Cinnamon: In the Fall, There is One Spice to Rule Them All
Fall… Autumn… no matter what you call this season, you can recognize it from miles away: gorgeous foliage in a myriad of colors, a crisp bite to the air as the temperatures drop, and all of the perfectly spiced scents and flavors of the season. By now we know all the ‘spice mixes’ – the most famous of which is pumpkin spice – the common thread being… cinnamon.
What’s amazing about cinnamon is that it’s one of the most ubiquitous spices, showing up in almost every cuisine, sometimes savory, sometimes sweet, often both, with countless ways to utilize it! However, not all cinnamon is created equal…so how can you tell whether the cinnamon you use is the ‘good stuff’? Let’s go back to ancient Greece, and look at the origins of the word…
Upon a quick glance, one would read the above word, and think, cinnamon, of course – and they would be correct…sort of! This ancient Greek word derived from Phoenician, according to Herodotus, the ancient Greek historian and geographer, and refers to ‘true cinnamon’ or Ceylon cinnamon. However, Cinnamomon is actually the genus name of a variety of evergreen trees and shrubs, all of which have aromatic oils in their leaves and bark, all of which belong to the Laurel family.
Aside from Cinnamomon verum, which is the specific species known as ‘true cinnamon’ or Ceylon cinnamon (native to Sri Lanka), there are other familiar species of this Genus, including Saigon cinnamon, wild cinnamon, and perhaps the most well-known: Chinese or Cassia cinnamon (Cinnamomon cassia).
So what’s the difference between [true] Cinnamon and Cassia?
In the US, there are no FDA regulations that require spice companies to specify whether the Cinnamon in the jar is Cassia or Ceylon (or a mix of both) – but most will specify if it is Ceylon, as it is a pricier – and more highly prized – spice.
If you go to your local supermarket, or order from your regular food service purveyor, the likelihood is pretty high that if you’re getting cinnamon (ground or sticks) to use in your culinary pursuits, you’re actually getting Cassia.
Cassia has a deeper, more auburn color than its Ceylon sister, and has a stronger, ‘spicier’ (ie hotter), more bitter flavor profile. When ground, Cassia is a bit coarser; and the Cassia cinnamon sticks have thicker bark, and look more like a scroll, rolling inward from both sides.
Ceylon cinnamon, on the other hand, is lighter in color – more tan and warmer in hue; the flavor profile is sweeter, and though warming, has a bit of brightness to it with some citrus tones. When ground, Ceylon cinnamon is much finer than its Cassia counterpart; Ceylon cinnamon sticks’ bark is thinner, and rolls into a nearly perfect circle with delicate, flaky layers – like a well laminated dough.
But, perhaps the biggest difference is the presence of coumarin, a naturally occurring organic compound that, when consumed in excess, can cause liver damage; Ceylon cinnamon has significantly lower quantities of coumarin than Cassia.
Why care about coumarin?
While most people don’t consume large quantities of cinnamon daily (either Ceylon or Cassia), this special spice has some amazing health benefits when it comes to lowering blood sugar. As such, diabetics or those who need to keep an eye on lowering their glycemic index may use cinnamon more liberally in their food, and should make the conscious switch to the Ceylon variety. But remember, always ask your doctor.
When I was a young girl, contrary to most little kids, I didn’t want to have dessert every day….but, when the mood struck, I never just wanted one serving – I wanted five or six!
My Papou (grandfather in Greek) would tell me I had to put extra Canela (cinnamon in modern Greek) on each portion, both because it made whatever we were having taste better, but also because it would help my body process the sugar I was eating.
I never had an issue with this because I always loved the flavor and smell of cinnamon, but as I got older and learned about the health benefits of cinnamon, I realized just how right Papou was!
Sweet and Spicy
Since I brought it up, the presence of cinnamon in Greek and Mediterranean desserts is no surprise – in fact, it’s probably the single most common flavor profile, connecting the entirety of the region!
We put cinnamon in – and on – most sweet treats; though not necessarily the dominant flavor, much in the same way salt elevates the natural flavors of whatever it seasons, cinnamon has a similar effect on desserts.
In Baklava, it brings out the nuttiness of the filling and elevates the citrus essence in the honey syrup; atop Galatoboureko (a semolina custard wrapped in layers of phyllo), it highlights the rich creaminess of the egg-based custard; in Melomakarona (traditional Greek walnut-honey cookies for the holidays) it elevates the delicate layers of flavor in the combination of the honey, walnuts, and brandy…the list goes on and on, but the sentiment remains – cinnamon is the spice that brings out the best in the sweet!
Not Just for Dessert…
My Yiayia (grandmother in Greek) added cinnamon to more than just her incredible desserts – she would add cinnamon to her tomato sauces which would marry the acidity and sweetness of the tomatoes together with the herbs, creating this gorgeous depth of flavor I proudly recreate at Loi Estiatorio daily!
In fact, tomato and cinnamon (and other warming spices like clove and nutmeg) are a common flavor profile in Greece, appearing most predominantly in stewed and baked dishes like Pastitsio (Greek-style Lasagna-like noodle casserole with slow-cooked ground beef and [olive oil] bechamel), Moussaka (layered eggplant casserole), and Stifado (a tomato-based stew – usually with beef – with pearl onions and red wine) to name a few.
In other cuisines, cinnamon also has a place in the savory kitchen – think curries and masalas in Indian cuisine, tagines in Moroccan cuisine, pilafs throughout the Middle East and Mediterranean, 5-spice braises in Chinese cuisine, molés in Mexico, pho in Vietnam – the list goes on and on!
Cinnamon = Comfort
One of my most favorite comfort foods involves cinnamon…and cheese! Ever since I was little, whenever I didn’t know what I wanted to eat, or wasn’t feeling quite right, my mother or Yiayia would make me a bowl of pasta (usually macaroni, a long hollow tubular noodle), topped with a healthy serving of hard mizythra cheese (a hard sheep milk cheese for grating, similar to ricotta salata), and finished with a significant dusting of ground cinnamon.
The combination of toothsome pasta, salty cheese, and warm, slightly sweet cinnamon always filled my stomach and my heart, leaving me feeling better than before I ate. Still, to this day, whenever I can’t decide on what I want to eat, or am in need of some comfort food, this is my go-to plate!
A Cinnamon Spell
In the US, and many places where the change of weather indicates the end of one season with the beginning of another, the scent and taste of cinnamon put us under an autumnal spell, letting us know the change has begun, and we must embrace it. Bring on the cozy sweaters, hot beverages, and hearty dishes – the seasonal reign of cinnamon has commenced!
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