Earlier this week, I placed a few pears in a pot with a pinch of ground cinnamon, splash of water, and smidge of brown sugar, and left it to cook over low heat. A few doors down, I moored myself to my laptop determined to do some work. Within minutes, the how-do-I-love thee scent (or should I say how-doth-though-love me allure) of stewing cinnamon filled the room, and I felt transported to the safety of my mom’s womb. Really my friends, that is what cinnamon does for me.
Obviously, my love for the sweet spice is deep. During the gray winter months, I use it as a talisman to ward off the blues, stirring it into hot cocoa, layering it in oatmeal, and dusting it onto buttered toast along with a bit of sugar. Cinnamon is my secret ingredient in fudge brownies, chocolate cake, and chocolate chip cookies.
Cinnamon is also one of my favorite flavors in savory South Indian dishes. In Kerala, Syrian Christians use cinnamon sticks to flavor egg and meat dishes along side cardamom and cloves. For me, the three “Cs” (cinnamon, cardamom, and cloves) offer an unrivaled mix of warmth, punch, and sweetness. I keep a stockpile of cinnamon sticks in my pantry.
In the U.S., the spice sold as cinnamon is often really cassia, it’s botanical cousin. Cinnamon and cassia both come from the bark of evergreen trees. However, cassia sticks (pictured below on the left below) are thicker than cinnamon (on the right).
Cooking with Cinnamon Sticks
Kerala cooking involves the layering of flavors. Cinnamon sticks are often used to season hot oil. Onions, ginger, and other aromatics, which are sauteed in the oil, become the base for meat dishes and rice pilaf. Cinnamon sticks are also combined with water to stew beef.
Cassia is also darker in color and stronger in flavor than cinnamon due to a higher concentration of volatile oils. You can see below that the ground cinnamon on the left is several shades lighter than the ground cassia.
In my experience, cinnamon has a much more nuanced flavor than cassia and, brings the dynamism of a symphony to a dish rather than the tone of one well-played instrument. However, cinnamon is hard to find outside of specialty spice stores (though it’s worth visiting one to learn the difference). In addition, because of it’s bold flavor cassia can stand its ground next to cloves and other bossy spices. For these reasons, I generally use cassia when cooking Indian food, and refer to it as cinnamon in recipes as is the general practice.