Cardamom. Such a love/hate relationship from the very beginning. Let me be more specific: hate in the beginning, love in the end. Ironically enough, some of the best things in life end up working out that way every now and again, don’t they? How can something you so surely despise possibly open up your world and allow you love it in the end? Not many, but cardamom was surely one of those situations for me.
It all started when my mom took me out to a Sri Lankan vegetarian restaurant, let’s say about the age of 11 or 12. First off, I was not (yet) vegetarian at that time, and second, had no idea what garam masala or kofta or dosa or roti were. I blindly ordered some cardamom-spiced vegetable kofta, and sequentially called them…ahem… (excuse me) elephant poo balls. After my first taste, I threw down my fork with disgust and a frown, proclaiming to not eat another bite. Not even a bribe to get ice cream for dessert would make me want to finish that meal off. Never. Again. Or so I thought…
So years went by, and I developed a liking for a semi-religious vegetarian lifestyle, while dabbling in some veganism also–what all started this blog in the first place. And that Sri Lankan restaurant soon became my favorite restaurant in town. I would beg and plead my family/friends/boyfriend/etc. to eat there with me at least several times a month. Those cardamom kofta “elephant poo balls” soon became one of my favorite dishes, and my tastebuds developed a liking to cardamom. And the rest is pretty much history; I’ve loved cardamom ever since, and have added a pinch here and there to many baked goods, in style, ever since 2007.
After drooling over this amazing apricot bar dessert by Deb, I had been chomping at the bit to recreate it myself, with my own spin on things, ever since. Most of the time, I prefer to modify baking recipes to “make them my own” and experiment with flavors. The potential. I ask myself, what can I do to maximize flavor, make it unique, but not completely take away from the integrity of the base? That’s what I love about baking, and it is what keeps me coming back to my mixing bowl(s) time after time. With that being said, cardamom was the first spice that came to mind in making these unique on their own, and it was the perfect compliment. You’ll often see it paired with pistachios anyhow, but with apricots, you are in for thee most delightful surprise. Kind of a mediterranean/Turkish/Indian dessert, if you will. If only apricots were available all year (sigh), I would make this all the time! So ridiculously good, and more than likely you already have all of the ingredients, except for maybe the apricots and pistachios. Now go at it.
APRICOT PISTACHIO CARDAMOM BARS
Adapted from the Smitten Kitchen
Makes 9-16 square bars (depending how you cut them) in an 8×8 glass dish
For the crust:
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
- 1/4 teaspoon sea salt
- 1/4 cup granulated sugar
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
- 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, chilled
For the filling:
- 3/4 cup shelled, unsalted pistachios
- 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
- few pinches of sea salt
- 6 tablespoons sugar
- 5 tablespoons unsalted butter, chilled
- 1 large egg
- 1 teaspoon brandy or almond extract (optional)
- 1 pound firm-ripe apricots
- powdered sugar, for finishing
- Heat your oven to 350 degrees F. Cut two 12-inch lengths of parchment paper and trim each to fit the 8-inch width of an 8×8-inch square baking pan. Press it into the bottom and sides of your pan in one direction, then use the second sheet to line the rest of the pan, perpendicular to the first sheet. (If you have an 8-inch square springform, you can skip this and just butter it well.)
- Make the crust: Combine the flour, salt, sugar and cardamom in the bowl of a food processor. Cut the butter into chunks, and add it to the bowl, then run the machine until the mixture forms large clumps; it might take 30 seconds to 1 minute for it to come together, but it will. Transfer the dough clumps to your prepared baking pan and press it evenly across the bottom and 1/4-inch up the sides. Bake for 15 minutes, until very pale golden. For the sake of speed, transfer to a cooling rack in your freezer for 10 to 15 minutes while you prepare the filing. (Per Deb: don’t have a food processor? You might have an easier time using softened butter and preparing this cookie-style: cream it with the sugar with a hand mixer, then spoon in the salt and flour, beating until just combined. It might help to chill this mixture a bit before pressing it into the pan, or it might feel too greasy to easily spread.)
- Make the filling: In your food processor bowl (no need to clean between steps), grind your pistachios, sugar, flour and salt together until the nuts are powdery. Cut the butter into chunks and add it to the machine. Run the machine until no buttery bits are visible. Add any flavorings and egg, blending until just combined.
- Spread filling over mostly cooled (warmth is okay but it’s hoped that the freezer will have firmed the base enough that you can spread something over it) crust. Cut apricots in half (or, you might find that you can tear them open at the seams with your fingers) and remove pits. From here, you have a few decoration options: you can place the apricot halves in facedown or up all over the pistachio base. You can do as I did, which is cut them into strips, then slide each cut half onto a butter knife or offset spatula, tilt it so that it fans a little, and slide it onto your pistachio filling decoratively.
- Bake the bars for 60 minutes, or until they are golden and a toothpick inserted into the pistachio portion comes out batter-free. This might take up to 10 minutes longer depending on the juiciness of your apricots and the amount you were able to nestle in. Let cool completely in pan; you can hasten this along in the fridge.
- To finish, just dust a bit of powdered sugar on the top for extra prettiness.
- Cut bars into squares — chilled bars will give you the cleanest cuts. Keep leftover bars chilled.