We choose a recipe with a variety of criteria: Is it simple? Is it fancy? Do we have the right pan?
This list goes on, but mostly boils down to this: Will it be delicious?
Baking Central strives for delicious recipes. But now, in our ninth year, we’re focusing on what makes an ingredient reach that delicious outcome.
Each month, we’ll take a closer look at a key ingredient, exploring how it behaves, the differences among varieties, why some people swear by, say, lard in their pie crusts while others will never abandon butter.
What’s the difference between baking soda and baking powder? Is spelt like regular white flour? How semi is semisweet?
This month, we’re looking at cinnamon. And yes, there’s a delicious recipe, too.
Cinnamon is the first spice that many of us experience, whether sprinkled on sugar-dusted toast, swirled into a sweet roll or baked into a slice of apple pie. It’s used around the world in stews, soups, meats and sweets.
Ground from the bark of cinnamon trees, the spice is native to equatorial regions of India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Vietnam and Myanmar, generally known among traders as the Spice Islands. Sailing ships could smell the land from miles away.
Most of what we buy in U.S. supermarkets today is Ceylon cinnamon, harvested in Indonesia and Vietnam and sometimes labeled Korintji. It’s mild with an aroma described as floral or citrusy. When Cook’s Illustrated ranked cinnamons, its testers easily singled out this one from bolder varieties.
Penzey’s Spices stocks a cinnamon from China known as Tang Hing, which it describes as “extra sweet, spicy and strong.” This is the cinnamon for making your own cinnamon sugar, stirring 2 to 3 teaspoons into a half-cup of sugar.
Vietnamese cinnamon has a bold, hot flavor. Think of red-hot candies. Against a backdrop of pillowy sweet roll dough, its strong flavor comes to the fore. This is cinnamon without apology.
Then again, don’t overthink this.
One of the curious findings of the Cook’s Illustrated test was how cinnamon’s qualities changed once baked or heated. Varieties could be identified when stirred into chilled rice pudding. But when baked into cinnamon buns, the distinctions faded.
“That’s because, of the three main volatile oils responsible for cinnamon’s flavor, the most abundant oil is spicy-tasting cinnamaldehyde, which is also the least stable in the presence of heat,” the magazine reported.
So where does that leave a baker?
Cinnamon goes a long way, so it’s perhaps best to buy a variety that you’ll enjoy in its unheated state: on cinnamon toast, stirred into yogurt, whirred in a smoothie, etc. For bold tastes, that would be a Vietnamese, also called Saigon, cinnamon; for milder tastes, Ceylon or Korintji.
In short, bakers can hardly go wrong, and can even get by with less expensive varieties — a claim that can’t be made for all ingredients.
Oh, and save the cinnamon sticks for flavoring hot drinks such as cider. Or drop one into a beef stew or chili for a subtle flavor boost.
Like most spices, cinnamon should be kept in an airtight container in a dark place, and best used within six months.
The following recipe for Apple-Cinnamon Swirligigs makes the most of cinnamon’s warm aroma by first stirring it into a sugar syrup.
Chopped apples are rolled up into a biscuity dough, sliced into discs and laid on their sides. Doused with the cinnamon syrup and baked, the dessert emerges from the oven with its own spiced sauce that’s great with ice cream.
Leftovers? Reheat them for breakfast and serve with a dollop of yogurt.
Recipe: Apple-Cinnamon Swirligigs
Note: We used Honeycrisp apples, but you can use your favorite variety. From Kim Ode.
• 1/2 c. water
• 1/2 c. granulated sugar
• 1/2 tsp. cinnamon
• 2 tbsp. butter
• 1 c. flour
• 1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
• Pinch of salt
• 1/4 c. butter (1/2 stick), cut into 8 pieces
• 1/3 c plus 2 tbsp. milk
• 1 1/2 c. apples, peeled, cored and cut into 1/4-in. dice (about 2 medium)
• 2 tbsp. brown sugar
• 1/4 tsp. cinnamon
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly oil or spray a 9-inch round cake pan or a 7- by 11-inch baking dish.
To make the syrup: Stir together 1/2 cup water, granulated sugar and 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon, and bring to a full boil in a small saucepan. Remove from heat and add 2 tablespoons butter. Set aside.
To make the dough: In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder and salt. With a pastry blender or with your fingers, cut in 1/4 cup butter until no large pieces remain.
Stir in milk and mix until the dough comes together into a ball.
On a well-floured surface, roll or pat dough into a rectangle 9 inches wide and 12 inches long, making sure it’s not sticking to the surface. Keep edges as straight as possible.
In another bowl, stir together diced apples, brown sugar and 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon. Spread evenly over dough, with apples distributed from side to side, but leaving 1-inch open at the top edge. Beginning at the bottom, roll dough and apples into a tight cylinder (although not so tight that the apples break through) and seal the seam.
Cut into 6 sections, about 1 1/2 inches wide. Arrange rolls on their side in the prepared pan with space between them. Stir cinnamon syrup, then pour over the rolls.
Bake for 40 minutes, or until lightly brown. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Nutrition information per serving:
Calories 290 Fat 12 g Sodium 250 mg
Carbohydrates 44 g Saturated fat 7 g Total sugars 26 mg
Protein 3 g Cholesterol 30 mg Dietary fiber 2 g
Exchanges per serving: ½ fruit, 1 starch, 1 ½ carb, 2 fat.