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Cinnamon the perfect spice for fall treats

We are in the midst of autumn and regardless of the waning warmth of the sun, it has been a spectacular season so far. Alas, as I sit down to write this, I contemplate the necessary evil of having to change the clocks back before I go to bed tonight. By the time you are reading this we will have endured our first week of afternoon darkness, anxiously awaiting the winter solstice to give us respite.

In these days of extended evenings, with the increasing chill in the air, we naturally seek out warmth and comfort. Cinnamon embodies warmth and comfort with both its aroma and taste. The spice, used to flavour countless sweet and savoury dishes, also adorns liqueured hot drinks, hot chocolate, lattes and cappuccinos.

Unbeknownst to most North Americans, what we use as cinnamon in our kitchens is actually cassia, a related but different member of the laurel family. In terms of taste, cassia has a strong, assertively spicy, less sweet, even bitter taste, while true cinnamon is more delicate and complex, with notes of cloves and citrus. According to Toronto-based pastry chef, Regan Daley, in her book In the Sweet Kitchen, "Neither cassia nor cinnamon is inferior to the other; rather, they should be used thoughtfully, in products that best showcase their individual attributes."

Cassia is one of the oldest spices. It was recorded in Chinese herbal history as early as 2700 BC. It is also referred to in the Bible as the spice with which Moses was commanded to anoint the tabernacle (Exodus 30: 23-25). The reddish-brown powder is ground from the bark of an evergreen tree native to Burma, Cinnamomum cassia . Because the bark is so hard and brittle it is usually ground commercially. The quality of ground cassia is evident by the pungency of its smell – the stronger, the better.

Cassia, often called Chinese cinnamon, is now cultivated in China, Vietnam, Indonesia and Central America, as well as Burma. Vietnamese cassias hold the reputation for being the "world’s finest" in terms of flavour intensity and complexity.

True cinnamon, ground from the dried bark of Cinnamomum zeylanicum , a related evergreen tree, is indigenous to Sri Lanka. The spice was first recorded there in the 13th century. The Portuguese, the first major explorers with a substantial navy, sought out Sri Lanka for the spice during the 15th and 16th centuries. The Dutch took over production in 1636 and began cultivating the spice but kept the cost high by burning excess supplies in Holland. The English East India Company took over the monopoly in 1796.

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