Exploring Cinnamon’s savoury side

Spice up with recipes from Chef Heidi Fink

  • Jan. 15, 2020 7:30 a.m.

– Story and recipes by Chef Heidi Fink Photographs by Don Denton

Cinnamon is unfairly relegated to the baking cupboard when it has so much to offer to the entire kitchen. By turns spicy, sweet and fragrant, cinnamon can richly complement savoury foods as much as it does sweets like cookies. It’s time to explore what this lovely spice can do.

In my kitchen, you will find cinnamon roasted with winter vegetables, steeped into a warming cup of tea, mixed into a dry rub, or simmered into a fragrant Moroccan-influenced stew, to name a few outside-of-the-bakeshop cooking ideas. I find the culinary strength of cinnamon lies in its complex, spicy and warming qualities, and not necessarily in its sweetness.

There are several types of cinnamon, each with its own flavour profile and kitchen power. In fact, the cinnamon in your cupboard is not likely real cinnamon at all, but a related species, cassia. True cinnamon is harder to find and more expensive, but definitely worth seeking out.

Where our familiar “cinnamon” (cassia) is a rich, strong, spicy and dark powder, true cinnamon is milder, fruitier, lighter in colour, with a distinct flavour reminiscent of Valentine’s Day cinnamon hearts. Cassia pairs well with strong flavours and spices — curry, gingerbread, cloves — and true cinnamon pairs perfectly with milder foods, like apples, pears, cardamom and natural cocoa.

I keep both types in my cupboard and use them in different ways. Cassia always goes in my gingerbread cookies and pumpkin spice loaf; I use it as part of my garam masala mix, used in many Indian dishes. Cassia also makes a frequent appearance in Moroccan tagines (stews) — where its liberal use distinguishes the flavour profile from Indian — and in my Mexican cooking as a subtle enhancement to taco fillings and grilled meats.

True cinnamon appears more frequently in desserts. I love to mix it into an aromatic cup of chai, sprinkle it on my morning bowl of oats, or use it instead of cassia in apple pie, where its milder aroma doesn’t out-compete the taste of the apple. I absolutely love true cinnamon when paired with natural (not Dutch-processed) cocoa powder. Try it in your next cup of Mexican-inspired hot cocoa, or in the chocolate variation of my rugelach recipe, below.

Whether or not you decide to add true cinnamon to your pantry, you should definitely explore the savoury side of cinnamon. Its warm spiciness and subtle sweetness will add complexity, warmth and delicious flavour to all areas of your cooking.

DOUBLE CINNAMON CHAI TEA

Serves 2

Different than the chai I serve in my Indian cooking classes, this one is heavy on the cinnamon — a perfect aroma that has us feeling cosy and warm on a blustery day.

8 pods green cardamom

5 ml (½ tsp) sliced fresh ginger

5 cm (2 inches) true cinnamon stick, crushed or

broken into small shards

2 cm (1 inch) regular cinnamon (cassia), in half

620-750 ml (2.5 to 3 cups) water

125 ml (½ cup) whole milk

15 ml (3 tsp) black tea leaves (I prefer Jewel of India

from Silk Road Tea)

sweetener to taste

If possible, crush the cardamom pods and the true cinnamon in a mortar and pestle, or place them in a zipper-lock bag and roll over them with a rolling pin. This helps release the essential oils from the spices.

In a medium pot, combine the lightly crushed spices, plus ginger and the piece of regular cinnamon (cassia) with the water. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 2 minutes. Add milk and bring to a boil again. Remove from heat and immediately add the tea leaves and some sweetener (start with 1 Tbsp) and let steep gently for 3 to 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Taste for sweetness.

Strain chai through a tea strainer into individual cups and serve.

Note: if making more than one batch of this, strain the chai through a cheesecloth-lined strainer into a large pot or pitcher before serving.

CINNAMON RUGELACH

Makes 4 dozen

These delicious and easy-to-make mini pastries are a traditional Jewish treat served during the holidays.

Dough

250 g (8 oz) cream cheese, at cool-room temperature

227 g (1 cup) unsalted butter, at cool-room temperature

50 g (¼ cup) white sugar

350 g (2.5 cups) flour

2.5 ml (½ tsp) salt

Filling

150 g (⅔ cup) melted butter

50 g (¼ cup) white sugar

100 g (½ cup) brown sugar

25 ml (5 tsp) regular cinnamon (cassia)

2.5 ml (½ tsp) allspice

250 ml (1 cup) finely chopped medjool dates (optional)

1 ml (¼ tsp) salt

Topping:

Milk, for brushing

Sugar, for sprinkling

Dough: In the bowl of a standing mixer using the paddle attachment, cream butter and cream cheese together until light and fluffy. In separate bowl, whisk together sugar, flour and salt. Add flour mixture to butter mixture and beat well to combine. Divide dough into quarters. Flatten each into a round disk of 1-inch thickness, wrap in waxed paper and refrigerate 1 hour.

Filling: Keep the butter separate. In a medium bowl, mix together white sugar, brown sugar, cinnamon, allspice, salt and finely chopped dates (if using).

To make cookies: Preheat oven to 350 F. Line two cookie sheets with parchment paper. Set aside.

Take one dough disk out of the fridge at a time. Roll it out on a well-floured surface to a thickness of ¼-inch. You should have a 10-inch circle. Brush with 2 to 3 Tbsp melted butter. Sprinkle evenly with ¼ of the sugar-date mixture. Cut the circle into 12 wedges, like a tiny pizza. Roll up each rugelach from the wide edge of the wedge to make a mini croissant shape. Place on a cookie sheet with the point of the dough facing down (so it doesn’t unroll). Repeat with remaining wedges. Brush each lightly with milk and sprinkle with sugar.

Bake one batch at a time, for about 20 minutes, or until puffed and firm to the touch. Transfer to wire racks to cool.

CHOCOLATE-CINNAMON VARIATION

Substitute the cinnamon filling, above, for the following:

114 g (½ cup) melted butter — kept separate for brushing

50 g (¼ cup) brown sugar 50 g (¼ cup) white sugar; 20 ml

(4 tsp) natural cocoa powder; 20 ml (4 tsp) true cinnamon powder; 1 ml (¼ tsp) salt; 250 g (8 oz) mini chocolate chips.

MOROCCAN LAMB TAGINE WITH PEAR & CINNAMON

Serves 6 to 8

Fragrant cinnamon has long been mixed with other spices into meat stews in North Africa and the Middle East. This recipe is adapted from one I was taught to make by a chef in Morocco. It can be made in either a tagine or a heavy pot with a tight-fitting lid. I prefer cubed lamb shoulder in this recipe, but any lamb stew meat will work.

Spice mixture

5 ml (1 tsp) ground cumin

5 ml (1 tsp) ground turmeric

5 ml (1 tsp) regular cinnamon (cassia)

10 ml (2 tsp) dry ground ginger

5 ml (1 tsp) sea salt

Tagine

15 ml (3 Tbsp) extra virgin olive oil

1 onion, diced

3 cloves garlic, minced

Spice mixture, above

900 g (2 lbs) stewing lamb, cut into ½-inch cubes

500 ml (2 cups) chicken broth

250 ml (1 cup) water

3 medium-sized firm pears, peeled, cored and cut into large pieces

Finish

180 ml (¾ cup) dried cherries or dried apricots, or a mixture

(cut apricots in half)

15 ml (1 Tbsp) butter

15 ml (1 Tbsp) honey

2.5 ml (½ tsp) true cinnamon (or ¼ tsp regular cinnamon)

Mix the spices together in a small bowl. Have all your ingredients chopped and ready to go.

In a large saucepan or medium pot with a tight-fitting lid, heat the olive oil until just shimmering. Add onion and sauté gently for about 7 minutes, until translucent. Add garlic and spice mixture and sauté briefly, 10 to 15 seconds, until just aromatic. Add the chicken broth, water and prepared lamb. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to lowest setting, cover and simmer gently, 1.5 to 2 hours, until lamb is tender.

Add pear and simmer very gently, covered, for about 10 minutes. Remove pan from heat (just while doing the next step). Scoop out as much of the liquid from the tagine as you can and transfer it to a small pot. Add the dried cherries or apricots, butter, honey and true cinnamon. Bring to a boil, reduce heat partially, and simmer vigorously for 3 to 5 minutes, until liquid is reduced by at least one-third. Scrape the contents of this pot back into the lamb mixture, return it to the heat and simmer gently to meld the flavours, about 10 minutes more.

Serve immediately with warm bread. Decorate the tagine with pomegranate seeds or toasted almonds, if desired.

Tagine can be made up to 4 days ahead and reheated before serving.

ROASTED WINTER VEGETABLES WITH CINNAMON-CHILI BUTTER

Serves 4 to 6 as a side

I love to pair warming spices with roasted winter vegetables. The combination of sweet earthy vegetables with the tingle of cinnamon and cayenne makes for a delicious and satisfying winter side dish.

680 g (1.5 lbs) winter squash, peeled and cubed

680 g (1.5 lbs) parsnip, peeled, cored (if desired) and

cut into chunks

454 g (1 lb) shallots, peeled and cut in half

15 ml (1 Tbsp) vegetable oil

5 ml (1 tsp) salt

~

30 ml (2 Tbsp) butter, melted

7.5 ml (1.5 tsp) regular cinnamon

2.5 ml (½ tsp) cayenne, or to taste

Preheat oven to 400 F (or 375 F on a convection setting). Line a baking tray with parchment paper.

In a large bowl, toss chopped squash, parsnip and shallot with oil and salt to coat evenly. Spread vegetables on tray in a thin, even layer. Place in the oven and roast for about 30 minutes, stirring halfway through the cooking time.

Meanwhile, melt together the butter, cinnamon and cayenne. After the vegetables have roasted for about 30 minutes, remove from oven. The vegetables should be not quite cooked through. Drizzle with cinnamon butter and use a flipper or spatula to mix well and spread the vegetables out again. (I often lift the vegetables back into the big bowl, drizzle with the cinnamon butter, mix and then return to the tray.)

Return to the oven for 5 to 10 minutes, until vegetables are cooked through and spices are fragrant. Serve immediately.

For more recipes from Chef Heidi Fink check out her website here.

A huge thank you to Jim and Carol Ann Scott for hosting our photoshoot.

Story courtesy of Boulevard Magazine, a Black Press Media publication

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