Cardamom, the backbone of northern European baking

Cardamam-Seeds-Flower

By the early 1970s, the tiny Scandinavian and German grocery stores in my hometown (some housed in attached garages, which was very handy for neighborhood customers but probably a bit dubious from a food safety standpoint) had been put out of business by the chain stores. The rich ethnic spices and flavorings carried by these tiny stores were gone. The available spices were now limited to cinnamon, Italian Blend, and dried parsley. The local A&P stocked basil for culinary rogues and daredevils. Cardamom, the backbone of northern European baking, was not to be found.

A terribly earnest sixth-grader, I was determined to complete a 4-H project of baking a series of Scandinavian holiday recipes, and cardamom was requisite. I pleaded with the owner of the last remaining independent grocery store to special order cardamom for me. Mr. Schuetz explained that it would take a while, it would be expensive, and he really didn’t think it was a good idea since, “no one used it anymore.” But I didn’t care about expense (translated: my mother would pay for it) and I persisted.

A few weeks later the tin of McCormick’s cardamom arrived and I put the princely sum of $7 ($42.04 in 2013 dollars, according to the Consumer Price Index) on my mother’s tab and I went home to start baking. Soon there was a succession of 4-H ribbons, thorough evaluations from the home extension advisor, and rueful comments from my mother, who had underwritten this whole undertaking. But even my frugal mother admitted that nothing compared to the citrusy, bright quality of cardamom and maybe, just maybe, it was worth the expense to get the real thing.

The forward march of progress has brought us Skype, infomercials, and the ready availability of cardamom. Ingebretsen’s carries it in three forms: cardamom seed, $4 for .6 oz, cardamom sugar, $6 for 3.7 oz, and l.c. finn’s cardamom extract, $8.95 for 1 oz.  These are $4, $6, and $8.95 respectively in 2013 dollars. (Not all things were better in the 70s.)

cardamom-extract

Lee Zwiefelhofer is the owner of l.c. finn’s and the extract brewer. He says, “Keeping cardamom affordable was one of my goals. The advantage of the extract is that the flavor is going to remain and not go bad. You don’t waste what you don’t use immediately, which is a problem with ground cardamom.”

Lee understands that many of us would like to be foodies, or we enjoy foodie-level quality, but few of us have the time to actually make the creations that dance through our imaginations. “Sometime you just don’t have the time to get a spice to a usable state such as roasting or grinding. With an extract, it’s ready to go. Things don’t have to be complicated to be good,” says Lee.

His favorite examples of uncomplicated goodness are a customer who uses a couple of drops of cardamom in her coffee each morning and the cardamom whipped cream he demos at food expos:

1 pint heavy cream

2-3 tablespoons sugar

1 tablespoon l.c. finn’s Cardamom Extract (or to taste)

Chill the beaters and bowl.  Add cream, beating until peaks are about to form.  Then add sugar and extract and beat until peaks form. Don’t over-beat. (It becomes lumpy, though it still tastes good.)

Julie Ingebretsen, the store manager and cardamom aficionado, substitutes cardamom for almond extract in a classic almond cake recipe. The extract works in drinks, too. You can substitute ½ teaspoon of l.c.finn’s cardamom extract for the ground cardamom in this simple Spiked Apple Cider recipe. “I am really passionate about my extracts,” says Lee. “It took a couple of months and a lot of trial and error figuring out the ratios of pods to alcohol. Now that I have it, I’m pretty pleased with it.”

Besides Lee’s emphasis on quality, his business model stresses using local suppliers as much as possible. That can be challenging when the key ingredients come primarily from equatorial countries. But there are other components, too. Lee uses Phillips Vodka as the alcohol base. “Phillips Vodka is local and that’s important to me. It’s distilled and bottled in Minneapolis. I also use local companies for packaging, labels and printing,” he says.  Ingebretsen’s believes in supporting local businesses, too, and we’ve benefitted from having our cardamom supplier so close. Debbie Ingebretsen manages the mail order department and says, “It’s nice to send an email and get a delivery the next day.” The delivery person is Lee himself, sometimes with family in tow. We saw a lot of Lee this past Christmas season because, in Lee’s words, “Your customers go through cardamom extract like water!” Lee and Ingebretsen’s both think that is a good thing.

New extracts are in the development stage. Lee is currently working on mint, lemon, and orange extracts. “I don’t have a formula. It’s been a lot of work and a lot of mistakes. If it gets to the point I can get a great flavor, it will all be worth it,” he says. The work and experimentation with the cardamom extract definitely paid off; Lee created a product that is flavorful, easy to use, and affordable. Wouldn’t Mother have been surprised?

–Carstens Smith