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Cinnamon or Cassia? The True Story

by Lori Grossman

Cinnamon is one of the "must-have" spices. Whether you're a frequent cook, or only drag yourself into the kitchen on special occasions, it's a pretty safe bet that you have cinnamon in your cabinet or spice rack. But how much do you really know about cinnamon?

John Raven, Ph.B. - one of Texas Cooking's resident experts - listed some basic information in his article, The Spices of Life. It piqued my desire to learn more about my favorite spice.

Cinnamon or Cassia?
This cooking mainstay is also called "true cinnamon" to distinguish it from another spice, cassia - or "Indonesian cinnamon" - that is often confused with cinnamon. True cinnamon is the dried inner bark of a tropical evergreen laurel tree native to Sri Lanka and southern India. It has a light yellowish-brown color, is very fragrant, and has a sweet, warm taste.

By comparison, cassia is a medium to light reddish-brown and is thicker and harder in texture than cinnamon. Cassia has a more bitter taste. It comes from the cassia tree, an evergreen that belongs to the laurel family. It's found in China, where the buds are used to add cinnamon flavor to sweet pickles and candy.

If a recipe calls for stick cinnamon, you can identify cinnamon sticks (also called quills) by their many thin layers and fine texture. Cassia sticks are harder and comprise one thick, rolled layer. When in powdered form, it's harder to tell them apart. In the United States, much of the spice we know as "ground cinnamon" is actually a blend of cinnamon and cassia. Look for the color difference - cassia is the darker of the two.

Spices don't keep indefinitely. Cinnamon should be replaced after two to three years. Store it in a cool, dark place in your kitchen or pantry.

Other Uses
Besides it's primary use as a flavoring, cinnamon is said to have various medicinal properties. It has been used as an antiflatulent, to treat diarrhea, and to cure colds. Also, a whiff of cinnamon is reputedly able to lift one's spirits and contribute to a sense of well being.

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Do you love the scent of cinnamon wafting from a hot oven? If you aren't baking, you can still scent your kitchen by boiling 1 teaspoon of ground cinnamon in 3 cups of water in an open saucepan on the stove. Bring that same aroma to your bureau drawers by using cinnamon sticks as sachets.

Here's a hint you might want to try. If exposure to insecticide products makes you ill or causes allergic reactions, try using cinnamon as an insect repellent.

Now that you know more about cinnamon, it's time to put it to good use.

Rum-Raisin Applesauce Cake

  • 2-1/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
  • 3/4 cup packed brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/2 cup butter (1 stick), softened
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1/3 cup dark Jamaican rum
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 1-1/4 cups sweetened applesauce
  • 1 cup dark seedless raisins
  • Rum Glaze (recipe follows)
Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease a 10-cup fluted baking pan (like a Bundt pan) or 9-inch tube pan. Dust with flour.

On waxed paper, combine the flour, cinnamon, baking soda, salt, and allspice; set aside.

In a large bowl, with mixer at low speed, beat the brown and granulated sugars with the butter until blended, scraping bowl often with rubber spatula. Increase speed to medium-high, and beat until creamy (about 3 minutes), occasionally scraping bowl.

Reduce speed to low; add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in rum and vanilla. Alternately add flour mixture and applesauce, beginning and ending with flour mixture. Stir in raisins.

Spoon batter into pan and spread evenly. Bake 50 to 55 minutes or until toothpick inserted in center of cake comes out clean.

Cool cake in pan on wire rack 15 minutes. For fluted pan, loosen cake from pan. Invert cake directly onto wire rack to cool completely. For tube pan, with small metal spatula, loosen cake from side and center tube of pan. Invert cake onto plate; immediately invert again (top side will be up) onto wire rack to cool completely. Glaze cooled cake with Rum Glaze if desired. Makes 16 servings.

Rum Glaze

  • 1/4 cup packed light brown sugar
  • 3 tablespoons butter (no substitutions)
  • 1 tablespoon dark Jamaican rum
  • 1/3 cup confectioners' sugar
In a 1-quart glass measure, heat the brown sugar and butter in microwave on High, 1 minute and 15 seconds to 1 minute and 45 seconds until bubbly, stirring twice during cooking. With wire whisk, beat in the rum, then confectioners' sugar until mixture is smooth.

Immediately pour glaze over top of cooled cake, letting it run down sides. Let cake stand at least 20 minutes to allow glaze to set before serving.

Chocolate Tamales
Yes, chocolate tamales! Serve these for dessert with hot chocolate or eggnog. Perfect for a cold, blustery Texas evening.

  • 1-1/2 cups raisins
  • 2 tablespoons Kahlúa
  • 10 ounces unsalted butter, or 7 ounces butter and 3 ounces lard (about 1-1/4 cups)
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 3 heaping tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 2 pounds fairly dry masa for tamales (about 5-1/3 cups masa harina mixed with 2-1/2 to 3 cups water)
  • 1/2 to 1 cup whole milk, or more if necessary
  • 1 heaping cup chopped pecans
  • 40 dried cornhusks, soaked in hot water about 2 hours and patted dry (weight them down with a heavy lid to keep them from floating)
Fill the bottom of a tamale steamer with water and a few coins. The coins will rattle as the water boils. If the rattling slows or stops completely, more boiling water should be added.

Mix the raisins with the Kahlúa and set aside.

In a large bowl of an electric mixer, beat the butter with the baking powder until light and fluffy. Gradually beat in the salt, sugar, vanilla, cinnamon, and cocoa powder. When all ingredients are well mixed, start adding the masa alternately with the milk. Do not add all of the milk until you check the consistency of the masa. It should be light in texture, thick enough to hold its shape in a spoon, but barely plop off the end of the spoon. A small ball should float in a glass of cold water. If the consistency seems too stiff, add milk by teaspoonfuls until the desired consistency is reached.

Mix the pecans in with the raisins.

Spread 2 tablespoons of the chocolate masa dough evenly over the inside of a cornhusk. Put a rounded tablespoon of the raisin/nut mixture down the center of the dough and fold the husk over so that the dough covers, or almost covers, the filling. Roll up and fold ends of husk towards each other to close. Repeat with remaining husks and filling.

Stack tamales upright (vertically) in the tamale steamer, firmly but not tightly, and steam for about 1-1/2 hours or until the dough comes cleanly away from the husk. Makes about 36 tamales.

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