(photo credit: Courtesy)
'You Americans put cinnamon in everything!" our French chef at La Varenne Cooking School in Paris scolded my fellow student, who had asked whether he could add cinnamon to the classic French apple tarte tatin. To our French cooking teachers, this suggestion was heresy.
It's true that Americans are cinnamon-lovers - and so are Israelis. Cinnamon is a must in most apple desserts and in a variety of baked treats, like sour cream coffee cake, carrot cake and banana bread, and cinnamon rolls, a bakery staple in both the US and Israel.
Fondness for cinnamon is apparently a good thing. In the last few years studies have found that cinnamon has so many healthy properties that Steven Pratt, the author of Superfoods Healthstyle, dubbed it the SuperSpice, particularly beneficial for people with type II diabetes. "In addition to being a glucose moderator, cinnamon is recognized as an antibacterial," he wrote, and he encourages readers to use it often.
In fact, herbalists have been recommending cinnamon for centuries. According to my friend Nina Simonds, star of the "Spices of Life" video series on www.spicesoflife.com and author of Spices of Life, pungent, warming cinnamon has been used medicinally and as a flavoring throughout Asia and the Middle East since ancient times. "Chinese cinnamon, or cassia, has been used by Asian doctors for thousands of years. It is considered to be especially soothing to the stomach," wrote Simonds. She also noted that Indian Ayurvedic doctors believe that cinnamon, which is an element of curry powder, aids circulation and digestion and that cinnamon tea soothes colds and nervous tension.
Margaret Shaida, author of The Legendary Cuisine of Persia, agrees. Cinnamon is an element of "the Persian blend of spices that is known as advieh, which is the plural for medicine in Arabic and presumably a mixture that was intended to improve the medicinal qualities of food as well as its flavor." In Cuisines of the Caucasus Mountains, Kay Shaw Nelson gives another reason: "Cinnamon, one of the world's oldest spices, was thought in ancient time to inspire love."
Actually, you could divide the world into how cooks use cinnamon - in sweet dishes, savory ones or both. There seems to be widespread agreement that cinnamon is a good partner for fruit. Moroccans use it in sweet tajines, the famous braised dishes of chicken or meat, dried fruit and saffron. Armenians love cinnamon in savory dishes, such as chicken cooked with apricots, prunes and raisins, as well as in desserts and pastries.
Cinnamon is important to several Asian spice blends, such as Middle Eastern baharat, Indian garam masala and Chinese five-spice. It's also part of Yemenite coffee spice, along with ginger, cloves and cardamom. My Yemen-born father-in-law always put some in his black coffee. Indeed, cinnamon may be one of the secrets to the popularity of chai in the West; it is mainly inspired by recipes from India, where the fragrant tea is flavored with cinnamon and other sweet spices.
Persians use cinnamon only occasionally in desserts; you might find a little sprinkled on top of yellow rice pudding, which is flavored with saffron. They prefer cinnamon as an accent for dishes of rice, meat and vegetables. Shaida uses cinnamon in her basmati rice with dried apricots, which also has boneless leg of lamb, raisins and saffron. Cinnamon is also sprinkled over thick wheat breakfast porridge made with lamb or turkey and flavored with turmeric. This combination might sound odd, but I sampled some at an Assyrian food festival and it was delicious.
In Sri Lanka cinnamon flavors a host of curries of lamb, chicken and vegetables. One of my favorite dishes from this Indian Ocean island is a beet curry with coconut milk, onions, chilies, cinnamon sticks and curry spices. Cinnamon sticks, chilies and turmeric also flavor their delicious carrot and cabbage curry.
According to Karen Hulene Bartell, author of Fine Filipino Food, cinnamon sticks accent the popular adobo stews of the islands, such as chicken adobo with cinnamon and anise, cooked with soy sauce and mild vinegar, and cinnamon garlic beef adobo.
Notwithstanding our French chef's teasing, the Europeans have their own favorite ways to use cinnamon. It's often an element of the French quatre epices or four spices, which seasons many pÃ¢tÃ©s and sausages. In Germany cinnamon is popular in sweet and sour appetizer soups, such as blueberry soup with croutons, as well as in desserts. Greeks use cinnamon to flavor stews with red wine and herbs.
When you look at a cinnamon stick, it's easy to understand that this spice is actually the bark of a tree. At the supermarket it comes in standard-size sticks that fit easily into the little spice vials, but when I visited the Spice House in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where they grind their own cinnamon (and where the aroma is heavenly), there were impressive pieces over a foot long. Some were wide and flat, rather than being rolled up in scrolls, and really looked like pieces from a tree.
Cinnamon sticks are used in beverages, sauces, delicate desserts, syrups and ice creams when you want cinnamon flavor without a grainy texture. Indian cooks often add cinnamon sticks to their basmati rice dishes instead of using the ground spice, so the rice will stay white. When making curry spice blends, they sometimes saute cinnamon sticks along with other whole spices, then grind the mixture finely, so the flavors of all the spices are as fresh as possible.
Like other spices, cinnamon should be kept in a tightly sealed glass container in a cool, dark, dry place. Experts advise keeping ground cinnamon up to six months and cinnamon sticks up to a year. The best way to check is to smell the ground cinnamon - if it no longer has a sweet aroma, you should replace it.
MOROCCAN CHICKEN WITH DRIED FRUIT, ALMONDS AND CINNAMON
Braising chicken in a sauce that combines cinnamon with saffron, nutmeg and honey gives a delicious entree, whether you make it with dates or prunes. Serve the chicken with couscous or rice.
1.4 kg. chicken pieces, patted dry
2 medium onions, minced
salt and freshly ground pepper
1 cup chicken broth or water
A large pinch of saffron threads
(about 1â„8 tsp.)
a 5-cm. cinnamon stick
1 cup pitted dates or 11â„3 cups moist
1 to 2 Tbsp. honey
Freshly grated nutmeg to taste
1â„2 cup whole blanched almonds,
Combine chicken, onions, salt and pepper in a heavy stew pan. Cover and cook over low heat, turning chicken over occasionally, for 5 minutes. Add broth, saffron and cinnamon stick; push it into liquid. Bring to a boil. Cover and simmer over low heat, turning pieces occasionally, about 35 minutes or until breast pieces are tender when pierced with a knife. Transfer them to a plate. Cook remaining chicken, covered, for 10 more minutes or until tender. Transfer chicken to plate.
Add dates and honey to sauce and cook uncovered over medium heat 10 minutes or until dates are just tender. Transfer dates to a heated bowl, leaving most of onions in casserole. Cover dates.
Discard cinnamon stick. Cook sauce over medium heat, stirring occasionally, about 5 minutes to thicken it slightly. Add nutmeg. Taste and adjust seasoning.
Return chicken to casserole and turn to coat pieces with sauce. Cover and heat over low heat 5 minutes. Spoon sauce and fruit over chicken. Garnish with almonds.
Makes 4 or 5 servings.
BAKED LAMB WITH ORZO
Orzo, or barley-shaped pasta, tastes great with the sauce from the lamb, baked in tomato white wine sauce with cinnamon and oregano.
1 kg. lamb shoulder chops (2.5 cm. to
3 cm. thick), trimmed of skin and
3 Tbsp. olive oil
1 Tbsp. strained fresh lemon juice
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 cup dry white wine
1 small cinnamon stick or 1â„2 tsp.
1 large onion, halved and sliced thin
2 large garlic cloves, minced
1 cup smooth tomato sauce
2 tsp. dried leaf oregano, crumbled
2 cups boiling water
450 gr. orzo (barley-shaped pasta)
or riso (rice-shaped pasta)
1 Tbsp. chopped parsley
Preheat oven to 230Âº. Put chops in a 10-cup gratin dish or other large baking dish. Sprinkle lamb with oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper and turn to coat evenly with flavorings. Bake 10 minutes, turning once. Reduce heat to 175Âº. Add wine, cinnamon stick, onion and garlic to pan. Bake about 15 minutes or until meat is still pink, but not red, inside when cut; it will be returned to oven to cook further.
Remove chops and cut meat from bones, keeping meat in large pieces and reserving bones. Reserve meat on plate and cover. Return bones to pan, stir and return to oven. Bake 25 minutes or until onions are tender. Discard cinnamon stick and bones.
Add tomato sauce, oregano and 2 cups boiling water to pan. Season well with salt and pepper. Add pasta and stir. Bake 20 minutes without stirring. Set meat pieces on top in one layer and press gently into mixture. Return to oven and bake 10 minutes or until orzo is tender but firm to the bite and meat is done to taste. Sprinkle with parsley. Serve immediately from the dish.
Makes 6 servings.
Faye Levy is the author of Feast from the Mideast and 1,000 Jewish Recipes.