Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Simply Cinnamon - A love affair with a common spice

I've long been a fan of cinnamon, from cinnamon rolls to snickerdoodles, from a lovely spice cake to a hearty, robust apple pie. Even from my early "picky-eater" years, cinnamon was a commonly known and completely wonderful spice, but it wasn't until the last few years that I've truly been able to appreciate this beautiful spice.

This crazy love affair started when I stumbled upon a spice shop in Milwaukee during one my visits there with my husband. I didn't realize that there were different varieties of cinnamon - each with a distinct scent and flavor. It was in that crowded little shop on a sweltering August day that I truly learned my cinnamons.

First, I smelled the China (Cassia) cinnamon and loved its mellow, balanced flavor. Not very sweet, but a little tangy, I could tell from first sniff that this was going to find it's way home with me. Next, I smelled Mexican cinnamon - which is the predominant one found on grocery store shelves in this country. This was the scent of Thanksgiving and apple pie making - very sweet, very delicate - this is the cinnamon I grew up knowing and loving.

Next, I smelled the Korinjte (Indonesian) cinnamon and that just blew me away! A very bold, strong scent - it almost has a hint of peppery-ness to it. Much more dominant than any cinnamon I had ever encountered, this has become my "secret" ingredient in more than a few recipes. Finally, I moved on to the last cinnamon in the line-up, Saigon cinnamon. Similar to the Chinese (Cassia) cinnamon, this was mellow, but with a hint more sweetness. Naturally, I bought a small jar of each and when I came home, I started to experiment.

I've blended a special cinnamon blend just for apple pie making. My mom and I still make all our apple pie filling from scratch and look for deals on apples throughout the fall - last year I scored a 40 lb. box of bruised apples for only $2! With a blend of dark and light brown sugars, flour, and cinnamon - we painstakingly transformed that box of discarded apples into 17 qts. of apple pie filling. The most time consuming part of that job - peeling the apples. But the reward for all that hard work - the best apple pies, cobblers, and crisps I've ever had.

Next, I moved on to perhaps my most well-known cookie recipe: Oatmeal Raisin Cookies. I added rum extract to the recipe years ago (to amazing success), but when I added a pinch of Korinjte cinnamon to the recipe - I cemented my cookie-baking0queen status with friends, family, and co-workers alike. I've shared this recipe dozens of times - it's probably my favorite cookie recipe (well, if you add dried cranberries, too).

My cinnamon journey has meandered far and wide - tossing in a pinch of cinnamon to a stirfry here to adding cinnamon to a basic biscotti dough and stirring in a handful of chopped dried cranberries there. My favorite pairing quickly became cinnamon and chocolate. I couldn't help myself, that's all I can say in my own defense. And I'm glad my substantial lack of willpower worked for me.

Initially, even I was skeptical that cinnamon would pair well with chocolate - but it enhances the flavor of chocolate. It's brilliantly simple: a 1/8 tsp. of a mild cinnamon (Mexican or Chinese do nicely) in a batch of chocolate-based cookie dough makes a world of difference. You don't taste the cinnamon really, you taste a bright and smooth chocolate flavor. For a simple twist, add 1 tsp. cinnamon to a cookie dough where you're stirring in white chocolate chips, the cinnamon and perhaps a pinch of two of ginger (or even nutmeg) definitely give you the wow factor. Then, I had a idea...

I've scored so much free hot cocoa, why not play up the flavor in Swiss Miss with a pinch of cinnamon? In my delicious experimentations, I've discovered I like the cinnamon on top of the marshmallows - it smells heavenly! The cinnamon stirred into the hot cocoa comes across very mildly, and I'm addicted to strong, bold flavors. Maybe when my free supply of hot cocoa finally runs out, I'll craft my own blend of hot cocoa mix...using cinnamon, of course. But, until then, I'll be enjoying my hot cocoa topped with marshmallows and cinnamon, and remembering that hot August day when my nose led me to the sweet scents of cinnamon and a new appreciation and love of the classic seasonings I remember from my childhood.

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