- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 16, 2007

“You Americans want to put cinnamon in everything,” the French chef at La Varenne Cooking School in Paris scolded my fellow student. The poor student had simply asked whether it might be a good idea to add cinnamon to the classic French pastry we were making, a caramelized apple tarte Tatin. The suggestion was heresy.

It’s true that Americans love cinnamon. We add it to apple desserts, pumpkin pie, banana bread, sour cream coffee cake, carrot cake and gingerbread cookies, to mention a few. Cinnamon has been popular around the world for centuries. It’s an element of the Persian spice blend known as “advieh,” which means “medicine” in Arabic and presumably originated as a mixture intended to improve the medicinal qualities of food, as well as the flavor, according to Margaret Shaida, author of “The Legendary Cuisine of Persia” (Interlink Books).

In “Cuisines of the Caucasus Mountains” (Hippocrene), Kay Shaw Nelson offers another reason: “Cinnamon, one of the world’s oldest spices, was thought in ancient time to inspire love.” In North America, we generally consider cinnamon a dessert spice, but it is possible to divide the world into how cooks use cinnamon in sweet dishes, savory dishes 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 in chicken cooked with apricots, prunes and raisins, as well as in desserts and pastries.

Cinnamon is important to several Asian spice blends, including Middle Eastern baharat, Indian garam masala and Chinese five-spice powder. My Yemen-born father-in-law always added cinnamon to his dark Arabic coffee.

Cinnamon is one of the elements of chai, the drink Americans have come to love. Our versions are mainly inspired by recipes from India, where fragrant tea is laced with cinnamon and other spices.

Persians use cinnamon only occasionally in desserts. You might find a little sprinkled on top of saffron-flavored yellow rice pudding. It also appears as an accent in dishes of rice, meat and vegetables.

Margaret Shaida adds cinnamon to basmati rice with dried apricots, lamb, raisins and saffron. Cinnamon is also sprinkled over the delicious thick wheat breakfast porridge made with lamb or turkey and flavored with turmeric. In Sri Lanka, cinnamon flavors a host of lamb, chicken and vegetable curries. Cinnamon sticks are added to the Philippines’ popular adobo stews, such as chicken adobo with cinnamon and anise and cinnamon garlic beef adobo.

Europeans have their own favorite ways to use cinnamon. It’s often an element of the French quatre epices (four spices), which is a seasoning in many pates and sausages. In Germany, cinnamon is popular in sweet and sour appetizer soups, such as red wine soup with raisins and cream and blueberry soup with croutons, according to Nadia Hassani, author of “Spoonfuls of Germany” (Hippocrene). Greeks use cinnamon to flavor stews with red wine and herbs.

When you look at a cinnamon stick, it’s easy to understand that the spice is actually the bark of a tree. At the supermarket, it is sold in small sticks, but when I visited the Spice House in Milwaukee, where they grind their own cinnamon, I saw cinnamon sticks that were more than a foot long. Some were wide and flat, rather than rolled up in scrolls, and really looked like pieces from a tree.

Not all cinnamon is the same. The first time I bought canela (the Spanish word for cinnamon) in a Mexican market, the aroma and flavor were so unexpected that I thought it was mislabeled. Later I discovered that this spice, with a distinctly different, delicate flavor often described as citrusy, is what is known as true cinnamon or Ceylon cinnamon, while the classic cinnamon we know in the United States is actually cassia, a cinnamon cousin. Which to use is a matter of taste.

Some chefs prefer Ceylon cinnamon for subtle dishes such as custards, cinnamon ice cream and whipped cream. 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 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 6 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

Serve this with couscous or rice.

3 pounds chicken pieces, patted dry

2 medium onions, minced

Salt and freshly ground pepper

1 cup chicken stock

A large pinch of saffron threads (about 1/8 teaspoon)

1 2-inch cinnamon stick

1 cup pitted dates or 11/3 cups moist pitted prunes

1 to 2 tablespoons honey

Freshly grated nutmeg

½ cup whole blanched almonds, toasted

Combine chicken, onion, and salt and pepper to taste in a heavy stew pan. Cover and cook over low heat, turning chicken occasionally, for 5 minutes.

Add stock and saffron and push cinnamon stick 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 breast pieces to a plate. Cook remaining chicken, covered, for 10 more minutes or until tender. Transfer remaining chicken to plate and cover. Add dates or prunes and honey to sauce and cook, uncovered, over medium heat 10 minutes or until dates or prunes are just tender. Transfer to a heated bowl and cover, leaving most of onion in casserole. Discard cinnamon stick. Cook sauce over medium heat, stirring occasionally, about 5 minutes to thicken it slightly. Add nutmeg to taste. Taste and add more salt and pepper, if desired. Return chicken to casserole and turn to coat pieces with sauce. Cover and heat over low heat 5 minutes. Spoon sauce and dates or prunes over chicken. Garnish with almonds. Makes 4 to 5 servings.

Baked lamb with orzo

2 to 2½ pounds lamb shoulder chops (1 to 11/4 inches thick), trimmed of skin and excess fat

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 tablespoon lemon juice

Salt and freshly ground pepper

1 cup dry white wine

1 small cinnamon stick or ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 large onion, halved and sliced thin

2 large garlic cloves, minced

1 cup smooth tomato sauce

2 teaspoons dried leaf oregano, crumbled

Water

1 pound orzo (barley-shaped pasta) or riso (rice-shaped pasta)

1 tablespoon chopped parsley

Put chops in a 10-cup baking dish. Sprinkle with oil, lemon juice, and salt and pepper to taste, and turn to coat evenly with flavorings. Bake in preheated 450-degree oven for 10 minutes, turning once. Reduce heat to 350 degrees. Add wine, cinnamon, onion slices 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 from baking dish 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 onion is tender. Discard cinnamon stick, if using, and bones.

Add tomato sauce, oregano and 2 cups boiling water to pan. Season with salt and pepper. Add pasta and stir. Bake 20 minutes without stirring. Set meat pieces on top in a 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 and serve immediately. Makes 6 servings.

Apple cake with pecans and cinnamon

Use tart apples such as pippin or Granny Smith or medium-tart, such as McIntosh, Jonathan or Rome Beauty.

BATTER:

2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

1 cup sugar, divided

1½ pounds apples, peeled, halved, cored and diced

3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons (7 ounces) unsalted butter

2 large eggs

2 cups all-purpose flour

1½ teaspoons baking powder

1 cup pecans, coarsely chopped

TOPPING:

2 large apples (about 1 pound)

2 tablespoons melted unsalted butter

7 tablespoons sugar

2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

Mix cinnamon and ½ cup sugar in large bowl. Add apples, mix and set aside.

Beat butter until smooth. Add remaining ½ cup sugar and beat until fluffy. Add eggs one by one, beating well after each addition. Sift flour with baking powder and stir into egg mixture. Stir in apple mixture and pecans. Spread in a greased 13-by-9-by-2-inch baking dish. Smooth top.

Peel, halve and core apples for topping and cut them in thin crosswise slices. Lay slices in overlapping rows to cover cake completely. Brush with melted butter. Mix sugar and cinnamon and sprinkle evenly over top.

Bake in preheated 400-degree oven for 1 hour, or until apples are tender. Cool in pan on a rack. (Cake can be kept, covered, 3 to 4 days in refrigerator.) Cut cake in squares and serve at room temperature.

Makes 16 to 20 servings.

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