A delicious symphony of scents can be created from the diverse ingredients in a spice box.
Steeping a blend of freshly ground allspice, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg in a pan of water, for example, brings a warm and welcome fragrance to the kitchen on a winter’s day.
One of my favourite spices, green cardamom, is among the most expensive in the world, topped only by saffron and vanilla. Cardamom has an exquisite, haunting aroma, reminiscent of sweet citrus and eucalyptus.
According to Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat in The History of Food (Blackwell), cardamom was first put to use as a burnt offering to appease the gods. It was traded heavily by the Greeks in the 4th century BC, and the Romans used it to perfume their clothing and hair.
Cardamom seeds come from the fruit of the Elettaria cardamomum, a tropical member of the ginger family and native to Sri Lanka and southern India. Cardamom is recognised as a digestive and chewed to freshen the breath after a meal. In cooking, cardamom is a favourite flavouring for Indian, Pakistani, Balinese and Bengali dishes; used in curries with vegetables and meat. It also brings another dimension of flavour to Danish pastries, rice dishes, and milk sweets.
Much loved authority on Asian Food, Charmaine Solomon, says the pale green oval pods containing brown or black seeds are the best kind to buy and use, and warns that “there are many pretenders”, including black or brown cardamom and Melegueta pepper. “Buy the whole pods and crush them yourself with a mortar and pestle for the very best results,” Charmaine always recommends. Good quality, freshly ground cardamom is available, but you should bear in mind that ground spices lose their flavour quickly. I prefer to shop for Herbie’s Spices, knowing that I'm buying freshness and quality.
One of Charmaine's favourite desserts is Shrikhand, a northern Indian sweet treat which is simply a combination of around two cups of thick yoghurt, a few tablespoons of caster sugar, drops of rose essence, a quarter of a teaspoon of freshly ground cardamom, and some saffron strands which have been lightly toasted and crushed. These ingredients are mixed together and served in a glass dish, topped with blanched, chopped pistachios. A few tiny rose petals can be added for a touch of romance. I've had the privilege and pleasure of tasting Shrikand prepared by the lovely Charmaine on more than one occasion over the years and I can tell you, it's just divine. Perhaps this is why it is known as "The Honeymoon Sweet".
Let’s combine what is currently a slightly expensive fruit with an exquisite and expensive spice. The following recipe is my adaptation of a dessert by Ian “Herbie” Hemphill. It can be whipped up in literally minutes. Indulge, but do try not to squabble over who gets the leftover caramel sauce. You have it. Let the others eat cake!
CARAMEL BANANAS WITH CARDAMOM
6 ripe bananas
1 cup soft brown sugar
1/2 cup thick cream
a good pinch of Herbie's ground green cardamom seed
Slowly melt the butter in a non-stick frypan over a medium heat. Add the cream, sugar and cardamom and stir to combine. Peel the bananas and slice lengthways. Place the bananas into the caramel sauce. Reduce the heat and simmer for three minutes. Serve the bananas topped with caramel sauce and a dollop of cream or vanilla ice cream. Serves 6.
Hello. I'm Liz, a writer, cook and traveller based in Canberra, Australia.
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NB: I use Australian standard measuring cups and spoons in my recipes.