A Word On Food: Cinnamon

Feb 1, 2014

The way my mother taught me to make cinnamon toast was to start with raisin bread and toast it to perfection.

She might have timed it by how long it took her to jump into her waitress work uniform before slathering it with rich and creamy Wisconsin sweet butter. Then she sprinkled a combination of sugar and cinnamon out of our plastic, yellow  ‘baseball player’ figurine bottle that was covered with wax paper tucked under a red metal lid tha t doubled as the faux baseball boy’s ‘cap’. She usually slathered enough butter on the toast so that the cinnamon and sugar mix slide over the top of it like grains of sand dancing in the ebb of an ocean wave.

We loved the lusciousness of that butter. We loved the ‘crunch’ the sugar gave as we bit into the toast. We loved the mild heat the cinnamon conveyed. But mostly we loved these shared, quiet moments before she went off to work. The fragrance of our breakfast lingered on my hands and comforted me during the first hour of math class at Diamond Lake Elementary. When the milk break came at 10:30 a.m., I noted the dairy’s rich, sweet tang against my sugar-cinnamon scented digits, and I was off, into a land marked with cinnamon trees.

Had I been in geography class, I might have learned that the trees that bring us the bark from where cinnamon comes are native to Sri Lanka. Cinnamon has been an important spice since antiquity. In actuality, there are two major types of what is called ‘cinnamon’ in English. One is is from cassia bark and the other Cinnamomum verum. The canny French lump them into one word for both and that is “cannelle.

The even cannier Arabs liked to shroud the sources of what they could trade by creating outrageous stories on how things were obtained to discourage poachers. According to a man known as Theophrastus from the 4th Century: “They say it grows in valleys where there are snakes with a deadly bite, so they protect their hands and feet when they go down to collect it. They divide it into three portions and draw lots for them with the sun, Whichever portion the sun wins, they leave behind. They say as soon as they leave, it bursts into flames."

When cinnamon is cultivated, the rootstocks are managed so as to grow straight and tall as a human being. Then they are harvested and taken off in bushels for peeling and further processing. There are people who have the job description of being a ‘cinnamon peeler.' There is a beautiful poem by Michael Ondatjee named the “Cinnamon Peeler’s Wife.” 

I urge you to find it  if you like the sensuality of topics such as these.

A cinnamon peeler strips off the outer bark and then rubs it with a heavy brass rod to loosen things. Incisions are made down the sides and around the quill the cinnamon is in. The subsequent quills are actually about 40 inches long. They are cut into the smaller sections we find them in at the store. I like to toast and grind my own cinnamon.

Though I most commonly utilize cinnamon in recipes for pastry and sweet things, we do love a recipe called “Plantains in Temptation Sauce.” When anglicized, it features sweet plantains cooked with sherry vinegar, cloves, cinnamon, lime zest, salt, pepper and duck stock. It is a fine side dish to many savory partners. Perhaps like the Cinnamon Peeler’s Wife?

I wonder, where is my Cinnamon Baseball Player now ?



This is a recipe I learned from a Venezuelan friend. It features cinnamon in a savory way.

Serves: 4

2 Very ripe plantains, peeled and cut in 1-inch rounds

¾ Cup sugar

¾ Cup sherry wine vinegar

1/4 Teaspoon cloves

1/4 Teaspoon cinnamon

2 Tablespoons grated lime zest

2 Tablespoons lime segments

¾ Cup duck stock

2-½ Tablespoon butter (diced in cubes)

Canola oil for frying


Put the canola oil in a small pot to go ½ inch up the sides and heat to 300º.  Add the plantain rounds and fry until dark golden brown on all sides. Remove plantains to paper towels. 

Melt the sugar in a clean pot over medium-high heat and stir until it turns into a brown caramel and all lumps are melted. Carefully add the vinegar and stir until the caramel is dissolved.  Add the cinnamon, cloves, lime zest and the duck stock. Reduce this liquid to a caramel then carefully fold in the plantains. Continue to cook at a medium-low temperature basting two minutes. Add the butter and mix it carefully into the caramel and plantains. Serve.

Note: This dish is excellent with Foie Gras, Roast Pork, Ropa Vieja, Carne Desmenuzada and a simple Roasted Chicken.