Key Ingredient: Cardamom

Local gourmet Lorna Yee spices up autumnal quick breads with green cardamom

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Local gourmet Lorna Yee spices up autumnal quick breads with green cardamom

What it is: Cardamom is a spice that comes from a perennial bush related to the ginger family. Cardamom grows wild in India, but it is now also cultivated in Sri Lanka, Guatemala, Indochina and Tanzania. The seed pods grow amongst the leafy stalks at ground level and are harvested between October and December of each year, before they ripen. The pods are small and triangular in shape, with the two most common varieties being the larger black cardamom from Africa and the smaller green cardamom from India. Black cardamom is commonly used in curries, whereas green cardamom is typically used in Indian sweets, in chai, or to flavor Turkish coffee. Green cardamom is one of the world’s most expensive spices, and though it is widely available in America, it remains one of the most underused spices outside of Indian cuisine. Green cardamom has a soft, lemony and verdantly floral flavor, and it brings a spicy warmth to dishes, whether savory or sweet.

How I discovered it: I’ve been using cardamom for years to give certain desserts an exotic fragrance. The first time I was exposed to this heady spice was when I was offered a cup of chai back in high school. I learned that the aroma I couldn’t identify was this novel (to me) ingredient; it gave the chai its beguiling flavor. I purchased some ground green cardamom soon after and began experimenting with it in spice cakes. Here’s a much-loved recipe from the vault: a supremely moist pumpkin-spice cake recipe I developed in high school and recently retested for this column (yes, just as delicious as I remember!). Serve slices of this cake with a cup of afternoon tea, with a puff of cardamom-scented cream on the side.

How to use it in the kitchen: Though cardamom is often sold ground into powder, it is best purchased whole, then ground at home (in a spice or coffee grinder) right before use. Green cardamom also pairs extraordinary well with coffee, as centuries of Middle Eastern coffee drinkers can confirm. Try adding a touch of green cardamom to your next batch of espresso ice cream, or flan. Both green and black cardamom complement spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice and cloves; either would make a surprising and beautiful addition to your next batch of gingersnaps, apple streusel cake or this pumpkin-spice tea cake.

Where to find it: Green cardamom is widely available in the spice aisle of any major grocery store; it costs about $8 for a 2-ounce jar (ground), or $3 per ounce (with a 1-ounce minimum) at World Spice Merchants (Downtown, 1509 Western Ave.; 206.682.7274; worldspice.com).

See Lorna's pumpkin-spice tea cake with cardamom cream recipe on p. 2