1 February 2024 · Behind the Cookbook
Ford redefines the neutrality often attributed to vanilla, pushing the boundaries of conventional expectations surrounding this fascinating ingredient.
As Valentine's Day approaches, Ford beckons readers into a world of seduction with an A-Z guide to aphrodisiacs and unveiling a tempting recipe for chocolate mousse for lovers – a decadent indulgence designed to elevate any romantic celebration. Recipes to fall in love with indeed.
Could you share some of the themes explored in your latest book, A Whisper of Cardamom?
The book is about using spices to enhance flavours, to bring out different notes and make your sweet cooking and bakes really exciting. There are flavour profiles, flavour matching charts, and lots of suggested twists so that you can make the same recipe with different spices. You can take things in any flavour direction you like. I’ve created a flavour wheel for each spice that looks at its key characteristics and how it sings with other ingredients. I also explore how sugar and spice play into culture and, in particular, how they have been tied to love throughout history.
What exactly are the flavour wheels and how do you advise using them?
In the book, you can refer to the flavour wheel and see whether a spice is largely sweet, whether it's got warming qualities, if there are perhaps base notes for woody or herbal elements. So, it's breaking down the flavours within these extremely complex ingredients. I then look at how you can apply that to your baking. How you could perhaps use the astringency of nutmeg to cut quite a sweet custard, or how you could use cinnamon’s natural ability to bring out the sweetness in other ingredients to make delicious cinnamon biscuits that don't rely only on sugar as a sweetener.
You mention the cult obsession of certain people - myself included! - and countries with cardamom in baked goods. Could you elaborate on this fascination and share any specific examples or stories related to cardamom in your book?
Cardamom is a particularly favourite spice of mine, which is one of the reasons it made it into the title! But also, I think cardamom is tied so beautifully to love stories in the past. It is often an ingredient in love potions or in love tokens. I start the book by talking about the greatest love story of all time, between Mark Antony and Cleopatra and how he was lured towards her by the scent of burning of cardamom pods.
Coming into the kitchen, I think it's such a wonderfully evocative spice because it is so complex. It's got an incredible scent. It's got that medicinal note going on. It's both sort of warming and cooling. It's a really exciting ingredient to use either quite powerfully or just in a small whisper where you can hardly sense it's there but that it's bringing out a beautiful fragrance in dishes. [Try Ford’s Cardamon, marzipan and cherry bundt or Maple cardamom ice cream with crackable chocolate to make the most of this oft-hailed and complex spice.]
You also explore black cardamon in the book, which is not as well known as green cardamon. Could you share some insights into the less common or surprising spices that readers might encounter in your book, and how they can be used to enhance sweet treats?
I largely wanted to focus on the spices we know because I don't want this to be a mission of having to seek out unusual ingredients. But then I also think that it's fun to showcase some rarer spices that, for one reason or another, have not made it into the mainstream. Black cardamom is a great example because it is from a different plant to green cardamom, though they're botanically related.
It’s got large pods, coarse, dark skin, and is usually very smoky in flavour because of the drying process. This makes it an incredible ingredient to give all sorts of layers of flavour, as well as smoke to dishes. [Try Ford's recipe for Black rice, black cardamon as an example of this.]
I've also explored other unusual spices, such as passion berries, cassia buds, tonka beans and grains of paradise - all sorts of fabulous spices and recipes where you can use them as alternatives to the more common spices.
Of the more mainstream baking spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, and ginger, what are some examples of how you use these common spices in surprising and innovative ways to elevate sweet treats?
There is a Milk chocolate tart with nutmeg pastry in the book. What I like is two things: One, it is using nutmeg singularly. Nutmeg is so often used in spice blends where its flavour is mixed with cinnamon and ginger, and it doesn't get to sing out on its own. But here it gets to really give its flavour profile to the pastry. And then the nutmeg grated on top of the dark-milk chocolate custard cuts into the sweetness and helps make it more nuanced and interesting.
Ginger is another one. There are some Jamaican ginger cakes in the book which are really sticky and lovely with a buttered rum glaze on the top. What makes it interesting is I've used four different types of ginger within the one recipe. It's got fresh ginger, stem ginger in syrup, ginger beer and ground ginger. So you really get a full, fiery hit of that spice.
Tell us more about some of the suggested spice switches in the book.
To take one recipe as an example, I have Salt and pepper shortbread in the book, which has mixture of black peppercorns and grains of paradise giving wonderful fragrance and heat. If that doesn't appeal to you, though, I've given other switches, including caraway seeds, which is a much more traditional shortbread (a favourite of Mary Queen of Scots). Or you could take it in a different peppery direction and use ground Sichuan pepper or even wattleseed, which is an Australian spice with a kind of coffee nuttiness.
Your book delves into the historical and cultural significance of spices. How do these elements shape the narrative and recipes in A Whisper of Cardamon especially considering the dark side of the sugar industry and the spice trade's impact on colonialism?
This is a theme that I wrote much about in my last book, The Nutmeg Trail, looking at the huge impact of spice on human history, including some of the darker elements. Sugar is similar. These were ingredients that people wanted so much, they were hard to acquire which made them very expensive. That in turn gave them a special status and made people go to very extreme lengths and into very dark territory to acquire them.
One of the things I've done in this book is create a timeline of sugar and spice through history. This examines when different spices came into vogue around the world and their cultural impact. It shows the rise and fall in popularity of sugar and spice - or perhaps in the case of sugar, the rise and rise of popularity - and the tolls this has taken on humankind.
You write about the relationship between flavour and emotion. Tell us about a specific recipe from the book that evokes a strong emotional response for you.
One of the things I was delighted to discover was how there's a feedback link between pleasure and sweetness. When you taste something sweet, it increases your pleasure receptors, but also when you are in a happy frame of mind, it makes food taste sweeter. Isn’t this wonderful? A sort of feedback loop of sweetness and enjoyment.
A recipe personal to me is a birthday cake I developed for my daughter, Sylvia. This book is dedicated to her and so it was nice to include a recipe made with her in mind. It was for her fifth birthday party and she had asked for a pink vanilla cake. We all love what I created – the pink comes from raspberries and the vanilla is the star – so it has been made for many birthdays since. It’s got a very special, eccentric picture as well where we tried to capture all the love and the creativity of our little daughter.
The book explores vanilla's commonly perceived associations with neutrality with choices like vanilla ice cream, uninspired decor, and bland experiences in various contexts, including vanilla sex! Which of your recipes might rehabilitate vanilla's reputation?
I think vanilla is an enormously complex and interesting ingredient. So it's completely at odds with the fact we've come to think of it as bland. The reason I think we do is that we add just a little splash of vanilla extract or essence here, there and everywhere making it ubiquitous and unexciting.
So my suggestion is that you leave out the little splash, but when you do use it, use a really good-quality vanilla and use it in larger quantities so that you can really appreciate it. One of the recipes is for a dark chocolate torte where the whole vanilla bean is ground up and added to the cake - skin and all. You get this incredible depth of flavour and a kind of fruity complexity from that vanilla bean.
With Valentine's Day approaching, many readers might be looking for special treats. Could you share a recipe or flavour combination from your book that you believe would make a perfect romantic indulgence for this upcoming Valentine's Day?
Well, that is a whole A-Z of aphrodisiacs in the book - just saying! One recipe is a Chocolate mousse for lovers. It is just a two-portion serving and includes some of those gently warming spices like cinnamon and cardamon that have been labelled aphrodisiacs. Alongside the rich mousse is the crunch of black pepper praline and Chantilly cream to make it a very special Valentine's pudding.
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On March 24th 2024, Eleanor will be speaking about A Whisper of Cardamom to Guild of Food Writers President (and culinary crime novelist) Orlando Murrin, as part of North London Book Fest at Alexandra Palace. Get tickets here.