If there’s a spice that should rightfully suffer from impostor syndrome, it’s cassia. Cassia and cinnamon have different origins and a different flavour profile, yet both go by the name “cinnamon” in many countries, and are sold at similar prices.
True cinnamon (dalchini) is prepared from the inner bark of trunks or branches of Cinnamomum Zeylanicum Blume, which grows in Sri Lanka, south India and parts of the North-East. The labour-intensive process makes it an expensive spice. Cassia (taj) is obtained from the bark of the Cinnamomum Cassia tree, which grow mainly in China but also in parts of South and South-East Asia. Most of the cinnamon sold in the US is the cassia variety; Americans are said to prefer its stronger flavour and colour.
The peeling of the bark from freshly plucked branches is still done by hand in most parts of Sri Lanka and south India. The barks curl up as they dry and an outer layer of bark is filled with smaller pieces to get a quill of cinnamon. A single worker can handroll around half a kilogram of cinnamon quills in a day. The thinner the bark, the higher the grade of cinnamon, Alba being the highest grade of less than 6mm in diameter, thinner than a pencil.
True Ceylon cinnamon has a sweeter and more delicate flavour, light brown in colour and smoother to touch. These quills can be crushed to a coarse powder with the fingertips, while the cassia cinnamon is woody and hard. It can be powdered only in a high-power blender.
To ensure that the cheaper cassia is not passed off as cinnamon or used as an adulterant in cinnamon powder, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) amended the standards in November 2016. In both whole and ground cinnamon, the maximum permitted limit of coumarin is 0.3% by weight. The level of coumarin in cassia is much higher, at 0.8-10.63%.
Be it cassia or cinnamon, the aroma is unmissable. According to a Wall Street Journal article on scent marketing, Cinnabon, the American chain known for its world-famous cinnamon rolls, lures customers by ensuring that their ovens are placed near the front of the store and a fresh batch of rolls is baked every 30 minutes at least. Their outlets are intentionally located indoors—at malls and airports, for instance—so that their signature aromas linger in the air and entice passers-by to enter.
I happened to talk to my friend Kishi Arora, food consultant and pastry chef-founder of Foodaholics in the National Capital Region, about her favourite ways of using cinnamon in baking. A touch of cinnamon in any recipe with almond flour enhances the flavours manifold, the same way a pinch of salt added to chocolate does, says Arora. Her other favourite combinations in desserts with cinnamon are caramel and coffee. I would add apples and whisky to the list.
Despite my love for whisky and cinnamon, it was only recently that I was introduced to Fireball Cinnamon Whisky at a friend’s Diwali party. It is had either as a shot or on the rocks, but it can add the taste of fall and festive season to cocktails such as hot toddy, Old Fashioned, even hot chocolate.
APPLE CINNAMON POCKETS
One and a half cups whole wheat flour
1 tbsp butter + some extra
A pinch of salt
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tbsp sugar
One and a half tsp baking powder
Up to 1 cup milk
1-2 tsp butter
2 red apples, grated
2 tsp cinnamon
A pinch of grated nutmeg
5-6 tbsp brown sugar
In a large bowl, rub the butter into the flour. Add the salt, cinnamon, sugar, baking powder and make a soft dough using milk. You can also whisk an egg into the milk and use the egg milk mixture to make the dough. Knead well for five minutes. Cover and keep aside for 15-20 minutes.
To prepare the filling, heat the butter in a pan. Add all the remaining ingredients for the filling and cook over a low-medium flame for five-seven minutes. Allow the moisture to dry out completely.
Divide the dough into six portions and roll into smooth balls. Using some flour, roll each ball into a thin roti, around 8-9 inches in diameter, ensuring that it is thinner on the edges. Brush some melted butter in the centre of the roti. Spread out 2 tbsp of the filling in the centre to make a square or a rectangle. Fold the four sides of the roti towards the centre to make sure the filling is entirely covered. Lightly roll out the folded parts to even out.
Heat a pan and place the folded side down. Press down gently all around so that the thicker folded part cooks evenly. Turn around and cook the other side similarly, brushing some butter on both sides. Prepare the remaining dough similarly. Have warm as is or with a dusting of cinnamon sugar.
1 cup water
1 cinnamon stick
2-3 tsp cinnamon sugar
30-45ml brandy or whisky*
2 tsp honey (or maple syrup)
1 lemon slice
Boil the water with the cinnamon stick for around five minutes until the cinnamon flavour is infused into the water. Remove the stick and reserve for garnish. Spread the cinnamon sugar in a dish. Brush the rim of a glass mug with honey. Dip the rim in cinnamon sugar.
In a small jug, mix the hot cinnamon water, brandy and honey. Pour it into the cinnamon sugar rimmed mug. Garnish with lemon slice and cinnamon stick.
*Cinnamon whisky tastes great in this.
For an alcohol-free version, use Darjeeling or Assam tea instead of the brandy.
Double Tested is a fortnightly column on vegetarian cooking, highlighting a single ingredient prepared two ways. Nandita Iyer’s latest book is The Great Indian Thali—Seasonal Vegetarian Wholesomeness (Roli Books). @saffrontrail on Instagram and Twitter.
Also read | Bust the myths and relish the sweetness of honey