contents everywhere, bits of chocolate, pens, paperwork and mail including at least ten credit card offers and at least ten receipts scribbled with lists of important things I needed to accomplish, including "bake banana bread."

I'm glad I didn't lose that one receipt with that important to-do item on it, because I must say, despite everything else falling by the wayside, the banana bread turned out very well, and I'd forgotten what a comforting smell it creates while baking.

            But in the meantime, while organizing all my receipts and credit card offers and accomplishing absolutely everything (which is to say, nothing) I also got very involved with cardamom.  
            Falling asleep some nights I brainstorm which spice to dive into next, which rabbit hole to tumble into, indeed like Alice in Wonderland, down down down, curiouser and curiouser, or maybe like Jennifer Connolly in the Labyrinth, when she tumbles into the chute of blue hands that imitate faces and a spooky voice from one of the hand-faces asks her "Which way? Up or down?"
            Choosing the next spice to write about feels like this, like I am making a crucial decision that will alter the rest of my life going forward. 

            A whisper from somewhere, ethereal and ghostly, like the sound of bat wings overhead, or a distant rainstorm beginning, or a musical saw being played in a far off room: Cardamom, cardamom, cardamom.

            So here we are.

            I've been musing on the way spices are associated with colors, as I think this is a helpful way to get at the complex flavor compounds that make up a spice. Flavors are hard to describe without using associations. In other words, it wouldn't mean a whole lot (unless you're a chemist or flavor person) to say cardamom tastes like linalool, acetate esters and cineole.

But what if cardamom tasted silvery. This also might not mean a whole lot, because we can't taste colors, and silver isn't really a color anyway, (is it?) but what it conveys to me is cardamom's cooling but intense flavor. The intensity of cardamom—that pungent, eucalyptus, minty, gingery flavor—is also what gives it a certain heat, so that the spice is cool and warm at the same time. Like a piece of silver jewelry against the skin.

           The fragrance of cardamom, when you crack open the green pod under the butt of a knife or in your mortar and pestle, is so mysterious it's as though a beautiful ghost wrapped in a shimmering silver gown has walked into the room.
            Try, if you can, not to talk as if colors emanated from a single physical phenomenon.            
           (Maggie Nelson, Bluets)

            The colors that certain flavors can create happen in the mind's eye, the brain's imagination and memory. All the garbage stored up there, like the contents of my purse, can, or might, assist me in my pursuit of flavor-comprehension. What do you think? What color is cardamom? What memory?

            I doubt anyone is shouting 'bananas!' right now, but in any case they pair nicely these two, and besides I had cardamom on the brain and banana bread on the to-do list so it was a win-win situation. No more haunting late-night whispering, no more frozen brown bananas falling out of the freezer onto my big toe.
This particular recipe I adapted for banana bread makes a wonderful cake that would be fabulous with a coffee-infused frosting, if you're feeling up to it. It's a nod to the popular combination of coffee and cardamom in Persian style coffee, where they will boil the finely ground coffee with a cracked cardamom pod. Delicious.
Cardamom Spiced Banana Bread with Coffee Liquor
Adapted from Cooking Light, September 2003

2 cups flour
3/4 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp ground cardamom
1/4 cup butter
1 cup sugar
2 eggs
1 1/2 cups mashed very ripe bananas (about 3 bananas)
1/3 cup plain yogurt
1 tsp coffee liquor
zest of one orange (optional)

Preheat oven to 350 degress F. Grease and flour a loaf pan or a small, square baking dish (such as a 8" x 8") and set aside.

Combine dry ingredients - flour, baking soda, salt and cardamom and set aside. Cream the butter and sugar and then add each egg, one at a time, blending well. Add bananas, yogurt and coffee liquor and blend well. Add flour mixture, slowly incorporating until everything is mixed well.

Pour into greased pan and grate some orange zest over top. Bake for 1 hour or until a wooden skewer inserted comes out clean. Cool for 10 minutes on a rack and remove from pan. 

Coffee Frosting:
1 (8oz) package cream cheese
1/4 cup butter, softened
1 cup confectioners sugar
1 TB coffee liquor or espresso (cooled)

Blend cream cheese and butter and then mix in coffee liquor. Slowly add confectioners sugar and keep blending until all your sugar is added and you have a delicious, fluffy frosting. 


  1. I've always wondered how to describe the flavor of cardamom.

    I heart it in baked goods. Can't wait to try the bread!

  2. Love the Labyrinth reference!!