Every year, for as long as I have a memory, Christmas just wasn't Christmas without Cardamom Braid. My mom, grandmother, and aunts all made it. It was part of Christmas morning breakfast--with hot chocolate when I was young and coffee as I got older--and always sliced thick and spread with butter. Anything left, and it wasn't usually much, was eaten quickly the same day or shortly after. The story was always told of how my great-great grandmother would crack open the white cardamom pods and then crush the seeds with the brass mortar and pestle that I still use today. Although I don't buy the full pods, I get the decorted cardamom, I often crush the seeds until the aroma is released and they are small enough as to not overpower a bite. If I really want a release of flavor, though, I'll use a coffee grinder and get a finer powder to flavor my bread. Any leftover cardamom is then used in a fresh pot of coffee...placed in with the coffee grounds for a truly decadent treat.
If you aren't familiar with cardamom, be warned that it is an expensive spice to become addicted to; a small jar in the grocery store can go for $10 and up. The flavor is distinct--a cross between a pepper and a nutmeg with a hint of sweetness. It is used in many Scandinavian recipes and is an essential ingredient in many curries and other Indian dishes. I find the best price for decorted cardamom from a little shop in Riverside, CA called DragonMarsh. They carry a wide selection of herbs/spices and their quality is great. Order on line at http://www.dragonmarsh.com/.
Now, for the good part...
2 large loaves or 4 small loaves
1 c milk or cream, scalded
2 pkgs or 1 TBSP dry yeast
1/4 c warm water
1/2 c butter
1/3 c sugar
1 tsp salt
1 egg, beaten
1-2 tsp cardamom
Dash fresh nutmeg
5 c all purpose flour (+/- depending on the weather)
Soften the yeast in the warm water with just a pinch of sugar to proof. Set aside.
Scald the milk with the cardamom and nutmeg.
Combine the butter, sugar, and salt in a large mixing bowl. Pour the milk over all. When lukewarm, add 1 cup of flour and beat til smooth. Add the yeast.
Add 1/2 of the flour and mix until smooth. Add the egg. Continue to add the rest of the flour unti the dough is soft and no longer sticky.
Turn on to a floured surface and let rest for 5-10 minutes. Knead for 3-5 minutes until smooth and elastic. Spray a large bowl with cooking spray or coat lightly with oil. Place the dough in the bowl oil lightly. Cover with plastic wrap and a towel and let rise until double in size. Repeat.
After the second rise, divide dough in half. Divide each half into thirds and roll into long ropes, about the length of your baking sheet. Criss-cross the ropes in the center and braid each side, starting from the middle. Secure the ends by pinching together and tucking them under.
Place the completed braid on a parchment lined baking sheet, cover with plastic wrap and a towel, and let rise a third time.
Preheat oven to 375*. Before baking, brush each loaf with an egg wash and sprinkle generously with raw sugar, colored sugar, or cinnamon-sugar (your preference--they are all good!). Bake for 20-25 minutes. Remove from pan immediately. Try to let the loves cool a bit before devouring!