Christmas spice

Karl Wells
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Cinnamon is one of the smells and tastes associated with the season.

When December snow was swirling about our house many Christmases ago, if I wasn't outdoors diving off tall snow banks onto lesser ones, there was nothing I liked better than sitting at our kitchen table while my mother baked her Christmas treats.

Along with a bag of "all purpose" flour and a layer of flour dust, the table would be filled with mixing bowls, butter, eggs, smudged dog-eared cookbooks and spice bottles.

Cinnamon toast is a simple, fast comfort food, whether it's for breakfast or a late-night snack. The brown bark of the cinnamon tree has long history as both a spice and a medicine. It should be stored in a sealed container in a cool place away from light

When December snow was swirling about our house many Christmases ago, if I wasn't outdoors diving off tall snow banks onto lesser ones, there was nothing I liked better than sitting at our kitchen table while my mother baked her Christmas treats.

Along with a bag of "all purpose" flour and a layer of flour dust, the table would be filled with mixing bowls, butter, eggs, smudged dog-eared cookbooks and spice bottles.

There was one particular spice that stands out in my memory, cinnamon. That's for two reasons. One was the incredibly intense aroma of the ground cinnamon - sweet, nutty and exotic. Another was the fact that my mother used cinnamon in all her Christmas baking. So (ever since I was old enough to sit at that tiny table in the middle of our kitchen) when I think of Christmas I smell and taste cinnamon, the Christmas spice.

Just the other evening I attended a Christmas party at the home my friends, Gillian Peters and Jeremy Pridham. They served a glass of delicious citrus mulled wine. Along with red wine, sugar and citrus, it contained cinnamon. In fact, there was a full cinnamon stick (also known as a quill) for stirring, in each glass. It was steamy, rich and fragrant with cinnamon. For me it was Christmas in a glass.

Cinnamon toast

I was trying to remember when I first became aware of cinnamon. Then it hit me. Toast! Before going to bed each night my parents would often have a slice of toast and a cup of tea. To make the toast taste a little more interesting they would often sprinkle some cinnamon on it. At Christmastime, in addition to the regular cinnamon scented goodies, Cinnamon French toast would be a Christmas or Boxing Day morning treat.

So, what the heck is cinnamon and where does it come from? First, it's a spice, unlike parsley, which is a herb. Cinnamon originated in Sri Lanka, but today it's grown in many different countries, although Sri Lanka still produces 90 per cent of it. The type that we see in our part of the world is a variety of cinnamon known as cassia. It's actually a tree that can grow as high as thirty feet.

The bark is the part that's harvested, then left to rest for several hours. Next people known as cinnamon peelers peel off the outer part of the bark followed by the more tender inner layer of bark. That's the cinnamon that we buy in rolled up sticks (or quills) at the supermarket. It's also ground to make powdered cinnamon. (Did you know that Michael Ondaatje once wrote a poem called "The Cinnamon Peeler"?)

Medicinal value

While cinnamon is primarily harvested for culinary use, like many spices, it does have some medicinal value. It's antiseptic. That's why it's found in some toothpaste. It's also used in certain cultures to treat digestive ailments and the common cold.

Personally, I can't endorse cinnamon as medicine, but I can endorse it as a wonderful ingredient in food, all kinds of food. And at no time of the year does it taste so right, so perfect as now ... Christmastime.

Cinnamon French Toast

Ingredients:

4 eggs

1 cup whole milk

1 tbsp. sugar

1 tsp. cinnamon

1/4 tsp. salt

1/2 teaspoon vanilla

6 slices homemade white bread

4 tbsp. grape seed oil

Maple syrup

Method:

Heat oil in sautÉ pan over medium heat. Mix together eggs, sugar, milk, cinnamon, salt and vanilla. Coat bread slices in mixture and cook on both sides in pan (approx. two minutes per side.) You may need to add more oil after finishing the first few slices. Serve with maple syrup. Makes three servings.

Citrus Mulled Wine

Courtesy Gillian Peters

Ingredients:

1 cup water

2/3 cup sugar

1 tsp.. whole cloves

1/4 tsp. nutmeg

8 cinnamon sticks

1 each lemon and orange, sliced

2 bottles dry red wine

Method:

In a small saucepan combine water, sugar, cloves, nutmeg, one of the cinnamon sticks, lemon and orange. Bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring. Reduce heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Cool and strain. (Recipe can be prepared to this point, covered and refrigerated for up to one week.) In a large saucepan combine sugar mixture and wine. Heat until steaming. Serve with remaining cinnamon sticks for stirring. Makes eight servings.

Geographic location: Sri Lanka

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Recent comments

  • Castaway
    July 02, 2010 - 13:18

    As much as I love the aroma of cinnamon, I cannot single it out as the Christmas spice. Cardamom, cloves and nutmeg sing to louder during Christmas while cinnamon plays more modestly in the background like a viola holding its own in a symphony of cello and trumpets and clarinets.


    As far as medicinal value, it would be noteworthy to add that a study,
    Diabetes Care 26:3215-3218, 2003 published by the American Diabetes Association, Inc.© 2003, and cited in other journals, reveals that Cinnamon Improves Glucose and Lipids of People With Type 2 (non insulin-dependent) Diabetes.


    Season's greetings and happy baking !

  • Castaway
    July 01, 2010 - 19:59

    As much as I love the aroma of cinnamon, I cannot single it out as the Christmas spice. Cardamom, cloves and nutmeg sing to louder during Christmas while cinnamon plays more modestly in the background like a viola holding its own in a symphony of cello and trumpets and clarinets.


    As far as medicinal value, it would be noteworthy to add that a study,
    Diabetes Care 26:3215-3218, 2003 published by the American Diabetes Association, Inc.© 2003, and cited in other journals, reveals that Cinnamon Improves Glucose and Lipids of People With Type 2 (non insulin-dependent) Diabetes.


    Season's greetings and happy baking !