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Eric Akis: The ancient allure of cinnamon

When a recipe calls for cinnamon, I smile and get almost giddy opening the jar. Its aroma is so fabulously amazing and its taste so warm and welcoming, I feel better, even when I’m not down.
This succulent lamb shank is braised in a sauce of tomatoes, cinnamon, orange and mint.

When a recipe calls for cinnamon, I smile and get almost giddy opening the jar. Its aroma is so fabulously amazing and its taste so warm and welcoming, I feel better, even when I’m not down.

Do a little research and it becomes clear that comforting feeling has happened to countless others for eons.

Cinnamon is one of the first known spices, according to It was used in ancient Egypt and is mentioned in the Old Testament. The Romans believed its aroma was sacred and burned it at funerals. That website also says that in the 15th century, cinnamon was such a sought-after spice it may have indirectly led European explorers to discover America in search of it.

However, those who went in that direction did not find cinnamon, but those who sailed to southeast Asia did, as that’s where it originates.

According to spice company McCormick, cinnamon is the dried inner bark of various evergreen trees belonging to the genus Cinnamomum. At harvest, pieces of the bark are removed and dried, and during that process curl into what are called “quills.” The quills are sold whole or ground.

Most reference books divide that genus into two categories — “true” cinnamon and cassia.

McCormick’s says Cinnamomum burmannii, also called Padang cassia, is the most common form of cinnamon in the United States, and that’s true for Canada, too. It is primarily imported from Indonesia and when sold here, whether in quills or ground, is simply labelled cinnamon. It has a bold aroma and flavour and is what most North Americans have been using in their recipes for decades.

On some grocery store shelves, you may also see a product called Saigon cinnamon. That’s the market name for Cinnamomun loureirii, which is grown in Vietnam and is also known as Vietnamese cassia. Because of its full, complex flavour, some call Saigon cinnamon the most prized member of the cassia family and that’s reflected in its higher price.

Cinnamomum verum, better known as “true cinnamon,” is grown in Sri Lanka and has a more delicate and alluring flavour and aroma. Because of those qualities, spice connoisseurs consider it to be the finest cinnamon and deem the cassia types noted above, simply close relatives.

That said, in North America few people use true cinnamon because it’s not readily available.

And, even if it was easy to find, those who have used the stronger tasting, sweeter and spicier type might find its subtler qualities not quite right.

Cinnamon in its various forms has certainly had an impact on the world’s cuisine. In India, for example, cinnamon is used in spice blends such as garam masala, and condiments such as chutney. In China, cinnamon is one of the key ingredients used to make pungent five-spice powder. In the Middle East, among other things, it’s used to flavour meat dishes, which influenced today’s cinnamon-spiced lamb shank recipe.

Around the globe, of course, cinnamon is also used in myriad baked goods and desserts.

In today’s recipe they include cinnamon biscuits, and cinnamon-spiced chocolate cake.

When buying cinnamon, ground or in quills, choose a retailer that sells a high volume of spices. This will ensure what you are buying has not been sitting around for months, losing flavour and aroma. When home, store cinnamon in an airtight container in a dark, cool-room-temperature place. If in good condition when purchased, it will keep at least a year.


Cinnamon Biscuits with Honey and Currants

This treat is like a cinnamon bun, but instead of yeast dough, a biscuit one is used. Serve with coffee, tea or milk, for breakfast, brunch or a snack.

Preparation: 25 minutes

Cooking time: 12 to 14 minutes

Makes: 10 to 12 biscuits


2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour, plus some for kneading and shaping

2 tsp baking powder

1/2 tsp baking soda

2 Tbsp granulated sugar

1/2 tsp salt

1/4 cup cold butter, cut into small cubes

1/2 cup currants

1 1/4 cups buttermilk

2 Tbsp melted butter

1/3 cup packed golden brown sugar

1 tsp ground cinnamon

2 Tbsp liquid honey, warmed

Preheat oven to 425 F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside.

Place first five ingredients into a bowl and whisk to combine. With your fingers, two forks or a pastry cutter, work the butter into the flour mixture until thoroughly distributed. Now mix in the currants. Gently mix in the buttermilk until loose dough forms. Flour a work surface, and then turn the fairly wet and sticky dough onto it.

Flour your hands and knead and shape the dough into a ball. Now press and flatten dough into a rectangle that’s about 12 inches wide and 10 inches long.

Brush the top of the dough with the melted butter. Combine brown sugar and cinnamon in a small bowl. Sprinkle this mixture over the melted butter. Carefully roll the dough into a tight cylinder. Now use a floured, sharp knife to cut the dough into 1 1/2-inch rounds and place on the baking sheet, spacing them about a 1/2 inch part.

Bake in the middle of the oven 12 to 14 minutes, until puffed and golden. Remove from the oven and drizzle with the honey. Enjoy hot or at room temperature.


Tomatoey Braised Lamb Shanks with Cinnamon and Orange

Succulent lamb braised until tender in a sauce with tomatoes, cinnamon, orange, mint and more.

Preparation: 25 minutes

Cooking time: About three hours

Makes: Four servings


2 Tbsp olive oil

4 lamb shanks

• salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

4 cinnamon sticks, each broken into 3 pieces

1 medium onion, diced

1 large garlic clove, minced

2 Tbsp tomato paste

1/2 tsp ground cumin

1/8 tsp cayenne pepper

1 (14 oz.) can tomato sauce

1/2 cup red wine

2 tsp finely grated orange zest

1/3 cup orange juice

2 Tbsp red wine vinegar

1 Tbsp honey

1 to 2 Tbsp chopped fresh mint

Preheat oven to 325 F. Heat the oil in large skillet set over medium-high. Season the lamb with salt and pepper and then deeply brown on all sides. Set the shanks in a single layer in a 9x13-inch casserole. Set the broken pieces of cinnamon stick around the lamb.

Remove all but 1 Tbsp of the fat from the skillet. Add the onion and garlic and cook three to four minutes. Mix in the tomato paste, cumin and cayenne and cook two minutes more. Mix in remaining ingredients, except mint, and bring to a simmer. Pour mixture over lamb. Cover and bake until very tender, about 2 1/2 to three hours. Skim fat from the lamb’s sauce, sprinkle lamb with mint and serve.


Cinnamon-spiced Chocolate Cake Squares

Cinnamon flavours the rich, egg-less cake, and the whipped cream that’s dolloped on top.

Preparation: 15 minutes

Cooking time: 30 to 35 minutes

Makes: 9 squares


For the cake

• vegetable oil spray

1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 cup granulated sugar

1/2 cup golden brown sugar

1/4 cup cornstarch

1/4 cup sifted cocoa

1 tsp baking soda

1 tsp ground cinnamon

1/2 tsp salt

1/3 cup vegetable oil

1 Tbsp lemon juice

1 tsp pure vanilla extract

1 cup 2% milk

Grease an eight-inch square baking pan with vegetable oil spray. Cut an 8-by-12-inch piece of parchment paper to fit the bottom and up two of the four sides of the baking pan. (The parchment paper extending the sides of the pan will be used to lift the baked bar out of the pan.) Preheat oven to 350 F.

Place the flour, sugars, cornstarch, cocoa, baking soda, cinnamon and salt in a mixing bowl and whisk until well combined. Add the remaining ingredients and mix until well combined. Spoon the batter into prepared pan. Bake 30 to 35 minutes, or until cake springs back when gently touched in the centre. Cool on a baking rack and finish as described below.


For the topping and to serve

1 cup whipping cream

2 Tbsp icing sugar, or taste

1/2 tsp ground cinnamon

1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract

• mint sprigs for garnish

Whip cream until soft peaks form. Add remaining ingredients, except mint, and whip until stiff peaks form.

Lift the cake out of the pan, cut into portions, and plate them. Serve each portion topped with a dollop or piped spiral of the whipped cream. Garnish with mint, if desired, and serve.

Options: If the whipped cream is too rich for you, dust the cake with cinnamon-flavoured icing sugar.


Eric Akis is the author of Everyone Can Cook Everything. His columns appear in the Life section Wednesday and Sunday.