By Linnea Covington
This spice helped push Europe’s expansion into Asia. It caused wars between the Portuguese, Dutch, French, and English as they fought to gain control of Ceylon’s (now Sri Lanka) cinnamon supply. It’s the ingredient that gives the holidays a nostalgic aroma. And it remains one of the most important tools in a baker’s pantry. But how did a little strip of wood become a major league player in the world of cooking? The simple answer, it smells darn good. Cinnamon also helps things taste better, enhances other flavors, and historically has covered the unpleasant aspects of spoiled food. No wonder the spice has been used for thousands of years on just about every continent.
“Cinnamon is the kind of spice where a little goes a long way because it packs such a flavor punch,” says Shauna Lott, owner of the award-winning Long I Pie shop in Denver, where she constantly sells out of her signature cast-iron baked cinnamon rolls and cinnamon spiced-apple and cranberry pie. “Baked goods make people feel comforted, and cinnamon is a huge player in that sensation due to this warming feeling you get when you eat it.”
All of that from a little piece of bark. But where does this versatile wood come from? Turns out many warm, humid countries such as India, Brazil, Vietnam, and Sri Lanka grow the evergreen trees, be that wild, in biodiverse farms, or on plantations. While many cinnamon trees grow 30 to 50 feet, a common practice is to cut the tree down to a few feet and then cover it with soil. This forces the plant into more of a bush shape with branches sprouting out around the core. From there the shoots get trimmed, the bark peeled and then dried, forming the naturally occurring quills, or sticks, we know and love.
Once the cinnamon is harvested, this spice gets packaged in many different applications from sticks to powder and oil (which is used less for cooking and more for homeopathic remedies). Five varieties dominate the market, and you will most likely see them under the monikers Chinese, Indian, Indonesian (Korintje), Ceylon (Mexican), and Vietnamese (Saigon). For bakers like Shauna, cinnamon proves key in enhancing bread, pastries, custards, and other sweets. It’s the bewitching ingredient that gives chocolate an exotic depth, makes rice pudding buzz, and perks up simple breakfast rolls. The Aztecs used cinnamon in their famous chocolate drink, Xocolatl, and Ferrara Pan Candy Company took the spice and created the iconic Red Hots in the 1930s. Indians have been mixing it into chai for centuries.