The Queen of Spices: homemade cardamom-vanilla ice cream and Xacutti's cardamom biscuits
Ah, cardamom. Is there anything it can't do?
Once found primarily in Indian dishes and the occasional Scandinavian baked treat, cardamom has emerged from its shell in recent years to claim a place in the wider world of cuisine. And why not? It has an ineffable vibrancy, equally capable of carrying both sweet and savoury dishes. There aren't many flavours that can star in both a duck curry and an ice cream, but it's no problem for the Queen of Spices. A diva it's not, though. It can play a supporting role as well, providing an unmistakable but hard to place background note, the kind that leaves you asking, "What is that flavour?"
We were introduced to cardamom-vanilla ice cream by Kensington Market Organic Ice Cream, one of Toronto's best and, sadly, most elusive producers of artisanal ice cream. We were infrequent visitors two summers ago when Bruce Kurtenbach, the company's founder, set up shop in the Kensington and began selling his wild assortment of flavours to the public: from rose petal and blue cheese to blueberry-lavender and, well, cardamom-vanilla. The ice creams are still available in some stores -- The Healthy Butcher on Queen West comes to mind -- but the shop in the Kensington appears to be no more.
What's a cardamom-vanilla ice cream lover to do? Make his own, of course. And so I did. But thanks to a tip from Rachel, I didn't stop there. She suggested adding a little texture to the ice cream with pistachio praline, which I did by adapting a hazelnut praline recipe from Regan Daley's, In the Sweet Kitchen.
Kensington Market Organic Ice Cream label their cardamom-vanilla ice cream, Emotional Rescue. This inspires visions of a jilted lover wearing pyjamas and eating a pint of Häagen-Dazs while lamenting the loss of yet another love. Sorry, not for me. I prefer Euphoria, or some similar term that aptly describes the feeling of ecstasy I get with every bite of this sweetly perfumed, silky ice cream and the nutty crunch of the accompanying praline.
I first fell in love with cardamom in a different form, however. Rachel and I occasionally eat at Xacutti, a restaurant on College Street that specializes in what could best be described as "New Indian" or Indian-fusion cuisine. The brunch menu, slightly more conventional, features remarkable cardamom biscuits served with honey butter and homemade raspberry jam. The biscuits are ethereal -- light and flaky, more scone than biscuit, with a subtle but identifiable cardamom taste and a rich buttery flavour. I became so addicted that we often began our Sunday mornings by picking up cardamom biscuits while walking our dog Sam.
Then one Sunday, I learned that frozen biscuits are now available for takeout. I think I did a little dance on the spot. I bought a dozen frozen biscuits, came home, baked half of them, and promptly swooned with joy while devouring them.
I also learned that cardamom biscuits have one benefit over cardamom-vanilla ice cream: making biscuits means a house awash in the singular, mouthwatering scent of baked goods and cardamom. I dare say it smelled as good as those early churches that burned cardamom as incense -- my own Sunday ritual.
Cardamom-Vanilla Ice Cream
300ml (1 1/4 cups) 2% milk
200ml (3/4 cup) 35% heavy cream
2 egg yolks
115g (3/4 cup) sugar
30g (1/2 cup) green cardamom pods, lightly crushed
1 small vanilla bean, split and scraped
Heat milk, cream, sugar, cardamom, and vanilla to 80C over medium heat. Remove from heat, cover tightly, and let steep for 5 minutes.
Strain. Return vanilla pods to mixture.
Slowly add a little of the hot mixture to the yolks to temper them. Add tempered yolks to mixture, and return to medium heat, stirring constantly, until it lightly coats the back of a spoon (approx. 85C).
Strain. Chill completely. Churn as per maker's instructions.
(adapted from In the Sweet Kitchen, by Regan Daley)
Caution is required when adding the nuts to the molten sugar, which might splatter. It's also required when breaking up the praline, shards of which can be extremely sharp.
350g (1 1/2) cups granulated sugar
50g (1/3 cup) pistachios, skinned and lightly toasted
Combine sugar with enough water to moisten it in a saucepan over medium-low heat. When sugar is melted, increase heat to medium-high and bring to a boil. When mixture is a medium-amber colour, remove from the heat and add the pistachios.
When the mixture has stopped splattering, work quickly to stir in the nuts, then pour over a Silpat-lined baking sheet and allow to cool completely. When cool, carefully break into small pieces. Place pieces in food processor and process to a chunky powder.
Store in an airtight container in a cool, dry place.
Sprinkle over ice cream prior to serving.