Cardamom is a spice that you don’t come across too much in American cooking. I never really knew what it was until I was 19, wide-eyed and living in Tanzania for the summer — it was the main ingredient in a selection of teas and desserts, occasionally, in one of the rice dishes we had. Thinking back, there are a lot of things I wish I could change about that trip, but mostly myself: how I viewed life, how I acted back then. I’m sure we all have those moments (days, weeks, months).
Just the taste of cardamom reminds me of how much we can change in just seven years. Back then, I was on a mission to prove my dedication to international development, and to prove to my parents that I didn’t need to listen to every piece of advice they scolded my way.
I deserved the scolding. I was an asshole back then (oh man, I hope-hope-hope I’m not nearly as much of an asshole now).
But no matter how broke I was because of that trip, I wouldn’t take it back for the world.
I lived with a handful of other volunteer teachers in a house near Bahari Beach, just outside of Dar es Salaam. There were a few women who lived in the house that also cooked for us and taught us bits and pieces of Swahili — which I used to be alright at — but honestly, the memory that sticks with me more than anything is the scent and the taste of the cardamom-infused chai tea that greeted me every morning.
They mixed the tea from scratch, and boiled water in huge vats — water that was used throughout the day for cooking, laundering, and other methods of cleaning. The tea was strained directly into a giant, baby pink thermos, and had enough tea for everyone in the house to have at least a few cups of.
Breakfast usually included a few cups of tea, lesson planning, and toast with a glass of fresh passionfruit juice. Then, I’d hop onto tht dala dala, a bus that was so packed with people that no morning was complete without a stranger sitting on your lap or crouched between the other 20 riders on a 10-person bus. After teaching elementary school in the morning and high school in the afternoon, I usually took the bus back to Bahari beach, and walked to the beach itself — not far from Rold Dahl’s house, and a separate dial-up internet cafe.
I had a typical Tanzanian school notebook that I used as a journal back then. It shouldn’t surprise you that I was a journal-writer, because, well, I write to you here as often as I can. I will say, it’s nice to have an actual reader for this type of stuff.
But after a drink or dinner at the beach cafe, I’d come back to the volunteer house and hang out with the girls and the other volunteers. I’d cross my fingers the entire walk back, hoping that there would be some tea left.
But then again, there was always beer, too.
Baking this cake filled my apartment with the scent of cardamom, which only made me drift back even further into these memories. I bought a massive box of Chai Bora before I left Tanzania — but I went through the tea ever so quickly, back in my UCSB days of daily, chilly morning Arabic classes.
They say scents spark the strongest memories, and when they do, years might have passed between the last time you even remembered the details your mind pairs with those scents.
It felt like years had passed since I smelled cardamom. The scent is comforting.
Recipe after the jump.
Cardamom Pound Cake, from Bon Appetit
3/4 cup unsalted butter, softened at room temperature
1 1/4 teaspoons baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cardamom
3/4 teaspoons kosher salt
1/4 cup whole milk
1/2 cup creme fraiche
1 cup sugar
3 large eggs
1 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 cup sliced almonds
2 cups all-purpose flour
Place a rack in the middle of your oven and preheat to 350 degrees. Line a 9x5x3″ loaf pan with parchment paper — butter and dust the pan with flour.
In a mixing bowl, whisk the baking powder, cardamom, salk, and flour. Set aside. In a separate bowl, whisk milk and the creme fraiche.
Using an electric mixer, beat the sugar and butter until light and fluffy, about 4 minutes. Add eggs one at a time, using a spatula to scrape the sides of the bowl. Then, add the vanilla extract.
Reduce the speed to low and begin adding roughly 1/3 of the dry ingredients, then 1/2 of the creme fraiche mixture, alternating until everything is fully incorporated. Beat until combined.
Scrape the batter into your loaf pan, smooth the top with a spatula, and sprinkle with sliced almonds.
Bake for about 60 minutes — it took 75 minutes in my oven — or until you can poke the center of the cake with a toothpick and have it come out clean.
Let the cake cool completely before slicing and serving. It’s actually best if you refrigerate it before slicing, because a colder cake has a cleaner cut.