Thursday, April 06, 2006

Cardamom Struesel Coffee Cake

My half-Lebanese friend, A, was making me Arabic coffee on the stovetop: boil, remove, boil, remove, boil, remove and serve. I watched as she deftly transferred the steaming contents into a mishmash of petite coffee cups, perfect for a 5 year old’s tea party. We returned to our seats, took the spiced contents, laughing and drinking over dessert. It became a tradition in A’s apartment that before fleeing for the night, we would slow down with some Arabic coffee. One round of coffee quickly became two, then three or four. We drank until we were too giddy with caffeine and sugar to move.

Each time she made it I ensured her it was fabulous—great until the last bits sloshed around the bottom of the cups and we read our fortunes in the grounds. I had had Greek coffee and Turkish coffee plenty of times, all appeared in the same baby mugs, but none had the aroma or flavor of A’s Arabic coffee. It filled the apartment, tinged the tips of our tongues and spread warmth throughout or bodies. A finally told me the secret to the coffee: the blackened beans are mixed with cardamom.

A few years later I would accompany A to Lebanon. Cardamom blew off the Mediterranean and seeped throughout Beirut: Families brought lawn chairs to the corniche, calling over coffee vendors who banged their brass pot to announce their arrival. On the city streets, coffee vendors pushed little wagons decorated brightly with Lebanese flags and red and white ribbons. Equipped with Bunsen burners, they brewed coffee for the businessmen who paused to take delight in the beverage. Young people sat in coffee shops that overflowed onto the street drinking the bitter coffee while smoking nargeela.

I always associated cardamom with A and her world.

We arrive in present day. D and I sit on the couch reading. I read a book on the history of food. He reads a book on the history of Vikings. D gets angry at the book, “it always just says spices, spices, spices, were brought back on their voyages to the Mid-East! Where is the human interest?! I want to know what kind!” I flipped the page in my history of food book making a casual comment about how the Vikings are pretty amazing to make it all the way to the Mid-East. Low and behold, my own book provides a short blurb on Vikings and cardamom.

D is amazed. He is giddy and grabs my laptop searching for cardamom in Scandinavian cuisine. He must taste what the Vikings tasted. It is not Arabic coffee he seeks, the Vikings did not bring Arabic coffee back to Scandinavia, they brought the cardamom pod. His search is complete when he finds a site recanting Scandinavian desserts, all chock full of roasted and ground cardamom pods. We learn that in their voyages, the Vikings grew a fond liking to cardamom. It became so popular in Scandinavia that the Vikings were soon bringing boatloads of it home.

We soon found the recipe below on Martha Stewart. “Genius!” D declared. And then, “I am so ahead of fashion!” Soon D is tasting cardamom in everything. We are eating Indian food and D proclaims hints of cardamom. I mumble something to the effect of, “duh, one of the main ingredients in most of it.” But soon the obsession takes him further, we must have an authentic Norwegian breakfast: herring, ryvita crackers, tomatoes and cucumbers-- a piercing shot of Aquavit is added to the occasion. “Cardamom! There is cardamom in the herring!” D announces. He runs to the refrigerator, removes the bottle and returns, “Aha! I told you! Spices! Spices are listed on the ingredients!” This of course actually proves nothing but D is confident in his discovery.

We make the cake and it is delicious. It better be-- with almost 4 sticks of butter how can it not be fantastic? It was so good that D went out and bought a new cake display to show off his work. This easy access only made the cake disappear faster. In the morning it is a good sweet breakfast. In the afternoon it is the perfect snack. Of course, it is best had with a cup of cardamom infused coffee.

This is the recipe as it appears on Marth Stewart.

Makes: 10-12 servings.
For the Struesel
* 18 whole cardamom pods
* 2 ¾ cups all-purpose flour
* 1 cup packed light-brown sugar
* ½ teaspoon salt
* 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
For the Cake
* 2-½ cups all-purpose flour
* 1 teaspoon baking powder
* ½ teaspoon baking soda
* 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
* ½ teaspoon salt
* ¾ cup (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
* 1-¼ cups sugar
* 3 large eggs
* 1-¼ cups low-fat plain yogurt
* 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
* Vegetable-oil cooking spray

1) Preheat oven to 350°. Bake cardamom pods on a rimmed baking sheet until fragrant, about 10 minutes. Transfer sheet to a wire rack; let cool completely. Finely grind cardamom in a spice grinder. Pass through a large-mesh sieve; set aside.
2) Prepare the streusel; Whisk flour, brown sugar, 3/4 teaspoon ground cardamom, and the salt in a medium bowl. Cut in butter with a pastry blender until mixture resembles coarse crumbs; set aside.
3) Coat a 10-inch nonstick angel-food-cake pan with cooking spray; set aside.
4) Prepare the cake; Sift flour, baking powder, baking soda, 3/4 teaspoon ground cardamom, the cinnamon, and salt into a medium bowl. Put butter and sugar into the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment; mix on medium-high speed until pale and fluffy. Reduce speed to medium. Mix in eggs, 1 at a time. Reduce speed to low. Add flour mixture in 2 batches, alternating with the yogurt. Mix in vanilla.
5) Spoon half of the batter into prepared pan. Sprinkle with 2 1/2 cups streusel. Top with remaining batter. Squeeze remaining streusel into large and small clumps; sprinkle on top of batter. Bake until golden brown and a cake tester inserted into center comes out clean, 50 to 60 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack; let cool 10 to 15 minutes. Remove cake from pan by slightly raising removable center piece; invert onto baking sheet, and then reinvert onto wire rack to cool completely.

Note: Recipe adapted from Martha Stewart Living, January 2006

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