It’s difficult to experience the pungent aroma of cinnamon and not have a lifetime of memories come flooding back. Whether it reminds us of cinnamon rolls on Christmas morning, steaming spiced tea on a cold winter evening, or a fresh apple pie just out of the oven, the prominent scent that makes these, and so many other special treats, memorable is cinnamon.
Cinnamon Through History
We don’t know exactly when people first discovered cinnamon, but there are mentions of the spice in the Bible, when Moses used it as an ingredient of anointing oils. It also is believed to have been used by early Egyptians as a part of their embalming process and by ancient Romans on their funeral pyres. We know that early Europeans used cinnamon to add flavor to food and in some religious rites. By the Middle Ages, Europeans began regarding cinnamon as a status symbol flaunted by the wealthy upper class. In the 17th century, cinnamon, along with other spices such as cloves and nutmeg, played a key role in European expansion into Asia and ultimately to the discovery of the New World, as explorers sought a shorter route to the Orient.
The Source of Cinnamon
Cinnamon is harvested from the inner bark of a small evergreen tree that is part of the Lauraceae family. There are two common types of cinnamon. The first, Ceylon cinnamon, is native to South Asia. The more common variety called cassia tree cinnamon, is less expensive and less rare, and actually has a stronger aroma and flavor. The two most popular ways to purchase cinnamon are the stick form (which are actually pieces of bark that are stripped from the tree and allowed to dry) and the ground version, often called for in recipes. However, cinnamon can also be found in oil and liquid flavoring. Cinnamon’s most obvious characteristic is its pungent taste and smell. This is due to the presence of cinnamaldehyde, which makes up about 60 percent of cinnamon’s bark oil. Cinnamaldehyde is the primary compound in cinnamon essential oil, which is produced by distilling the bark of a cinnamon tree.
Health Benefits of Cinnamon
Cinnamon is believed to be rich in antioxidants, which fight the free radicals that can damage cells and potentially lead to conditions such as heart disease, cancer and premature aging. Additionally, proponents claim that cinnamon has antimicrobial, antiseptic, antifungal, antibiotic, stimulant and astringent properties. These properties may make it effective in treating certain infections, and some believe it can even improve cognitive processing. This spicy bark is an excellent source of minerals like potassium, calcium, manganese, iron, zinc, and magnesium. It also contains very good amounts of vitamin A, niacin, pantothenic acid, and pyridoxine, and is a good source of flavonoid phenolic anti-oxidants such as carotenes, zea-xanthin, lutein and cryptoxanthin.
Cinnamon: A Kitchen Staple
People have used cinnamon in cooking for thousands of years. It is used to flavor meat and curry dishes in the East and in the West, it is more often the spice used in sweet dishes and desserts, such as cinnamon breads, cakes and fruit pies. It is probably the most common baking spice and a “must have” for any well-stocked spice rack.
To preserve cinnamon’s freshness and flavor, it should be stored in an airtight container. Glass is best, because it is the least likely to interfere with the flavor of the spice. Cinnamon sticks should stay fresh for about a year when stored this way, but ground cinnamon typically loses its strength more quickly.
Seasonal Cinnamon Recipes
Try these fragrant and delicious recipes that showcase the world’s most beloved spice.
Hot Spiced Cider
Yields 2 quarts
¼ cup packed brown sugar
½ teaspoon whole allspice
1 teaspoon whole cloves
1 stick cinnamon
¼ teaspoon salt
1 pinch ground nutmeg
1 large orange, quartered with peel
2 quarts apple cider
Heat in saucepan over medium heat on the stovetop. Garnish each mug of cider with a cinnamon stick. Source: www.allrecipes.com
Classic Baked Apples
4 large baking apples
¼ cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
¼ cup chopped pecans
¼ cup chopped raisins
1 Tbsp. butter
¾ cup boiling water
Preheat oven to 375°F. Wash apples. Remove cores to 1/2 inch of the bottom of the apples. It helps if you have an apple corer, but if not, you can use a paring knife to cut out first the stem area, and then the core. Use a spoon to dig out the seeds. Make the holes about 3/4-inch to an inch wide.
In a small bowl, combine the sugar, cinnamon, currants/raisins, and pecans. Place apples in a 8-inch-by-8-inch square baking pan. Stuff each apple with this mixture. Top with a dot of butter (1/4 of the Tbsp).
Add boiling water to the baking pan. Bake 30-40 minutes, until tender, but not mushy. Remove from the oven and baste the apples several times with the pan juices.
Serving suggestion: Serve warm with vanilla ice cream on the side.
Yield: Makes 4 servings.
Sweet Potato Pinwheels
4 c. cooked mashed Mississippi sweet potatoes
1 tsp. pumpkin pie spice (includes cinnamon)
2 c. sugar 2c. chopped pecans
1 c. shortening
3 eggs, well beaten
½ tsp salt
2 c. sugar
4 c. self-rising flour
½ tsp. baking soda
In saucepan, combine sweet potatoes, sugar and spices, mix well. Cook over low heat until thick, about 10 minutes. Add nuts, cool.
Cream shortening and sugar until light and fluffy. Add eggs, continue mixing until well blended. Add flour, salt and baking soda, mix well. Divide dough into 3 parts. On lightly floured foil, roll each into 8” X 12” rectangle. Spread with 1/3 of filling mixture. Start at wide end of dough, roll as jelly roll. Wrap in foil. Repeat with remaining dough and filling. Place in freezer several hours or overnight. To bake, preheat oven to 400o. Unwrap rolls, cut with a sharp knife into ¼-inch slices. Arrange on greased cookie sheets. Bake 10 – 12 minutes. Makes 7-8 dozen cookies.
Source: Vardaman Sweet Potato Recipe Collection (1998 edition)
Make Your Own Pumpkin Pie Spice
1/2 teaspoon of cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon of ground ginger
1/8 teaspoon of ground allspice or ground cloves
1/8 teaspoon of ground nutmeg
Measure spices and place in a small bowl. Stir to blend. Makes 1 teaspoon of pumpkin pie spice. Tip: Use this blend in pumpkin pie, sweet potato pie, cakes, cookies and custard.