As autumn segues to winter, my seasonal spice shifts, too. Since September, it’s been all about nutmeg for me, the one essential ingredient to my apple crisp (aside from Wilson’s Orchard apples, of course). But as Thanksgiving passes to Yuletide, nutmeg yields to cardamon. Oh sure, I’ll still sprinkle a little nutmeg on the old egg nog, but my Danish ancestry ascends at Christmas, and cardamon is synonymous with Dansk Jul.
Cardamon (our family uses an “n” as the final consonant, rather than “m”) is a staple of Scandinavian cuisine—its aromatic tones infused the pastries of my youth year-round. Both of my maternal grandparents hailed from Denmark as part of the tail-end wave of the great Scandinavian migration to the Midwest, and their cardamon rings (a type of coffee cake) were a staple of nearly any family kaffeeklatsch. Ask a modern Dane, Swede or Norsk to play word association with cardamon, and chances are he or she will respond with “bedstemor,” “bestemor,” “mormor” or “farmor”—the Scandinavian words for grandmother.
So with Christmas as a time of family memory, cardamon looms large in my repertoire of holiday nostalgia. And it fits the Yuletide: Its gentle spiciness and sweet, slightly exotic backdrop puts it in good company with the season’s more familiar nutmeg and cinnamon.
Despite my fond memories of the spice, my grandmother’s two signature cardamon Christmas creations were not my favorites. Nina, as we called her, always made a loaf of her cardamon bread for Christmas morning, but as a kid, I found it a bit dry, and like my brothers, I assiduously picked out the citron pieces. As I grew a little older and as Nina’s age lessened her kitchen exploits, my mom took over the cardamon bread duties. She came up with a recipe—or perhaps altered my grandmother’s—that was more to my liking: Moister and a touch sweeter, it is the recipe card I now pull out once the Thanksgiving pumpkin pie is in the rearview mirror of holiday festivities.
Nina’s other Christmas cardamon standard was klejner (pronounced KLĪ-ner). “Klejner” roughly means “slender,” which describes the flattened, thin dough it is made from. But klejner are deep fried, so there is nothing slender about them when they hit the waistline. Before its fat bath, the rolled-out pastry dough is cut into diamond shapes with a slit in the middle; one end is pulled through the slit to create a twisted cookie. Not all klejner recipes call for cardamon, but both Nina and my mom loaded them up with the spice—Nina sometimes even using whole seeds. In the end, klejner are not especially sweet to the taste, at least to my childhood sweet tooth, so they weren’t my favorite Christmas cookie, but the flavor is indelibly imprinted in my holiday DNA. Since we almost never eat deep-fried anything at my house, I haven’t tried making them myself. But the call of cardamon is strong this year, so maybe I will give it a whirl (or a twist).
Ironically, cardamon is hardly native to Scandinavia. Having grown up with it as my quintessential Danish flavor, I was flabbergasted the first time I ran into a cardamon seed pod in some rice pudding at an Indian restaurant (which we didn’t have in Rockford, Ill. in the 1960s and ‘70s when I was growing up). Cardamon is actually native to the forests of India. Exactly how it got to the frozen north of Europe isn’t certain, though many sources agree that Vikings brought it home from Constantinople. Nonetheless, my familial affection for Scandinavian cardamon has been enriched by learning of its mysterious provenance in ancient East–West international trade.
Since cardamon is one of the most expensive spices, I had the idea a year or two ago of trying to grow some cardamon at home. I was disabused of that notion when I learned that I would essentially need to recreate a tropical rainforest in my house year round—Guatemala is currently the biggest producer and exporter of cardamon.
By the time you read this, I will have made several loaves of this year’s holiday cardamon bread. Christmas is a time of remembrance of childhood places and experiences past, of traditions and heritage retreating further from present memory, of loved ones lost. It is a time to conjure what we wish to hold dear through the next journey around the sun. For me, the call of cardamon is most powerful at this season of the year. Glædelig Jul.
Thomas Dean *will* make klejner this year, fat or no fat.