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Cinnamon: a Spice Worthy of Its Wars

May 23, 1996|KATHY CASEY | Casey is a freelance writer and chef in Seattle

Cinnamon has a spicy history. Wars have been fought over the right to trade it. The earliest reference to it appears in China about 2700 BC. Cinnamon was acquired by the ancient Greeks and Romans from Arabian traders, and at one time in ancient Rome the spice was more costly than gold.

There are actually two spices known as cinnamon. Both come from the dried bark of evergreen trees of the Lauraceae (laurel) family. True or Ceylon cinnamon comes from Cinnamomum zeylanicum, a tree native to Sri Lanka and the southwestern coast of India along the Arabian Sea. In the wild, this tree reaches 30 to 50 feet; when cultivated, it is kept to only about 8 feet so that its shoots are narrow and easily accessible, the bark thinner and more tender.

The less expensive Chinese cinnamon, otherwise known as cassia, comes from the related tree C. aromaticum and is produced more widely. From China it is exported as Kwangsi, Yunnan and Honan cinnamon; from Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam as Saigon cinnamon; and from Indonesia as Korintje, Padang and Vera cinnamon. Most of the cinnamon imported by the United States is cassia.

The various kinds are ground and blended to fit the specifications of the baking and food processing industries, but in the retail market, the product is generally sold as ground cinnamon with no further distinction. To find true Ceylon cinnamon, try specialty shops and Mexican and Latin American grocery stores.

An astonishing array of items make use of cinnamon's aromatics: It is seductive in perfumes; gives freshness to breath mints, gum and toothpaste; and adds to the pretty smell of pomander and sachets. There are little cinnamon spice trees that scent our cars and, of course, cinnamon-flavored toothpicks.

Cinnamon is used in numerous traditional American recipes and can fill people with warm memories of baking apple pies, warm toast spread with butter and sprinkled liberally with cinnamon and sugar, holiday eggnog and cinnamon candy apples sold at country fairs. It's amazing how many other foods we love are cinnamon-scented: baked apples, oatmeal with cinnamon, mincemeat pie, apple butter and applesauce spiked pink with cinnamon red-hot candies.

Snickerdoodles, the sugar cookie that is rolled in cinnamon and sugar before baking, has become an American classic, as has the beloved cinnamon roll. In fact, cinnamon rolls are the ultimate cinnamon treat when served warm from the oven, gooey with dripping frosting.

Jerilyn Brusseau has been baking cinnamon rolls with her mother and grandmother since she was 9. She grew up in a Snohomish, Wash., farmhouse that was the center of hospitality. Every Sunday, the family enjoyed fried chicken, baked beans and cinnamon rolls. Brusseau is the creator of the franchised Cinnabon cinnamon roll, and it has become one of the culinary highlights of her career.

Brusseau loves cinnamon for what she calls its sweetness, fragrance and homeyness. "It reminds me most of my grandmother and mother and all the wonderful foods they taught me to make," she says.

Bharti Kirchner, cookbook author, lecturer and teacher of international cuisine, also inherited a love for cinnamon from her native India, where she learned to incorporate it in myriad dishes. Her favorite use is in rice dishes; she sautes whole cinnamon sticks in a little oil, as demonstrated in her recipe for simple yet elegantly flavored lemon-laced rice.

The popular and now quite trendy Indian drink chai is made by brewing milk and loose black tea with ground cinnamon, cloves and cardamom until the beverage becomes tea-colored, then straining it. Garam masala, a mixture of cinnamon, cloves, black pepper and cardamom, is used in finishing Indian vegetables and meat dishes. As Kirchner says, "It is the warming touch."

Cinnamon, prized around the world, flavors the gamut of foods from Greek eggplant moussaka and spicy Indian curries to Mexican hot chocolate and Middle Eastern pastries. And although in most cuisines cinnamon is one of the most important spices in baking, in the United States it is associated almost exclusively with sweets.

JERILYN'S GRANDMOTHER'S CINNAMON ROLLS

DOUGH

1 cup warm water

3 (1/4-ounce) packages active dry yeast or 3 cakes fresh yeast (5/8 ounce each)

1/2 cup granulated sugar

1/3 cup butter, softened

1 cup milk, scalded and cooled

3 large eggs

1 1/4 teaspoons salt

3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, unsifted

1/2 cup raisins, optional

3 1/2 cups whole wheat pastry flour, unsifted

Combine water, yeast and sugar in large mixing bowl and let stand 5 minutes. Add butter to cooling milk to soften. When cool, add milk mixture to yeast mixture and stir well. Add eggs and salt and stir well with wire whisk.

Begin adding all-purpose flour, mixing well with wooden spoon until mixture resembles thick cake batter. Add raisins. Add 2 1/2 cups whole wheat pastry flour. Mix well again until dough is quite sticky and begins to leave sides of bowl.

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