As a child, perhaps your first taste of cinnamon was Red-Hots candy. Maybe you remember first experiencing the fragrant spice at the local cider mill while eating a cinnamon and sugar-crusted doughnut? Late bloomers might have had to wait for a first wedge of pumpkin pie to participate in the delight of cinnamon.
Cinnamon is a sweet, cozy spice that brings with it the warmth of its native Sri Lanka (Ceylon). Many Mediterranean and tropical cuisines consider cinnamon an integral part of their seasoning palette. This rich spice teams well with tomatoes, almonds, poultry, lamb and vegetables.
Greek cooks love to gild their tomato sauce with the combination of browned butter, cinnamon and tomato, which in turn grace chicken and pasta. Mexican molé with turkey or chicken features a complex sauce with almonds, chiles, tomatoes, chocolate and cinnamon. Moroccan b’stilla, a cinnamon and almond-flavored chicken pie, and traditional Moroccan couscous with lamb and vegetables celebrate cinnamon. In India you’ll find cinnamon in rice pilaf, curries and spice mixtures like Mughal garam masala.
Not all cinnamon is created equal. Although they are in the same family (bay laurel) there are two distinct types: Ceylon or “true” cinnamon and “cassia” cinnamon. True cinnamon originated in Sri Lanka and Southern India. Workers harvest and scrape away the outer bark of the cinnamon trees so that only the fine inner skin of fragrant tree is left. The best cinnamon still grows there as well as in the West Indies, Brazil, Madagascar and Egypt. True cinnamon is less sweet, with a more complex, citrus flavor. Prized by cooks in England and Mexico, high quality Ceylon cinnamon has a thin, smooth, light yellow-brown bark, highly fragrant with a sweet, warm flavor.
The cinnamon you regularly purchase is most likely cassia cinnamon, native to Burma, southern China and northern Vietnam. Cassia has the strong, spicy-sweet flavor most of us have come to know as cinnamon, but it isn’t the cinnamon our grandparents knew. Cassia bark is tougher and thicker (and cheaper) than the almost flaky Ceylon cinnamon. Vietnamese and Chinese are the sweetest, strongest and most prized varieties of cassia cinnamon. Korintje cassia, which comes from Sumatra, is smoother with less bite. Cassia excels in savory dishes, true cinnamon in sweet treats. If you are used to cassia, you’ll find that true cinnamon’s mild flavor requires you to use more.
Penzey’s spice company says, “It takes twenty to thirty years of growth before cinnamon can be harvested. Then the trees continue to grow and produce cinnamon for many years. At harvest time native farmhands gather to travel, often to remote areas, where the trees grow. For cinnamon sticks, the upper branches are carefully cut and the inner bark removed, which curls naturally into quills. Cinnamon sticks are attractive and uniform, but relatively low in flavor. For ground cinnamon, large chunks are removed from the lower, older bark, which is stronger and more flavorful.”
Greeks and Italians call cinnamon “canela”, which means “little tube”. You’ll find true cinnamon quills or sticks curled into a roll while cassia quills curl inward scroll-like from both sides. When ground, true cinnamon is tan with a warm, sweet flavor; ground cassia is reddish brown with a stronger aromatic, and sometimes, bitter taste.
True cinnamon is high in antioxidants and reduces inflammation, balances blood sugar levels, improves heart health and even menstrual cramps. In high doses cassia cinnamon, which contains coumarin, is a blood thinner so beware if you are taking blood thinners or are pregnant.
4 C. cold water
4 flaky true cinnamon sticks
Optional: 1 black tea bag
Honey or sugar
In a small saucepan, bring water and cinnamon sticks to a boil. Cover, reduce heat to low. Simmer 15 minutes. Remove saucepan from heat. Steep optional black tea bag 1 to 2 minutes.
Divide tea among four mugs, cups, or glasses. Place one cinnamon stick in each glass. Sweeten, if desired, with honey or sugar to taste.
Greek Brown Butter, Cinnamon and Tomato Sauce
This came from my year on Crete. It’s a flavor combo I’ve never forgotten
Yields enough sauce for a pound of pasta.
7 to 8 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 t. ground cinnamon
2 lbs. tomatoes, peeled and chopped (28-ounce can whole peeled tomatoes)
1 medium onion, halved through root and peeled
1 lb. pasta
Heat butter in large saucepan over medium heat. Cook until butter turns nut brown. Immediately stir in cinnamon and then tomatoes. Season with a little salt. Add onion halves and simmer sauce uncovered 30 to 45 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Meanwhile bring a large pot of cold water and 1 tablespoon salt to a boil. When sauce is done cooking toss pasta into boiling water and cook until al dente. Drain. Season sauce with salt and pepper to taste. Discard onion (or eat it as a secret treat). Toss pasta into hot sauce and serve pronto.
Adapted from Nick Malgieri
Makes 7 or 8 dozen biscotti
8 oz. (by weight) all-purpose flour or unbleached flour
6 oz. (by weight) sugar
4 oz. (by weight) whole almonds, finely ground
1 t. baking powder
1/2 t. baking soda
1 t. cinnamon
6 oz. (by weight) whole almonds or pistachios
3 fluid oz. maple syrup
2 oz. water
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Combine dry ingredients in a bowl and stir to mix ingredients well. Add maple syrup and water to form a stiff dough. Divide dough in half and roll each ball into a 15-inch-long log. Place both logs on a greased piece of parchment lining a cookie sheet.
Bake logs in the middle third of the oven. Place another sheet pan under the first to protect the bottoms of your cookie logs from burning. Bake 30 to 45 minutes: to check doneness, press the top of the logs; they should not cave in, but should be firm and give some resistance. Make sure to bake fully or they will have a heavy, wet core.
Remove logs from oven and cool slightly. Place on a cutting board and slice diagonally into 1/4-inch thick cookies with a serrated knife. Return cookies to the pan, cut side down in one layer, and bake until dry, 15 to 20 minutes. Cool on the pan. Store in an airtight tin.
Baked Apples with Coconut Cream
These apples are non-dairy, but may be made with butter and cream if desired.
6 large apples, such as Fuji or Ida Red
1/2 C. raisins or currants
1/2 C. coarsely chopped walnuts
2 T. maple syrup
2 t. ground cinnamon
1 t. vanilla extract
1/2 t. grated fresh ginger root
Pinch of salt
2 t. melted coconut oil, more for greasing
1/2 C. water
3/4 C. coconut milk or cream, preferably Aroy-D in box
Preheat oven to 375°F. Remove core from each apple with an apple corer. Slice a 1/2-inch piece off core and plug the bottom of each apple.
In a small bowl, toss raisins, walnuts, maple syrup, cinnamon, vanilla, ginger and salt together. Place cored apples in a coconut oil greased baking dish. Stuff each apple with stuffing mixture. Drizzle stuffing of each apple with a teaspoon of water then with 1/4 teaspoon melted coconut oil. Place apples in the oven.
Drizzle a teaspoon of water on each apple every 15 minutes as they bake to keep apple moist. Bake apples until they’re soft and the skin is golden brown, about 45 minutes.
Remove baked apples from oven and cool 10 minutes. Place each warm apple in a serving dish and top with 2 tablespoons coconut milk or cream. Serve.