Key Ingredient


Wednesday, December 11, 2002

Ingredient of the week


The scent of the holidays most often includes the sweet and spicy essence of cinnamon. Mulling spices, baked goods and holiday potpourri are staple uses of this warm and soothing spice.

The basics: Cinnamon is the inner bark of a tropical evergreen from the laurel family. Most commercial ground cinnamon, however, isn't true cinnamon, but a close relative called cassia. True cinnamon is native to Ceylon, while cassia originates in Burma.

Cinnamon and cassia are grown in many tropical regions such as South America, the West Indies, Indonesia and Southeast Asia. The bark of both trees is harvested in the same fashion, peeled off during the rainy season when it is pliable. The bark is then left to dry and ferment. The tough outer layer is removed, leaving the prized inner layer, which curls when dried.

The spice is commonly used in sweet recipes, but was traditionally used to preserve and flavor meats. It was also seen as an aphrodisiac with some medicinal qualities. True cinnamon has a rather smooth and mild flavor, while cassia is more pungent and spicy.

Selecting: Cinnamon can be found ground or curled into sticks. You won't be able to tell whether it is true cinnamon or cassia, as both are marketed in the United States as cinnamon.

Storing: Toss out that old bottle of cinnamon that's been sitting in your cupboard for a year (or more) and purchase a new bottle for the holidays. Ground cinnamon should be bought in small quantities because the flavor grows stale over time. Cinnamon sticks or quills are a bit sturdier. Store either type in a cool, dry place.

Use: Cinnamon and baked goods are a marriage made in heaven. The spice pairs well with most muffin, coffeecake and quick-bread recipes. It is also an essential ingredient in apple and pumpkin pies and the quintessential cinnamon roll.

In Mexican cuisine, cinnamon is often paired with chocolate as in mole sauce. Coffee is also a complementary ingredient. Cinnamon sticks can be steeped whole in liquids or freshly ground using a coffee grinder.

Probably the easiest way to enjoy this spice is as cinnamon toast. Simply sprinkle ground cinnamon and a bit of sugar on buttered toast.

Where to buy: Cinnamon can be found in all supermarkets year-round. Ground cinnamon and cinnamon sticks average $3 to $7 for a 1- to 2-ounce bottle.

Food Stuffs: Morsels

Eleanor Nakama-Mitsunaga is
a free-lance food writer. Contact her
online through

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