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I Spice: Cinnamon

Whole cinnamon sticks infuse the fruit filling of this plum crumble. Read on to get the recipe. (Photo by Quentin Bacon)

I asked six chefs and cookbook authors to name their favorite spice, assuming I would get a range to choose from. Five of the six came back the same: cinnamon.

I hadn’t realized the spice was quite so admired. But it makes sense. Cinnamon is at home in both sweet and savory dishes, lends its flavor and aroma beautifully to whatever it is matched with and is inexpensive.

Bruce Weinstein and Mark Scarbrough, who just published their 15th cookbook, “Cooking Know-How” (Wiley), told me they love cinnamon because its versatility is unmatched. Ground cinnamon enlivens chilis, stews and pork ribs; it’s used in savory dishes all over the world. “It ain’t just for muffins and cookies,” they said.

Much of what is sold in the United States as cinnamon is actually more-pungent, less-delicate cassia. “The best cinnamon comes from Vietnam,” chef Art Smith told me. He prefers to buy cinnamon by the quills (sticks) and grate it with a Microplane. The restaurateur, who owns Art and Soul on Capitol Hill, says the best sources for buying cinnamon are the stores that sell a lot of spices, such as Penzeys in Falls Church and Rockville. The chef buys his spices at Whole Foods, Spice House in Chicago and online sources.

Whether you buy cinnamon ground or whole, it’s a good idea to purchase in limited quantities. Its oils can degrade quickly; store it in a cool place, away from direct heat.
The best way to use it is “heated,” says Mark. “It’s not great just sprinkled ‘raw’ onto things. In fact, warm, moist environments provide the best results. Cinnamon oils are carried wonderfully by fat. For instance, use walnut oil and ground cinnamon in a stew.”

Some of my favorite ways to use cinnamon are:
* Dusting on top of rice pudding, custards or flans.
* Adding to soups such as butternut squash, to lamb stew and to chili for depth and subtle flavor.
* Sprinkling into eggplant dishes such as ratatouille or a Greek-style moussaka.
For an unexpected lift, blend a pinch into your mix for meatballs or meatloaf, or into sauteed apples to serve with sausage. Chef Art advises simply sprinkling it on toasted Poilane bread from Paris.

I have to add that one of the best uses of cinnamon I’ve ever heard of came from Mark and Bruce: “We’re convinced we sold a house once because we sprinkled ground cinnamon on a baking sheet and put it in a 175-degree oven just before the buyers came over.”

-- Monica Bhide

Here's an easy dessert that uses whole cinnamon quills, adapted from Curtis Stone's new "Relaxed Cooking" (Clarkson Potter):

Plum and Cinnamon Crumble

6 servings

Serve warm, with vanilla ice cream. If the plums you're using are not quite ripe, coarsely chop them instead of cutting them into wedges.

For the filling
2 pounds ripe plums, cut in half, pitted, then cut into 6 wedges each (see headnote)
1/3 cup sugar
2 (3-inch) cinnamon sticks

For the topping
3/4 cup flour
1/4 to 1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup rolled oats (do not use instant)
4 ounces (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
3/4 cup sliced almonds, coarsely chopped

For the filling: Combine the plums and sugar in an ungreased 8-inch-square baking dish; toss to coat and spread evenly. Tuck the cinnamon sticks beneath the fruit.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

For the topping: Combine the flour, sugar to taste and oats in a medium bowl; mix well. Use your fingers to work the butter into the mixture until small, moist clumps form. Add the almonds and stir to combine.

Sprinkle the topping evenly over the fruit. Bake for 45 minutes or until the juices are bubbling, the fruit is tender and the topping is golden brown. Let cool for at least 5 minutes; discard the cinnamon sticks before serving.

Per serving: Calories: 426 Protein: 6g Carbs: 55g Fat: 22g Saturated Fat: 11g Cholesterol: 40 mg Sodium: 0 mg Fiber: 5g Sugar: 35g

Tested by Randy Richter for The Washington Post

By The Food Section  |  May 1, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  I Spice  | Tags: Monica Bhide, cinnamon  
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Next: Tales of the Testers: Find That #@%! Ingredient


What did the remaining chef say their favorite spice was? I'll have to think about this awhile, but impulsively I'm leaning towards cumin.

Posted by: ArlingtonSMP | May 1, 2009 9:22 AM | Report abuse

Excellent piece on cinnamon--I concur. And this recipe looks divine. Thanks for more mouthwatering inspiration, Monica.

Posted by: cgable | May 1, 2009 9:46 AM | Report abuse

Very nice! I get my cinnamon from Penzey's too. In fact, I get several
different kinds (Ceylon, Vietnam, and even some cassia). Each kind
tastes very different. I use the Vietnam for sweet and and Ceylon for
savory, usually. I love a bit of the Ceylon with red lentils or with
black beans. Vietnamese cinnamon is our go-to breakfast cinnamon for
buttery toast or oatmeal.

Well done! I'm adding the plum crumble to my list of must-makes.

Posted by: AprilPa | May 1, 2009 10:10 AM | Report abuse

I absolutely adore cinnamon too, Monica and add it to many baked goods. The spice also has multiple health benefits.


Posted by: thestoryteller | May 1, 2009 10:15 AM | Report abuse

The remaining chef said he couldn’t choose just one spice.

Honestly, I thought cumin would be at the top of the list too.

Posted by: mbhide | May 1, 2009 10:30 AM | Report abuse

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