Cinnamon is derived from the bark of an evergreen tree, Cinnamomum verum, which is grown almost exclusively in the island nation of Sri Lanka. During the rainy season on the island, workers who harvest the cinnamon look for young branches that are just the right size to become the long sticks of cinnamon that are sold at market. The branches, still damp from the rains, are rubbed with rods and then cut with specially made knives that are designed to the purpose. The outer bark is removed and the inner bark is carefully dried in huts to become thin brittle sheets. The intact parts of the bark that do not break up in drying are rolled into the large cigar shaped rolls of several sheets per stick. The parts that do break up, no less valuable for not being intact, are bagged and sold as quillings or featherings which are destined for the spice mill and to fill out lesser grade cinnamons. The cinnamon that most of us Americans are familiar with, however, is not cinnamon at all. Meaning that it isn't from the C. verum plant but is actually from the more widely produced C. burmannii or C. cassia trees. As a matter of fact, the cinnamon that we call cinnamon is called cassia by almost everyone else. Cassia is harvested almost exactly like true cinnamon but because it is grown in Indonesia, China and Viet Nam, there is significantly more to be had and so it has been adopted by American spice producers as being the cinnamon for decades.
As confusing as the cassia-cinnamon crossover may be, the history of the spice is even more confusing and compelling than most people realize. Cinnamon in all of its various forms was one of the great commodities of the Ancient world, attributed with magical and mysterious powers. In Exodus, God commands Moses to use "sweet-smelling cinnamon half as much, that is, two hundred fifty [shekels]... and five hundred of cassia - measured by the sanctuary shekel" in the anointing oil for the Holiest of Holies. This works out to be about six and a quarter pounds of cinnamon and twelve and a half pounds of cassia, which sounds pretty tame to us today but remember that cinnamon was incredibly valuable at that time. In modern dollars, Moses probably spent around seven thousand dollars on cinnamon alone! Not an insignificant thing in biblical times or today. Ancient Egyptians used cassia in their funerary lotions and embalming fluids while the Greeks and later the Romans used cinnamon and cassia as incense and sacrifices to their deities. Pliny tells us of cinnamon being used in funeral pyres to send the dead off to a sweet smelling heaven. Cinnamon was also attributed certain aphrodisiac properties, firing the blood and the passions when taken as prescribed by the Middle Ages physician Constantine. Whatever its supposed medicinal qualities, cinnamon eventually became a culinary commodity as well. Added to food on the Indian subcontinent for millennia, cinnamon was introduced first to the Arabian peninsula and then to Europe by way of the Roman empire and, after Rome's fall, by the great spice merchants of Venice. During the dawn of the 16th century, Portugal first established dominance over the Indian Ocean and the Spice Islands, bringing boatload after boatload of pepper, nutmeg, mace and cinnamon back to Europe. Soon, everyone knew what cinnamon was and what regional specialties it went best with. Over the years after the Age of Discovery and the Spice Race, the nations of the world have gotten used to spices in their everyday life and use them accordingly. However, the people who made and still make the best use of this pungent, slightly hot and completely unique spice are the cultures who first had it - The Indian and Arabic people.
Cinnamon and cassia have similar tastes but it is in the way that these two spices present themselves to the palate that differentiates the two. Cinnamon has a much more complex taste than cassia, with subtle undertones of orange and cedar followed by a heat that is reminiscent of cloves or a mild pepper. Chewing on a piece of cinnamon bark easily brings the flavor profile to the palate and lets the discriminating buyer know how good of a piece of cinnamon bark he or she actually has. The oils of true cinnamon bark are very volatile and evaporate and oxidize incredibly fast when released. This coupled with the fragility of the bark itself means that most true cinnamon is sold in stick format so that home grinding can be performed for the best taste possible. Cassia, on the other hand, discards subtlety in favor of heat and pungency. If cinnamon is the taste equivalent to a jazz quartet playing in a coffee shop, then cassia is the punk band playing in the bar down the street. Loud and bright, cassia is the cinnamon that we Americans are most familiar with. The intense fragrance, sharp bite and kick of heat is everything that we grew up with in pastries, candies and cookies. To this day, I will gladly take cassia over true cinnamon when making baked goods that feature cinnamon as a main flavor. I want punch and pizazz in those delectable goodies. It is when I am working on a complex curry or subtle pastry that goes with other courses that I will reach for the true cinnamon. As with everything, the key is knowing what tool to use for what job.
As I mentioned earlier, Middle Eastern and Indian cultures have been using cinnamon far longer than we Europeans and so have developed savory uses for it instead of solely as a dessert spice, like we have. One of the ways that they use this spice is in spice mixes that are created and stored to be used as a cooking condiment. By grinding their own spices at their homes, these cooks bring the flavors of not only cinnamon but many different spices to their food with a punch that store-bought, preground spices can't match. The reason is that the volitile oils that give spices their flavors are highly susceptible to light and heat and will break down far too rapidly. By grinding just before usage, home cooks get a much more intense, much more pungent flavor.
Before I start with the spice mix recipes, allow me a word about the spice grinders. The whole point of grinding a spice mix is to marry the flavors and also to get a uniform texture. If you have plenty of time on your hands and want those self-same appendages to be able to crack walnuts with a flick of the wrist, then you may use what countless Indian and Middle Eastern grandmothers use - a morter and pestle. It is certainly possible to reduce whole spices to powder with this ancient device but, to be perfectly honest, it is time consuming and a hell of a lot more effort than I am willing to put into grinding spices. Which is why I bring my game into the twenty-first century with a cheap, ten dollar coffee grinder. You'll want to get one solely for the use of your spices because unless you want your coffee flavored with cumin or coriander (and some people do!), it is worth shucking out the ten to fifteen dollars for a cheapo brand grinder. Your spices will get reduced to a fine powder, your dishes will taste yummier and you can instantly turn cheaper and more storable whole spices into powder as needed instead of relying on storebought sawdust in a glass container. Now, doesn't that sound better?
With all caveats aside, allow me to present two spice mixtures that feature the use of cinnamon in them. I highly recommend the use of true cinnamon in both of these mixtures instead of the more readily available cassia. The taste will be more complex, the scent more citrus than pepper. It is worth it to find the good stuff for savory dishes that need complexity over heat. Try your local Indian or Middle Eastern market (the little mom-and-pop shops, not the big mega-cultural stores) for bags of cinnamon sticks. The first recipe is an Indian spice mix which should be familiar to anyone who has eaten in Indian restaurants anywhere in the United States - garam masala. The translation comes out to something like "hot mixture", but really it is not particularly not or at least it doesn't have to be. Just like most southeastern US families have their own "secret recipe" for barbeque sauce, most Indian families have their own formulas for garam masala. This one comes from Madhur Jaffrey's book, Flavors of India.
Punjabi garam masala
from Flavors of India by Madhur Jaffrey
5 tablespoons, coriander seeds
3 tablespoons, cumin seeds
2-1/2 tablespoons, black peppercorns
2-1/2 tablespoons, black cardamom seeds
1-1/2 teaspoons, green cardamom seeds
1 2-inch cinnamon stick
4 to 5 whole cloves
About 1/6 nutmeg (approx. 1 teaspoon)
Put the coriander and cumin into a cast-iron frying pan over medium heat. Stir until very lightly roasted. Empty onto a plate. Allow to cool slightly then place them and remaining ingredients into a clean coffee grinder and grind as finely as possible. You may need to do this in batches, depending on the size of your grinder. Store in a tightly lidded jar.
Where the Indian spice mix adds coriander and cumin with the cinnamon, this Middle Eastern spice mix uses allspice and cloves as the primary balance for cinnamon. This "Middle Eastern Five Spice" mix comes courtesy of Chef Ana Sortun's Spice - Flavors of the Eastern Mediterranean. I have adjusted the recipe slightly to allow for the use of whole cinnamon instead of the preground Chef Sortun recommends.
Middle Eastern Five Spice
From Spice - Flavors of the Eastern Mediterranean by Ana Sortun
2 tablespoons, whole allspice
1 teaspoon, whole cloves
1 tablespoon, whole black peppercorns
1/2 teaspoon, freshly grated or ground nutmeg
1 2-inch stick cinnamon
Put allspice, cloves and cinnamon into a heavy pan over medium heat and dry roast until spice scents are just detectable, about 3 - 4 minutes. Remove from heat, place onto plate and allow to cool slightly.
Grind allspice, cloves, peppercorns and cinnamon in grinder until fine. Transfer to small mixing bowl.
Stir in nutmeg and store in an airtight container in a cool dark place. Will keep for up to 4 months.
You may have noticed that both recipes call for an airtight container. The reason, as I mentioned previously, is that the volatile oils that give spices their punch are really susceptible to oxidation via light or exposure to air. This means that they'll go from spice to sawdust a lot quicker if you just leave them in a glass bottle on your counter than if you put them in a ziplock in your cabinet. Just a friendly word of advice, that. I suppose you are probably asking yourself what you can do with these now. The answer is anything you want. Use them as you would any kind of seasoning in a dish. Since there is no salt in these mixes, you'll need to add that as well or else the dish may taste a little flat despite generous portions of spice thrown in. I recommend adding these spice mixes to a dish near the end of cooking. That way the essential oils don't cook out and you get a more flavorful dish. Also, remember that with freshly ground spices, a little goes a long way and it is always easier to add more than it is to remove too much.
Let's move on to an actual dish that has cinnamon as a key flavor component in it. North Africa has a rich tradition of using spices in their cuisine and since the ubiquitous dish for the region is a tangine, I have borrowed this recipe for a tangine of beef with prunes from Sarah Woodward's Tastes of North Africa. Don't go making faces when I say "prunes", either! Prunes are simply pitted and dehydrated plums and with the long, slow moist cooking of a tangine (read, braising), those prunes plump up and release a lot of taste into the mix. I've personally had this recipe and thought it was awesome so now I give it to you.
Tagine de Viande aux Prunes - Tagine of Beef with Prunes
From Tastes of North Africa by Sarah Woodward
1 lb, stew beef
1 large onion, peeled and grated
1/2 teaspoon, salt
1/2 teaspoon, fresh ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon, saffron strands
1/2 teaspoon, ground ginger
1 2-inch stick, cinnamon
1 bunch, fresh coriander (cilantro)
2 oz, butter
7 oz, prunes
1 tablespoon, honey
1 tablespoon, sesame seeds
Cut beef into large peices if not already cut. Place in tangine or casserole. Add grated onion, salt, spices, coriander and butter. Pour over enough water to cover, place over a gentle heat and leave to cook for about one and a half hours, checking to make sure that there is enough water to prevent sticking but remembering that the eventual sauce is going to have to be reduced.
Remove coriander, add the prunes and cook uncovered for a further 15 minutes. Stir in the honey and cook for another fifteen minutes, until the prunes have plumped and the meat has become very tender.
Toast the sesame seeds in a dry frying pan until golden brown. Scatter over tagine before serving.
From North Africa, let us roll back acround the Mediterrenean to Turkey. From Chef Sortun, we have this recipe for Halibut cooked in milk with cinnamon, fried almonds and spinach. She says that she picked this up from a friend in Istanbul and edited his Greek method of cooking the fish in milk with lemon and capers to make it a little more Arabic. I think you will enjoy this recipe as much as the customers at her restaurant do.
Halibut Cooked in Milk with Cinnamon, Fried Almonds and Spinach
From Spice - Flavors of the Eastern Mediterranean by Ana Sortun
2 tablespoons, extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 cup, slivered almonds
Four 8-ounce halibut fillets or steaks
3 teaspoons plus 1/4 cup kosher salt
1-1/2 lbs, fresh spinach, cleaned and destemmed
2 cups, milk
1 cup, orange juice
1 teaspoon, ground cinnamon (I recommend grinding your own - HG)
3 teaspoons, finely minced garlic
In a 6 to 7 inch skillet, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add almonds and toast them, stirring them with a fork for about four minutes or until golden brown. Lower the heat and set aside.
Sprinkle fish with 3 teaspoons of salt and allow to sit for ten minutes.
Bring a 4 quart pot or water to a boil. Add 1/4 cup salt and spinach and cook until the spinach is completely wilted, about one minute. Drain and place spinach in a small bowl of ice water to cool quickly. Squeeze the spinach as dry as you can and set aside.
In a medium saute pan with a lid, mix the milk, orange juice, cinnamon and garlic. Bring the mixture to a boil over high heat, then reduce heat to low and allow to simmer until milk separates.
Pour milk mixture into a blender and blend until milk reincorporates. Return milk mixture to pan and add fish and spinach. Simmer gently over low heat for five to six minutes. The fish is done when it is white through-out with no sheen at the center. Cook for a little longer if the fish is thicker than usual.
Check seasonings, sprinkle with toasted almonds and serve with lemon wedges.
Oranges a la Cannelle - Orange Salad with Cinnamon
From Tastes of North Africa by Sarah Woodward
6 large oranges
4 teaspoons, orange flower water
4 teaspoons, icing sugar
1 teaspoon, ground cinnamon
2 sprigs, fresh mint
Peel the oranges, making sure that the white pith is removed. Cut into fine rounds, remove any seeds and arrange on a circular plate.
Pour orange flower water over the top and dredge with a mixture of the sugar and half the cinnamon. Chill well, sprinkle on remaining cinnamon and garnish with mint.
From Best-Ever Curry Cookbook: Over 150 Great Curries from India and Asia by Mridula Baljekar et al.
2-1/2 cups, heated chicken broth
generous pinch, saffron threads
1/4 cup, butter
1 onion, chopped
1 garlic clove, crushed
1 2-inch piece cinnamon stick
6 green cardamom pods
1 bay leaf
1-1/3 cups, basmati rice soaked for 20-30 minutes
1/3 cup sultanas or golden raisins
1 tablespoon, vegetable oil
1/2 cup cashew nuts
Pour chicken stock into a pitcher and stir in saffron threads. Set aside.
Heat butter in a pan and fry the onion and garlic for five minutes. Stir in the cinnamon stick, cardamom pods and bay leaf. Cook for 2 minutes.
Drain rice and add to the pan. Cook and stir for 2 minutes more. Pour in saffron stock and add the sultanas. Bring to a boil, stir, then lower heat. Cover and cook gently for ten minutes or until the rice is tender and the liquid has all been absorbed.
While rice is cooking, heat oil in a wok or large pan and fry the cashew nuts until browned. Drain on paper towels then sprinkle nuts over the rice. Serve while warm.
In the last several recipes, I have recommended using true cinnamon. That is to say the bark of the Cinnamomum verum tree, otherwise known as true cinnamon. The next two recipes owe less to cinnamon's complex flavor and more to the pungent heat of cassia. So put away that hard to find real cinnamon you have and reach for the bottle of preground cassia powder that every grocery store sells because these two are looking for a burst of heat and flavor, not complexity.
From The All-American Chili Cookbook by Jenny Kellner and Richard Rosenblatt
1 pound, ground chuck
1-3/4 cup chopped onions
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup barbecue sauce
1 cup water
1/2 ounce bitter chocolate, grated
1 tablespoon, commercial chili powder
1 teaspoon, black pepper
1/2 teaspoon, ground cumin
1.2 teaspoon, tumeric
1/2 teaspoon, ground allspice
1/2 teaspoon, ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon, ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon, ground coriander
1/4 teaspoon, ground cardamom
1 teaspoon salt
tomato juice (optional)
8 ounces thin spaghetti, cooked drained and buttered
1 can (15-1/2 ounces) red kidney beans, rinsed and drained
1 large onion, chopped
8 ounces Cheddar cheese, grated
Sprinkle kosher salt on a large skillet and heat for a few moments. Add chuck, 3/4 cup onion and garlic and saute until meat is no longer pink. Drain well and transfer to a chili pot.
Stir in barbecue sauce, water, chocolate, spices and 1 teaspoon salt and bring to a boil. Lower heat and simmer 30 minutes, adding tomato juice if mixture gets too thick. Adjust seasonings with garlic salt.
From Complete Baking by Martha Day
9 oz, all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon, salt
2 teaspoons, cinnamon
8 oz, unsalted butter at room temperature
8 oz, caster (superfine) sugar
1 teaspoon, vanilla extract
Sift together flour, salt and cinnamon. Set aside.
Using an electric mixer (hand or stand is fine), cream the butter until soft. Add sugar and continue beating until mixture is light and fluffy.
Beat the eggs and vanilla in a separate bowl, then gradually stir into the butter mixture.
Stir in the dry ingredients.
Divide the mixture into four equal parts and roll each into a 2-inch diameter log. Wrap tightly in foil and refrigerate or freeze until firm.
Preheat an oven to 375 degrees Farenheit and grease two baking sheets.
With a sharp knife, cut the logs into 1/4 inch slices. Place the rounds on the prepared sheets and bake until lightly colored, about ten minutes. Transfer to wire rack to cool.
Baljekar, Mridula et al. Best-Ever Curry Cookbook. London: Anness Publishing, 2002.
Day, Martha. Complete Baking. London: Anness Publishing, 2002.
Jaffrey, Madhur. Flavors of India. Seattle: West 175 Publishing, 1995.
Ortiz, Elisabeth Lambert. The Encyclopedia of Herbs, Spices & Flavorings. New York: DK Adult Publishing, 1992.
Peter, K.V. Handbook of Herbs and Spices. New York: CRC Publishing, 2004.
Sortun, Ana and Nicole Chaison. Spice - Flavors of the Eastern Mediterranean. New York: HarperCollins, 2006.
Stuckey, Maggie. The Complete Spice Book. New York: St. Martins, 1997.
Turner, Jack. Spice: The History of a Temptation. London: Vintage Publishing, 2005.
Woodward, Sarah. Tastes of North Africa: Recipes from Morocco to the Mediterrenean. London: Kyle Cathie Limited, 1998.