special for Savor the Southwest by Jacqueline A. Soule, Ph.D.
Many of our winter dishes include cinnamon. Cinnamon is traditionally spice used in winter cooking, like pumpkin pie, snickerdoodles, and gingerbread. Growing up in Tucson, our hot cocoa always had a sprinkle of cinnamon in it. I remember the first time I encountered “American Cocoa” made with tons of sugar and marshmallows. Even at age eight I thought it way too sweet. I prefer a nice “Mexican Cocoa,” and part of what makes it so good is the cinnamon.
Mexican Cocoa Mix
1 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 cup chopped Mexican chocolate (such as Ibarra)
1 cup powdered creamer
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons ground cinnamon
Blend this together well and store in a quart jar.
To make the cocoa, place 1/3 cup of mix in a mug and stir in 1 cup boiling water.
This can make a nice gift – place in a quart canning jar with a few whole sticks of cinnamon around the inside. Those cinnamon sticks are great for stirring the cocoa with, and can be nibbled on for hours. Avoid excessive cinnamon stick consumption however, it can have a laxative effect.
The Botany of Cinnamon
The word “cinnamon” is directly from Hebrew and is found in the Old Testament – where “kinamon” is mentioned in the same context as the treasures of gold, silver, myrrh, and frankincense. In those long ago days, the rolled “sticks” of cinnamon bark came overland from the rainforests of Sri Lanka on the backs of beasts of burden such as elephants, dromedaries, and camels. It was so sought after, it was one of the spices that spurred world exploration.
The spice itself comes from the inner bark of an evergreen rainforest tree which is now grown in large plantations. The bark is carefully harvested to not kill the tree. As the bark dries it curls into “sticks” or “quills,” which are used whole or ground. Meanwhile, leftover parts and pruned branches are used to make the essential oil sold as “Cinnamon Oil.”
There are numerous species of cinnamon. The most popular for culinary use is the pungent and slightly sweet Ceylon cinnamon (Cinnamonum zeylanicum). With a very cinnamon fragrance, “Cassia Oil” comes from Cinnamonum cassia, with the immature fruits called cassia buds used as a spice. Camphor from Cinnamonum camphora was one of the raw materials in the manufacture of celluloid. Now camphor is primarily used medicinally.
If you live in Southeastern Arizona, please come to one of my lectures. Look for me at your local Pima County Library branch, Steam Pump Ranch, Tubac Presidio, Tucson Festival of Books and other venues. After each event I will be signing copies of my books, including the latest, Month-by-Month Garden Guide for Arizona, Nevada, and New Mexico (Cool Springs Press, $26).
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