One of the first fragrances that I can recall was my mother's Swedish Cardamom Bread fresh out of the oven. It's a scent that takes me back to the Christmases of my childhood and they are fond memories indeed. Swedes use cardamom extensively in baking - in breads, coffee cakes, cookies, pastries, and Swedish pancakes. Cardamom also marries well with fruit and is used in Swedish Fruit Soup, a poached dried fruit mélange that is equally delicious hot or cold for breakfast or dessert.
A member of the ginger family, cardamom's flavor is difficult to describe (but it doesn't taste like ginger). It's strong, spicy-sweet and has a distinct lemon profile with a faint nuance of pine. Like other spices, it carries a degree of warmth. Indian restaurants often offer cardamom pods after dinner to cleanse the breath and palate. If you haven't consumed Indian or Scandinavian cuisine, you may not have experienced the exotic pull of this wonderful spice. Trust me, it's worth a try.
I buy my ground cardamom from Penzey's and replace it often - once you open the jar the flavor begins to diminish. Keeping cardamom in the fridge helps keep it fresh. You may, of course, grind your own cardamom from the pods. The seeds from inside the pod may be ground or you can grind the entire pod. I like the convenience of pre-ground cardamom - I just remember to replace it often. Penzey's sells ground cardamom in both 1.2 ounce and 2.4 ounce jars.
This bread is very rich - more like a coffee cake - and makes three braided loaves. It's delicious the day it's made but is even better on the second and third days when the flavors have had the chance to develop. It's wonderful toasted and makes an excellent - and different - French toast! The loaves freeze beautifully for a month if wrapped in a double layer of heavy-duty foil.
Although my Cardamom Bread is equal to my mom's in taste and texture, I've never mastered the braiding. I fashion the loaves into three braids. Feel free to shape yours into a four or five-braid. It helps to start in the middle. Don't worry if your braids aren't perfect!
SWEDISH CARDAMOM BREAD
6-1/2 to 7 cups unbleached all-purpose flour (King Arthur preferred)
2 1/4 ounce packages Fleishmann's "Rapid Rise" yeast, or 2 teaspoons SAF Instant or SAF Gold yeast
1 cup regular or superfine sugar
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 rounded tablespoon ground cardamom
Zest (colored part only) of 1 large orange
2 teaspoons pure orange extract
2 cups whole or lowfat milk
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter at room temperature plus extra for greasing the rising bowl
3 eggs (2 for the dough, 1 for brushing the loaves)
1-1/2 cups dried cranberries (such as "Craisins")
1 cup sliced blanched almonds
In the bowl of an electric mixer, combine 2-1/2 cups of the flour, yeast, sugar, salt, cardamom, and the orange peel. Heat milk and butter in a medium saucepan until warm (120-130F) (the butter does not have to be completely melted). Add to flour mixture all at once. Add 2 of the eggs and the orange extract and beat on medium speed for 2 minutes. Scrape down the bowl and beat for another minute. Add the dried cranberries (light or dark raisins may be used in place of the cranberries. If the fruit is a bit too dry, it can be plumped by letting it steep in boiling water for two minutes (drain well) or by letting it macerate in Grand Mariner or Cointreau for a day or two.) Gradually add the rest of the flour by hand to make a soft dough. Turn dough on to a floured surface and knead with floured hands for about 7-8 minutes (form dough into a ball, fold edges of dough toward center and push dough down and away with heels of hands. Give dough a quarter turn and repeat until dough is smooth and elastic, adding flour as needed. Feel free to knead by machine - mixer or food processor - but knead by hand for 2-3 minutes afterward.) Liberally grease another large bowl with unsalted soft butter. Place dough in the bowl, turning to grease it on all sides. Cover with a tea towel and let rise in a warm place free of drafts until doubled in size - about 1 hour.
Punch dough down. Cover again with the tea towel and let rest 10 minutes. Divide dough into thirds. Divide each third into 3 equal size pieces. Roll each piece into a 16" rope on the floured work surface. Braid the ropes and pinch and tuck the ends to seal. Place on a greased cookie sheet. Repeat twice with remaining dough. Cover with tea towels and let rise in a warm place until almost doubled - about 30 minutes. Heat oven to 350F. Brush loaves with beaten egg and press about a 1/3 cup of the almonds onto each loaf. Sprinkle liberally with granulated sugar. Bake until golden brown - about 30 minutes. Let cool on pan 5 minutes and transfer to racks to finish cooling.