Baking with cinnamon, things to consider
Part one: Britain's Story of Cinnamon
Audio version read by Dan Lepard
Firstly, let me explain a little about the interaction between cinnamon, yeast, and heat. The key flavour component in cinnamon, cinnamaldehyde, has antifungal properties and as yeast is a fungal organism, its growth is slowed hugely by cinnamon (and even by artificial cinnamon, not just the real stuff). The other issue is that cinnamaldehyde is quite volatile when heated, meaning that you get a huge flavour drop the hotter and longer something is cooked for. So, to tackle the interaction between cinnamon and yeast, try adding 50%-100% more yeast than you normally would if the cinnamon is incorporated into the dough, or separate the cinnamon flavour into a layer, as you would in a cinnamon bun or Danish. Or consider adding some or all of the cinnamon after baking, in the form of a syrup or glaze. As for heat, watch the size and thickness of what you’re baking so that cooking time is kept short.
Next, consider what you want the cinnamon flavour to be, whether it’s the sole flavour, or one of several spices combined with cinnamon at the front, and what the accent flavours will be. Some countries have ready-prepared spice mixes that use cinnamon in this way and tend towards using cassia cinnamon as its stronger spice kick makes it ideal for pairing with other strong flavours. But if it’s subtlety you’re after, there are two options: the first is to use less cassia cinnamon, combined with ingredients that will accent key cassia flavour components; epices-roellinger.com recommend using an Indian cassia cinnamon, with its “liquorice-like, …woody, peppery sweet notes…on a crème brûlée, or a fig or prune tart” to highlight the nuances that particular cinnamon exudes. Recipes that only possess a subtle flavour will allow the vibrancy of an unusual cinnamon to really punch through. Portugeuse-British baker Azélia Torres azeliatorres.com makes a delicate ‘Bolo de canela’, explaining that “it’s a delicate simple egg sponge cake with a rich cinnamon flavour, usually baked in an angel food tin” as well as a “tarte de leite e canela, that’s a baked milk and egg flan with cinnamon, cooked gently so it keeps a soft creamy texture
The other approach is to use a more subtle cinnamon, like a Sri Lankan (Ceylon) or Madagascan one. I spoke with chef Elena Reygadas, ex Locanda Locatelli and for many years now at her superb restaurant Rosetta, in Rome, who prefers the nuanced flavours that some cinnamon varieties bring. “In Mexico we have a beautiful cinnamon that I find sweet and spicy but not too strong, it mainly comes from farms in Veracruz and Chiapas that have humid climates perfect for growing it. It’s very thin, also, which makes it easier to break and crumble. In my bakery Panaderia Rosetta we do “puerquitos de piloncillo” which is a semi-chewy sweet bread made of wheat and piloncillo (very dark brown sugar) with some cinnamon added for a slightly spicy flavour.”
Choosing cinnamon, things to think about.
The type of cinnamon you choose should perhaps take into account the levels of coumarin present. Coumarin is an organic chemical with a slight vanilla aroma and a bitter flavour, found in a number of plants, most notably tonka beans. While not considered particularly toxic to humans, as an isolated substance it is a controlled or banned food additive, with potential hepatoxic results in rodent testing and possible neurological disfunction in children arising from pre-natal exposure (in one 1994 Dutch study). Sri Lankan (Ceylon) cinnamon is typically low in coumarin, whereas cassia varieties are typically higher but dependent on the age of the tree when harvested (see below). Given the damage we do to our bodies with alcohol, sugar, overconsumption of refined starches etc., occasional consumption of cassia cinnamon (except during pregnancy) appears to be fine. The flipside is that cassia cinnamon, a common ingredient in Chinese herbal medicine, contains other essential oils that may be beneficial to adult health.
The incredible diversity of ingredients now available online can over-stimulate us, in search of the exceptional, or deciding which brands we love or loathe. But there’s a danger of us not recognising the human aspect of the farming and production that supply us with these choices. And by “us” here, I’m talking about a privileged consumer where money or access to food isn’t an obstacle. So many countries today still deal with the consequences of a colonial past that created extremely difficult conditions for agricultural workers and specifically cinnamon peelers, but in a time where most of us have access to the internet, and can find out more about how things are truly produced, it’s not acceptable to say “I don’t know or care”.
Buying cinnamon in the UK
Cinnamon is widely grown around the world, with new producers emerging, and there are a multitude of varieties, some only recognised where they are cultivated. So in writing this section, I’m aware of the smaller suppliers I’m excluding, mostly because of the difficulty insourcing them. For example, East Timor, Grenada, Sao Tome and Principe and Dominica are all cinnamon producers, but their output is almost impossible to buy in the UK right now. On the other hand, East Africa is beginning to emerge, and in the last few years, the government of Tanzania has been training farmers in production of Cinnamomum verum or zeylanicum. You can buy the bark in the UK from uk.dhownaturefoods.com, and the ground spice from botreefarm.co.uk. The Seychelles were once a thriving cinnamon exporter and are beginning to restart their production according to CNN, so this is one to watch for. Though Mexico was and is an importer of cinnamon, with up to 96% of local consumption imported from Sri Lanka, the regions of Veracruz and Chiapas are now growing excellent cinnamon with Las Catrinas cinnamon quills from Veracruz now sold in the UK by Sous Chef souschef.co.uk. Some cinnamon varieties are impossible to buy. Japanese cinnamon (Cinnamomum sieboldii), native to China and Taiwan, has been cultivated in Japan since 1736, but along with Cinnamomum yabunikkei (used medicinally but not for food), is only available in Japan. The sieboldii variety is used in different ways in some Japanese sweets: cinnamon dumplings are made by wrapping the leaves around a red bean filling, and the famous Yatsuhashi confection of Kyoto uses it in its ground form.
The varieties easily available
Sri Lankan (Ceylon) Cinnamon, and Madagascar Cinnamon: usually Cinnamomum verum or zeylanicum. Long considered “the best” cinnamon in the world, it may be wiser to appreciate the skill and labour that all cinnamon farming requires, whatever the origin or species of plant, and to see the flavour and characteristics of each as unique to itself and the climate/terrain it’s grown in. Apart from the wide selection of Ceylon cinnamon available on eBay and Amazon, at ceyloncinnamon.co.uk you can buy Sri Lankan grown and milled cinnamon powder, whileceylonmade.co.uk offers grade c4 Sri Lankan grown Cinnamomum verum/zeylanicum in fine quills. There is a higher-grade powder, C5, available from epices-roellinger.com, who will ship to the UK, as well as Madagascan cinnamon, grown and milled from Cinnamomum verum/zeylanicum. Sous Chef also sell Madagascar cinnamon.
Indonesian cinnamon: also known as Korintje Cinnamon or Padang Cassia, Cinnamomum burmannii is a variety of cassia cinnamon native to Indonesia’s Bukit Barisan mountain range, “from Aceh, in North Sumatra, down through west Sumatra, Jambi, Bengkulu, and Lampung” according to the journal Sustainability. The wild cinnamon forests are home to endangered Sumatran tigers, as well as Sun bears, and deforestation to supply the cinnamon trade is an issue. The Schwartz brand of cinnamon is listed as Indonesian cinnamon on their website, and available from Tesco and Sainsburys. Indonesian-grown cinnamon is also available as sticks from spicemountain.co.uk.
Vietnamese cinnamon: Bo Tree Farm, a spice merchant based in Perthshire, Scotland, sell Cinnamomum loureiroi – known as Saigon cinnamon, Vietnamese cinnamon or Vietnamese cassia – as their Royal Cinnamon grown in the Quang Nam Mountains, near Huế in Vietnam. It’s a type of cassia cinnamon, and similar to one sold by themeadow.com in Portland, Oregon. There are other varieties of Cinnamomum grow in Vietnam, and some argue that “Vietnamese cassia is nothing other than Chinese cassia. However, in each country, different types of harvesting techniques are utilized and it is considered that these affect the appearance and quality of the cassia”.
Indian cinnamon: Banyan Tree Foods sells Malabar cinnamon, both as bark and powdered (possibly Cinnamomum malabatrum, wild Malabar cinnamon or ‘country cinnamon’, a type of cassia, though Cinnamomum verum is also grown in Kerala). Otherwise there is a company in Kerala, weaveskart.com that sells Cinnamomum verum as quills, sticks and ground, which according to their website is “organically grown, single origin & homestead produced”. For a different kind of cinnamon flavour, VB & Sons in London (and many south Asian grocers in the UK) sell Indian Bay Leaves which are actually cassia cinnamon leaves (you’ll see they have three veins down the length of the leaf, unlike one on a bay leaf). Delicious in savoury dishes, or added to custards when you heat the milk.
Chinese cinnamon: Cinnamomum cassia or aromaticum. It’s quite possible that the ground cinnamon you’re using in the UK, especially if it’s supermarket own-label and listed as cassia on the reverse, is Chinese-grown cinnamon. Though it grows wild in Guangdong, Guangxi and Yunnan provinces, most of the production is from cultivated crops, after China introduced cassia from Vietnam in 1962. The most prized is cassia grown in Guangxi province, and it one of the essential spices in Chinese five spice powder. Criticism of Chinese cassia focuses on the presence of coumarin, arguing that Ceylon cinnamon contains far less of it and that Chinese cassia should be labelled as harmful. However, Japanese studies have shown that Vietnamese
cassia contains larger amounts of essential oils and coumarin compared to Chinese-grown cassia because the latter harvest the cinnamon much earlier at 5 years, whereas in Vietnam the bark is typically harvested at 15 years.
Cinnamon date jaggery scones
For 4-5 large scones
250g white bread flour
1 tsp ground cinnamon
15g baking powder (3 tsp)
1/2 tsp salt
80g cold unsalted butter
100g pitted dates, chopped roughly
40g raw sugar, like grated jaggery
90g whole milk
50g-60g beaten egg
Extra flour for shaping
Extra sugar to finish
18 min at 180c fan
1. Put the flour, cinnamon, baking powder, salt in a bowl and rub in 20g butter (about a quarter of the total amount) with your fingers. Then toss in the dates.
2. In another bowl whisk together the milk, egg and sugar. Grate the remaining butter into the milk mixture and toss it gently through
3. Quickly cut the milk mixture through the flour and date mixture evenly using a rounded table knife, then lightly shape flat and about 3cm thick on a floured surface.
4. Cut the scones into rectangles with a straight downward action using a very sharp long knife. Place them onto a tray lined with non-stick paper, sprinkle with cinnamon and sprinkle or grate more raw sugar or jaggery over the top.
5. Heat the oven to 180c fan and bake for about 15 - 18 minutes until golden on top.
PDF available for download.