Or – a lesson in recipe creation.
Entry for The spice is right #1 - Ancient Spices
The moment Barbara announced her blogging event, I knew I wanted to participate and almost immediately I knew that I wanted to do something with cardamom. I love cardamom, but it is not the easiest of spices to feature in a recipe.
In food, cardamom works best in concert with other spices. It is a natural companion to cinnamon and ginger. It loves peppers and is a frequent guest in curry powders of all sorts.
But I wanted something different.
I wanted a recipe that would feature the flavor of cardamom cleanly.
Cardamom, according to the spice encyclopedia, is the dried seeds and seed pods of a member of the ginger family. Occurring wild in Indian, Guatemala, and Ceylon it is the third most expensive spice in the world behind saffron and vanilla. Not cultivated until the 19th century, most of the worlds cardamom supply was harvested wild, primarily from the monsoon forests of the Western Ghants, known as the Cardamom Hills. Enterprising British colonists developed Cardamom as a cash crop 200 years ago, but the usage of cardamom goes back far further than that.
Known as the Queen of spices, with pepper being the King, Cardamom has been traded in India for over a 1000 years. But Sanskrit texts mention it as a seasoning dating back as far as the 4th century BC and recipes for both sweet and savory dishes have been found going back to the 2nd century BC.
In that time, it has been used both as a flavoring and a medicine. Thought to be good for the skin it was also used as a digestive aid and to treat food poisoning. It is a component in Ayurvedic medicine where cardamom is used to treat disorders of the stomach and urinary system, asthma, bronchitis and heart problems. When mixed with neem and camphor, cardamom is used as a nasal preparation to treat colds. An infusion of cardamom can be used as a gargle to relieve sore throats, which has led to its use in cough sweets.
Spread far and wide by Arabic traders through the spice routes, cardamom has been adopted by virtually every culture. Used to flavor both sweet and savory dishes it is rarely featured solo. This is mainly because it’s sweet, pungent flavor blends so well with other spices, uniting them beautifully without losing its own character.
But because it is virtually impossible to feature cardamoms flavor singly in a savory dish, I decided to make something sweet for the challenge.
The easiest way to feature a single flavor is in milk. This is, as a matter of fact, how they test vanilla flavoring. By adding a few drops into a small quantity of milk. Unfortunately, being on lent, milk was out of the question. Which ruled out the perfect dessert for just such a purpose: panna cotta. Panna cotta, with its simple composition and clean flavor is probably the best vehicle for featuring the flavors of a subtle spice.
The solution came to me as I was making one of my impromptu stirfrys, a frequent ingredient of which is coconut milk. Coconut milk is amongst my favorite Asian ingredients. It has a wonderful flavor all its own and has the added benefit of taming some of the heat of Asian spices. But while I was adding the coconut milk, it suddenly clicked for me. There is no reason why I could not make a panna cotta out of coconut milk. After all, though it had a flavor all its, the flavor is mild and the fat in the coconut milk would make an excellent carrier for the fat soluble flavors of cardamom.
My thought was - I could just use my standard panna cotta recipe substituting light coconut milk for the milk and regular coconut milk for the cream. Of course, because I want on lent I substituted agar agar for gelatin and because I wanted to feature the flavor of cardamom, I decided to steep the coconut milk over night with the cardamom to infuse it with flavor. This failed. Miserably. The coconut milk refused to infuse with the flavor and when I finally added some Chai it became both bitter and greasy. In addition, the agar agar reacted with the rich coconut milk to make a strong solid more akin to a Jell-O jiggler than a soft set panna cotta.
My second attempt did not fare any better souring before I could turn it into a panna cotta. But it taught me a valuable lesson, cardamom is sneaky. Starting out subtle, it intensifies very quickly and by the time the taste is strong enough to taste warm, it is far too strong for the dessert. Tending towards bitterness, cardamom also did not provide the lingering warmth of vanilla. The panna cotta was missing something. Another dimension. Something that set off the cardamom, highlighting its sweetness.
But what to use?
I didn’t want to add another spice. While cardamom goes well with many other spices, it tends to meld into the background, its own flavor becoming less distinct. And that was exactly opposite of what I wanted in the recipe. But once again the answer was literally in front of my face, though it only became clear when I remembered one of my favorite Indian desserts. Kulfi. Which relies upon rose water for its distinct flavor. In the panna cotta, the rose water brought out cardamom’s nuttiness, playing up its sweetness while leaving a lingering taste of pistachio. Perfect.
With the flavor issues resolved, I attacked the mouth feel. Coconut is very rich, but using all light coconut milk made the panna cotta watery. But here, I lucked out a bit. One can of light coconut milk is about ¼ of a cup short of 2 cups, topping that off with regular coconut milk brought back the decadence without the oily greasiness that the half and half mixture had.
I almost had it.
The panna cotta was perfect but very plain.
In Arabic countries, coffee with cardamom represents wealth and hospitality. It is served to guests as a token of esteem. And it would be terribly unfair to feature cardamom without cardamom coffee. But in reducing the coffee to a syrup, to serve over the panna cotta, it became somewhat bitter, losing the excellent cardamom flavor it had as a drink. So instead, I served it on the side and topped the panna cotta with a cherry juice reduction, flavored lightly with rose water.
And there it is, perfect.
I admit that it was a long way to go for such a simple recipe but it was, as every recipe is, an excellent learning process. An enjoyable one.
Cardamom Panna Cotta
2 cups coconut milk (1 can light coconut milk + enough regular coconut milk to bring it to 2 cups)
15 cardamom pods
¼ cup sugar
1 ¼ teaspoons rose water
1 ½ teaspoons unflavored gelatin (or 1 ¼ teaspoons agar agar)
Crush the cardamom with the back of a large spoon and microwave on high for 1 minute. 
Pour the coconut milk into a small pan, add the cardamom (add agar agar if using). Heat on the lowest setting until steam rises from the surface and small bubbles form on the edge. Add rose water and sugar. Stir to dissolve and allow to come back to a simmer. 
In the mean time, add a quarter cup of water to the gelatin, stiring briskly. Set aside for 5 - 10 minutes until it has absorbed all the water.
Remove the coconut mixture from the heat and strain through a fine mesh sieve to remove the small cardamom seeds. Add a quarter cup of the hot coconut mixture to the gelatin and stir quickly, making sure there are no lumps. Add this back to the rest of the coconut milk and pour into individual ramekins.
Chill for 2 hours or until softly set. Serve
 While not strictly necessary, this brings cardamom’s oils to the surface, making it more aromatic. I highly recommend not skipping this step.
 If you are using agar agar, once the sugar is dissolved, remove coconut milk and pour into individual ramekins.
2 teaspoons ground coffee for every 6 ounces water
2 cardamom pods per cup - crushed
Pinch of sugar per serving
Grind beans and mix the grounds with the cardamom and a pinch of sugar. Brew via your favorite method. Serve hot.
Nomadic tradition dictates that cardamom coffee should be served as hot as a camels hind end at the suns zenith.
4 cups cherry juice – unsweetened
1 tablespoon to ¼ cup sugar
On medium heat, bring the cherry juice to a boil. Add a table spoon of sugar. Keep boiling until it is reduced by half.
Taste again and add more sugar as necessary.
Reduce by half again or until the cherry juice is syrupy.