Cinnamon is the go-to spice for traditional baking, making it the most popular spice in the country after, I suppose, pepper. Interesting to think that these two favorites are both hot—cinnamon is definitely hot, although we rarely think that because it is so often mixed with sugar, which brings out its sweetness, and is usually used sparingly. But it packs a punch, coupled with its unmistakable flavor, in large doses.
Cinnamon comes from the bark of an evergreen tree of the same name, native to Sri Lanka. This is the “true” cinnamon, often called “Ceylon” or canela and distinct from cassia cinnamon, the most common in this country. Cassia is stronger and darker in color, noticeable primarily in the rolled bark, or quills, sold as “whole cinnamon.”
I like to have both the whole and ground on hand. The ground is as much of a staple as salt; I keep some near the espresso machine for sprinkling on my morning latte, and some mixed with sugar in a little shaker for cinnamon toast, a treat that never seems to wear out. It goes into most pies, into cakes with fruit and nuts, into truffles and ice cream and crumb toppings, and into sauces and stews. The quills are wonderful for the latter as well—I use them a lot in Mexican cooking--and for preserves where you want intense spicy flavor without sacrificing clarity in the finished product. A few years ago I developed a terrific drink, the cinnamini, made with cranberry juice, orange oil, and vodka in which fresh cinnamon sticks had been steeped for about a month. Wonderful.
Maple Cinnamon Bread
2 cups boiling water
½ cup RI stone ground jonnycake cornmeal
3 T lard
1 tea salt
½ cup maple syrup (Grade B)
½ cup lukewarm water
1 pkg active dry yeast
5 cups flour plus more for dusting
2 T butter, melted
3T best-quality ground cinnamon
In a large stainless steel pot (about 5 qt), bring the 2 cups of water to a boil. Stir in the jonnycake meal and cook over moderate heat, stirring, for about 5 minutes, pressing out any lumps with the back of the spoon, to make a smooth mush. Stir in the salt and the lard until melted. Let it cool slightly, then stir in the maple syrup. Dissolve the yeast in the lukewarm water, giving it a stir, and add to the mush. Stir in 2 cups of the flour, cover with a clean towel, and set aside to rise for about an hour.
Add the remaining 3 cups of flour, a cup at a time, to the sponge, stirring well to blend. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured counter or board and knead until smooth, 7 or 8 minutes; use only enough flour to keep the dough from sticking as you knead. Put the dough into a large greased bowl, cover with a towel, and let rise for another hour or until doubled. Turn the dough out onto a board, punching it down lightly. Form into a rough, flattish square and cut the dough in half. Roll each into a small rectangle, about 8”x12”, but no less than about ½” thick; keep the second half under a towel while you prepare the first. Brush some of melted butter sparingly across the dough, and distribute half the cinnamon on each rectangle; with a dry hand, spread it out to cover completely. Starting from the short side, roll the dough up firmly but not so tightly that you deflate it, and place it into 2 small (8 ½ x 4 ½ x 2 ½) bread pans, brushed lightly with some of the butter. Cover and let rise for an hour.
Bake the bread at 350F for 40-45 minutes, or until golden; the kitchen will smell wonderful. Just before removing from the oven, brush lightly with the last of the remaining melted butter. Remove and turn out onto a rack to cool before slicing.