Saturday afternoon promised rain.
While the sun still shined, I mowed the grass, and participated in outdoor stuff which for me, includes pulling a chair into the sun and reading until my legs go numb. Around 3pm, as if on cue, a horizontal scrim of storm clouds rolled into place, the temperature dropped 20 degrees, and the pit pit pit of rain drops on the tin roof was unmistakable.
So what to do on a wet and chilly Saturday afternoon? Bake a cake, that’s what.
Not long ago I lucked into a really fragrant little bottle of green cardamom pods that I found at a nearby Bengali grocery store. I was tasked with making a curry for a virtual dinner party (this being 2021) and cardamom was the one spice I needed to grind together a garam masala. At ten bucks, this spice was a splurge, so I’ve been looking for interesting ways to use the little green pods ever since. And for the record, the choice was either a small glass jar of green cardamom pods, or a giant, vacuum-packed bag of black cardamom pods, which didn’t cost much more but felt somehow like a real commitment.
I don’t really understand cardamom. Is it West Indian? Is it Scandinavian? Is it better in savory dishes or sweet? Is the aroma floral or menthol or spice or citrus or smoke or maybe even soap? The answer is yes to everything—and then some. And combined with its comrades (cinnamon, clove, black pepper, ginger, and even saffron)…this is when cooking evokes something like sensory bliss.
A not-nearly in depth-enough summary of cardamom goes something like this: native to Southern India, where it grows wild, and cultivated in subtropical climates like Tanzania, Sri Lanka, Southern China, and far afield in Guatemala. Cardamom (a member of the ginger family) is harvested early as small, green, intensely aromatic pods, or harvested later, when the blackish brown pods are three times as large, and the resulting aroma and spice profile is much different. Black cardamom offers a distinctive smokiness to savory Middle Eastern, Indian, and Asian cuisine, whereas the green, sometimes called “true” cardamom, is the choice for Scandinavian sweets, mulled wine, and tea infusions.
And who brought cardamom to Scandinavia? Legend says the Vikings, so it’s been around awhile.
Fast forward to Saturday afternoon cake cravings, and I was on the hunt for a single-layer cardamom tea cake with a gloom-chasing fragrance, topped, hopefully, with sliced and toasted sugared almonds.
From this sentence forward, any intent to also include a savory cardamom recipe has left the room, because I found my heart’s desire on the site Food52 in a Cardamom Cake attributed to Niloufer Ichaporia King. I rolled my eyes a little when writer, Kristen Miglore, describes the flavor as “a warm floral lilt occasionally interrupted by the coy pop of a whole cardamom,” but honestly, she totally nails it.
Ms. King’s cake calls for a trick that I first discovered when I made Kouign Amann pastries—another rainy afternoon in which I decided for no good reason to tackle laminated pastry. In any case, the trick is to generously butter and then sugar the pan. You heard me. This results in a delicate, caramel-sweet crust on all sides that perfectly complements the cake within, filled with its (yes) “coy pop” of whole cardamom seeds. God help us.
That’s not to say that I stopped reading or collecting recipes for savory recipes to come.
After all, I still have half a bottle of cardamom pods to crush into aromatic submission.
But this cake stopped me in my tracks.
And even though I forgot to stick a baking sheet under the springform pan and sugar dripped onto the floor of the oven and the kitchen filled up with noxious smoke and the smoke detector went off and I had to run around opening windows thereby letting all that rain in
this recipe will forever sit next my other butter-stained best-ever cake recipe, Marian Burros’ Plum Torte. Cake lovers know what I’m talking about here; novice bakers–you’re in for a treat.