There's something about cinnamon that makes people smile, no doubt because it conjures up sense-memories of the wonderful foods that it perfumes.
In ancient times cinnamon, and its cousin cassia, served as perfumes, medicines, preservatives and seasonings, and both are mentioned in the Bible.
Today, most of what we call cinnamon is actually cassia, and has been ever since The Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act of 1938 permitted spice traders to label cassia as cinnamon. (In some countries, including Australia and England, it is still illegal to sell cassia as cinnamon.)
Cinnamon is actually the bark of Cinnamomum zeylanicum, a tropical evergreen tree from the laurel family, first discovered on the island of Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon), and considered to be one of the oldest of spices.
In the rainy season, the bark is peeled off and dried in the sun for 24 hours, then scraped to remove the outer layer. When the inner layer dries, it curls into the characteristic paper-thin quill shape sold in spice jars. True cinnamon has a sweet, warm, pleasantly woody fragrance, with no trace of bitterness or dominating pungency.
Cassia, on the other hand, is the name given to the bark of a variety of members of the Cinnamomum family originating in southern China, Burma, Laos and Vietnam. Unlike cinnamon's more delicate flavor, cassia's bark has more bite; it's strongly aromatic and sweet, but with an agreeable bitterness. When ground, true cinnamon takes on a tan color; cassia becomes the darker, reddish-brown powder we're familiar with.
Spice traders first introduced cinnamon and cassia to the ancient Egyptians, who used it along with myrrh to embalm mummies, possibly because cinnamic acid has anti-bacterial effects. The demand for cinnamon, cassia and black pepper (a natural preservative) skyrocketed, and became one of the major reasons for the early expansion of the spice trade and the discovery of the New World.
In traditional Eastern medicines, both cinnamon and cassia are considered to be appetite stimulants, strengtheners and digestive aids, and are used in the treatment of bacteria and fungi, colds and flu. Western medicine has discovered that cinnamon contains impressive amounts of calcium, iron, potassium, manganese, zinc and even vitamins B3, A and C.
Today, cinnamon-cassia is an international favorite. It's an integral part of a range of distinctive compound seasonings originating in many regions - including Chinese five-spice mixture, Indian garam masala, Middle Eastern baharat, Yemenite hawaiig, French quatre epices, Moroccan ras el hanout, and Cajun spice blends, among others.
Here's a recipe for an easy and nutritious way to savor cinnamon - these healthy, delicious muffins are great to serve for breakfast, or to take to work or school. In season, peaches or pears may be substituted for the apple.
1 cup buttermilk
1 cup quick-cooking (not instant) oatmeal
1 large egg
½ cup canola, safflower or corn oil
½ cup turbinado or white sugar
½ cup whole-wheat flour
½ cup unbleached all-purpose white flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon salt (optional)
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 cup finely cubed apple
½ cup raisins
2 tablespoons boiling water
Preheat the oven to 350 F. Line a 12-cup muffin pan with paper liners.
In a medium bowl, mix the buttermilk and oatmeal together with a fork. Set aside for 10 minutes. Blend in egg, oil and sugar.
Sift the flours, baking powder, baking soda, salt and cinnamon into a large bowl. Make a well in the center, and stir in the oatmeal mixture. Use a wooden spoon to mix the ingredients together till smooth. Do not beat. Stir in apple, raisins and boiling water.
Fill each muffin cup ¾ full, and bake in the preheated oven for 20 minutes, or until a toothpick in the center comes out clean.
Makes 12 to 15 muffins.
Cinnamon Sugar: Delectable on french toast, pancakes, cornflakes and hot cereal. To make it mix 1 cup of white or turbinado sugar with 1 tablespoon of ground cinnamon.
Cinnamon-Clove Infused Drinks: Apple juice, cider, herb teas and even wine, taste great when infused with a cinnamon stick and a few cloves. Heat but do not boil. Remove the spices after 15 minutes to avoid bitterness.