In this season of short days, sparse warmth, and brittle nerves, stop a moment and ponder the pleasures of cinnamon. Even if your thoughts drift no farther than the kitchen, cinnamon’s warmth and sweet fragrance will buoy your spirits, revive memories of feasts with friends and family, and perhaps even encourage visions of others yet to come.
5 Cinnamon Desserts to Try
• Cinnamon-Pecan Brittle
• Jalapeño Spoon Bread
• Rum Raisin Ice Cream
Cinnamon: A Versatile Spice
Few other spices marry so well with both sweet and savory dishes or bridge the gap between sweet and sour or fiery and bland. Cinnamon is fundamental to peppery spice blends throughout the world, including Chinese five-spice powder, Indian garam masala, Ethiopian berbere, Moroccan ras al hanout, Middle Eastern baharat, Georgian kneli suneli, and in the New World, Mexican moles and southwestern chili powders. All these blends complement the taste of savory grain, vegetable, meat, and poultry dishes. And that’s just a start, for cinnamon really comes into its own when it flavors the sweeter spectrum of foods: holiday breads, cakes, fruit tarts, cookies, ice cream, and chocolate.
Cinnamon’s attraction seems to be universal. Everywhere, people cook with it, perfume with it, flavor liqueurs and soft drinks with it, mask foul medicinal tastes with it. Even some toothpastes and chewing gums contain cinnamon’s warm bite.
The Cinnamon Group
The sweet spice we know as cinnamon is the inner bark of several species of the genus Cinnamomum, a member of the laurel family (Lauraceae). The bark, and in some species, the flower buds as well, contain a high concentration of cinnamaldehyde, the compound that defines the taste of cinnamon. The presence of the same compound in cinnamon basil and other unrelated plants gives them their similar spicy taste.
Cinnamon trees are native to Southeast Asia, China, Burma, and India, and most still grow there wild. Four species are cultivated as well and are important in the spice trade:
• C. verum (syn. C. zeylanicum), called true cinnamon or Ceylon cinnamon, contains less cinnamaldehyde, some eugenol (the primary constituent of clove oil), and a wider array of minor constituents than other species of cinnamon. As a result, its flavor, preferred by Mexican and European cooks, is more delicate, complex, sweet, and soft. Many cooks consider it superior for sweet dishes.
• C. cassia (syn. C. aromaticum, called Chinese cinnamon), C. burmanii (Indonesian or Batavian cinnamon), and C. loureirii (Saigon cinnamon) are often lumped together under the name cassia or false cinnamon. (Don’t confuse these cassias with plants of the genus Cassia in the pea family, some of which are used as purgatives.) The cassia cinnamons, favored by Chinese cooks, taste hotter and faintly bitter and are more assertive in long-cooked pungent fare. Virtually all the cinnamon that Americans eat is C. burmanii.
Cinnamon Through History
The Book of Exodus names both cassia and cinnamon as ingredients of an ointment, although scholars disagree as to which species were meant. C. cassia is mentioned in a Chinese herbal dating from about 2700 b.c., and trade had been established with the Middle East by the time Exodus was written. The Egyptians clearly used some type of cinnamon from a very early date: temple inscriptions indicate that Queen Hatshepsut sent an expedition to Punt (modern Somalia) in search of cinnamon about 1500 b.c. Some linguists suggest that the biblical cinnamon came from wild Indonesian plants, tracing our modern word back through the Latin cinnamomum, Greek kinnamon, and Hebrew/Phoenician guinnamon to the Malay kayu manis (“sweet wood”).
Cinnamon was first used primarily in medicine, perfumes, ointments, and embalming preparations. It may have been too precious, at least in the Middle East and Europe, to toss in the stewpot. Even the Roman epicure Apicius, who denied himself few pleasures of the table, mentions cinnamon only in a recipe for cinnamon-leaf-flavored wine. By the Middle Ages, however, cinnamon, cassia, or both were being called for in as many as two-thirds of Middle Eastern and European recipes, to judge from cookery manuscripts that survive.
Cinnamon’s value has made it a frequent political football. The search for cheaper sources of cinnamon was a driving force that led to the discovery of the New World. Having located them, the strongest European powers first established a presence and then ruled ruthlessly to maintain a monopoly over the supply. The cinnamons have even figured in our own recent political struggles. During the 1950s and ’60s we embargoed Chinese cassia while we warred verbally with the country’s Communist leaders. Following the Vietnam war, we embargoed that nation’s cassia. Now, happily for world peace and our tables, relations with both countries have improved and we can buy both products.
Cinnamon in the Kitchen
In the United States, most grocery stores’ cinnamon is Indonesian. Latin-American markets stock flaky sticks of Ceylon cinnamon. Some Oriental markets carry Chinese and Saigon cinnamons. Several mail-order suppliers sell all four types.
Does it matter which kind you use? The sweet, delicate Ceylon cinnamon is superlative in fruit desserts and subtle creams, and the robust cassias hold their own better in a savory stew, but I find them both delicious and interchangeable in most dishes. Ground Indonesian cassias do not disperse well in liquid, however. Because cassias such as Saigon, which contain a lot of oil, are strongly flavored, start with half the quantity called for in a recipe and add more to taste.
Store whole and ground cinnamon and cassia as well as cinnamon oil and extract in a cool location in airtight containers. Choose glass containers as the oil, even in ground cinnamon, bleeds through plastic. Ground cinnamon will remain pungent for three months, the sticks for at least six. They’ll remain fresh twice as long if you store them in the freezer.
For the freshest cinnamon, grind it yourself in a clean electric coffee mill. The soft and brittle Ceylon cinnamon sticks, crumbled first with your fingers, are easily pulverized. Pound cassia bark with a rolling pin or clean hammer before processing. Sift to remove any remaining chunks.
The coming weeks, with Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve bracketing Hanukkah and Christmas, are cinnamon’s high season. This is the time for cinnamon-spiked hot drinks (steep a stick in heated cider, wine, or buttered rum), creamy rice puddings, brandy-soused fruitcakes, buttery sweet breads, and innumerable cookies. But don’t shove your cinnamon to the back of the cabinet after the holidays; it will taste just as welcome in your first fresh plum tart in June as it does now in plum pudding.
Cornelia Carlson is an herb gardener and food writer in Valley Center, California. Her latest book is The Practically Meatless Gourmet (Berkeley Books, 1996).