by Denise Reynolds, Enchantress of Spices at HAALo
Its location for centuries shrouded in mystery, its acquisition a dark cloud in European history, a spice so valuable it was kept in treasure chests, and once burned by a king to atone for his guilt-ridden quest. Cinnamon, a distant relative of bay laurel, is mentioned in a 5000 year old Chinese book of medicine and it was used by the Egyptians at least as far back as 2000 B.C.
By the sixth century B.C. cinnamon had become known as “an aroma of divine worship and of sensual luxury,” writes Andrew Dalby in “Dangerous Tastes”. It was the first culinary spice sought after by Europeans in the ancient world and I find it curiously ironic that it is also the first culinary spice we are given/drawn to as children. Sweet and fiery, clovey and complex; a fragrance that tantalizes, smells of whimsy and fancifulness, of danger (like red-hots) and of comfort (like cinnamon-raisin oatmeal).
Cinnamon seems to be as much shrouded in mystery today as it was in the ancient world because of the multiple varieties available and used by different cultures. We predominantly use Cassia cinnamon that can be from one of several species or cultivars. This type originally came from China and Southeast Asia, is easier to cultivate, and thus, less expensive. It has more fire and is also sweeter tasting than Ceylon cinnamon, originally from Sri Lanka.
Ceylon cinnamon is milder, sweet without being spicy hot, and has more complex flavors that highlight the citrus and floral notes. It has the botanical name of ”Cinnamomum verum” which translates as “true cinnamon” and herein lies the cinnamon debate. This is the type of cinnamon that was originally imported into Europe and is still used there and in Mexico.
With the ancient cinnamon trade being such a bloodthirsty and lucrative spice to control, it is likely that when the cheaper Chinese cinnamon came on the market that this name was given in order to convince people that Chinese cinnamon was a fake. They are different, but closely related, species from the same genus of Cinnamomum. One isn’t any more real or “true” than the other; it’s just a matter of preference.
In addition to taste there are two other main defining characteristics; texture and medicinal qualities. Cassia cinnamon sticks are the hard “quills” we’re familiar with while Ceylon sticks are several layers of papery thin bark rolled into scrolls that look cigar-like (you might have seen these in Mexican spice sections of grocery stores).
Both types of cinnamon are used medicinally. I will leave those qualities up to the herbalists to decipher except to say that there is some concern about the coumarin content of Cassia cinnamon. If you use more than 2 teaspoons of cinnamon per day you may want to look into the dangers of coumarin, which can cause liver damage and interfere with blood coagulation.
To most of us cinnamon is associated with sweet comfort foods: apple pie, cinnamon rolls, oatmeal, mulled-cider, and my personal favorite – campfire roasted apples (roast on a stick till soft, peel while warm and roll in cinnamon and coconut sugar –yum!). When my mom was growing up, her mom didn’t keep cookies in the house and so to make a treat for the kids she would make up bread and butter with cinnamon sugar. It can stir those kinds of pleasant memories for most of us, and it does make food seem sweeter, even without the addition of sugar.
Cinnamon is more often used as a savory spice in Morrocan, Indian, and Mexican cooking, as well as Chinese and other Asian cusines. It’s a key-ingredient in ethnic finishing spices like Chinese five-spice powder and Indian garam masala.
To introduce you to the savory side of cinnamon I’ve included a few recipes to pique your taste buds! Also, try keeping ground cinnamon on your counter and adding a spoonful to something you’re making to taste the effect. Sprinkle it in your coffee! Add it to whipped cream! Or, nibble on slivers of Ceylon cinnamon stick with bits of dark chocolate – cinfully good.
Ok, back to the savory side of things: I’ve included three recipes below for you to try. Indulge yourself in the aroma and taste of sensual cin!
In bulk, HAALo carries both ground Cassia and Ceylon cinnamon, chips of cinnamon (Cinnamomum Verum), Cassia cinnamon twigs (Gui Zhi), Vietnamese cinnamon bark (Rou Gui) and Cassia cinnamon sticks.
Cinnamon-Spiked Tomatoes (Served on chevre or other cheeses and crackers)
serves 8-10 as an appetizer
1 14.5-ounce can diced tomatoes
1 teaspoon olive oil
1/4 of a medium jalapeño, seeded and minced
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon honey or sugar
salt and pepper
Drain the tomatoes and put in a medium bowl.
Heat the olive oil in a small saucepan on medium heat. Add the jalapeño, season with a pinch of salt, and sauté for 1 to 2 minutes, allowing the jalapeño to soften and mellow a bit. Add the cinnamon, cook for 30 seconds, and remove from heat.
Add the jalapeño and cinnamon mixture to the tomatoes, then add the sugar. Stir to combine, and add more salt and pepper to taste. Serve on cheese and crackers.
Variation to add richer flavor: Reserve liquid from tomatoes. Mix a pinch of salt into tomatoes and let sit for 10 minutes. Spin tomatoes in a salad spinner to reduce moisture content. Add this plus the reserve liquid to pan and reduce before adding jalapeno.
Roasted Acorn Squash with Cinnamon Butter
Serves 8 as a side dish
2 acorn squash (about 1 1/2 pounds each), unpeeled, quartered lengthwise, and seeded
1 tablespoon olive oil
Coarse salt and ground pepper
4 tablespoons butter
1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Preheat oven to 450 degrees. On a large rimmed baking sheet, toss squash with oil; season with salt and pepper. Arrange on sheet, cut side down, and roast until easily pierced with a paring knife, 35 to 45 minutes.
In a small saucepan, melt butter over medium heat, stirring, until golden brown, 4 to 6 minutes. Immediately pour into a small bowl; stir in cinnamon. Place squash on a serving platter; top with cinnamon butter.
Chicken Biryani Spiced with Cinnamon
1 cup basmati rice
3 tbsp. olive oil
2 tsp. whole coriander
3 chiles de arbol, crumbled by hand
1 ½ tbsp. kosher salt
2 ½ tsp. ground cinnamon
6 garlic cloves, finely chopped
4 skinless, bone-in chicken thighs
4 skinless, bone-in chicken legs
1 large yellow onion, chopped
1 2″ piece ginger, roughly chopped
1 jalapeno, stemmed, seeded and finely chopped
¼ cup toasted sliced almonds, for garnish
Fried shallots, for garnish
Cilantro leaves, for garnish
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Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Put the rice in a small bowl and cover with water; let it soak for 20 minutes. Drain the rice and set it aside.
Heat the oil in a 4-qt. Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add the coriander and chiles, and cook, stirring occasionally, until fragrant, 1-2 minutes. Add the salt, cinnamon, garlic, chicken, onion, ginger, and jalapeno, and cook, stirring frequently, until the onions soften, about 6 minutes.
Stir in the reserved rice and 1 ¼ cups water, and bring to a simmer. Cover pot and transfer to the oven; cook until rice is tender and chicken is cooked through, about 35 minutes. Transfer the pot to a rack and let it sit, covered, for 5 minutes. Uncover and fluff the rice with a fork. Transfer to a serving platter and garnish with almonds, fried shallots, and cilantro.
Denise Reynolds, The Enchantress of Spices, is a culinary sensualist and founder of The Sensual Feast. She consults and teaches cooking workshops offering the opportunity to delight in the preparation, flavor, and deep nourishment of food as a gateway to pleasure and sensuality. Learn to experience the kitchen as sacred space and how, as we play in the kitchen, we have the opportunity to inspire our lives again and again with every meal. Check out her Facebook page The Sensual Feast for event details and the following video for a little taste of her classes.