Eating tree bark is often the punchline of some bad joke about a healthful diet. But we do it - collectively, to the tune of tens of millions of pounds a year. Odds are, you have some right in your pantry.
It is cinnamon, of course - the best thing to come from tree bark since aspirin, and the best-selling component of the pumpkin-spice axis of fall flavors, dwarfing nutmeg and cloves by at least a factor of 10.
There are several species of trees with the cinnamon-yielding bark, but they're all from the genus Cinnamonum. If you start looking into cinnamon's provenance, you'll find a school of thought that insists there is only one kind of "true" cinnamon - from the bark of C. verum, which is native to Sri Lanka. To hear that school of thought tell it, that cinnamon has a more sophisticated, subtle flavor than other kinds.
Should you encounter someone from that school, you could reasonably say, "I bet you couldn't pick it out of a lineup." It's a pretty safe bet. We did a blind tasting, and none of us could. The reality is that we are a planet endowed with many tree species that have fragrant, cinnamony bark, and that's a good reason to find joy in the world.
You can often figure out which species of cinnamon you have by the name on the label. If it's Ceylon cinnamon, it's the "true" stuff, Ceylon being the British colonial name for the nation known since 1972 as Sri Lanka.
Pretty much everything else is cassia cinnamon, sometimes (particularly in Europe) labeled simply as "cassia." Chinese cinnamon is from the tree species bearing that name, but Indonesian (or Korintje) and Vietnamese (or Saigon) come from closely related species. When there's no mention of its origin on the label, it's probably cassia. Although there are differences among the various kinds, they're small enough that you probably won't notice them in whatever you're cooking.
No matter the provenance, your cinnamon's flavor is derived from a group of essential oils. And, where essential oils go, health claims will not be far behind. Depending on whom you ask, you might find that cinnamon can help fight acne, colitis or bad breath. Its antimicrobial qualities might make it a good wash for carrots or contact lenses. It might even make you learn faster, at least if you're a mouse. On the animal front, it has been studied for its ability to reduce methane produced by cattle (it can't) or help control salmonella in chickens (it might).
One of its best-studied properties is the ability to help diabetics with blood sugar control. According to Rebecca Costello, a scientific consultant formerly with the Office of Dietary Supplements (part of the National Institutes of Health) and co-author of a recent review of the evidence, there is a compound in the spice that appears to act like insulin, shuttling blood sugar out of the bloodstream and into cells.
Although some studies have shown that cinnamon does seem to lower blood sugar, "the weight of the evidence regarding the efficacy for cinnamon for lowering blood glucose remains equivocal," Costello wrote in an email. "It would be premature," she said, to conclude that cinnamon can help control diabetes.
But how about all those other things - the acne, the colitis, the bad breath? "Traditional use of cinnamon purports to treat many conditions and disorders for which there is insufficient evidence to support its use," Costello said.
It is clear, though, that compounds in cinnamon can affect us. And not always in a good way. The spice contains a compound called coumarin, which can cause liver damage. In the normal course of events, you are unlikely to eat so much cinnamon that this becomes an issue, but it's a serious enough concern that Denmark considered limiting the amount bakers could use in an iconic Danish cinnamon-swirl pastry called kanelsnegle. (The bakers wheedled their way out on a technicality.)
Which brings us back to the distinction between "true" cinnamon and other cinnamons. Turns out, the "true" version is relatively low in coumarin. If you eat a truly epic amount of cinnamon and you are concerned about liver damage, you might want to take that into account.
The rest of us are left to choose our cinnamon by taste and price. And if you expect the expensive stuff to taste better than the cheap stuff, you are going to be disappointed. In our Washington Post Food tasting, both the dollar-store cinnamon and the fancy-pants cinnamon had their share of fans and detractors. The overall favorite, though not by much, was a supermarket standard.
What our survey established, beyond a shadow of a doubt, is that cinnamon cannot be the stuff that food snobbery is made of. And that's a good thing. Break out the butter and sugar, and let it be the stuff that kanelsnegle is made of.
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Once we decided to do a cinnamon tasting, an important question left us scratching our heads: How?
Tasting it straight up does not work all that well. (No cinnamon challenge for us.) It is gritty and strong, and the nuances are hard to detect. But when you taste it in a way that reflects how real, live cinnamon consumers enjoy it - say, cinnamon toast - the nuances are also hard to detect, with things such as bread and butter mucking up your palate's works.
One of us had the idea of suspending the samples in simple syrup (equal parts cooked water and sugar). Cooking the cinnamon briefly in the syrup brought out flavors and differences in aromas we could not detect in the plain old powders.
But, of course, when you use cinnamon at home, it's not always cooked or in baked goods, and it is most likely not suspended in syrup, so we added a round of cinnamon toast, as well. Six Washington Post Food staffers and I smelled each sample, tasted both the syrups and the toasts, and rated preferences for each on a 1-to-5 scale.
The results for seven brands were all over the map. Once we tallied up the rankings, the averages were in a fairly small range: All our samples were perfectly respectable, and they all racked up some good scores and some bad.
Nothing about the samples predicted what tasters thought of them. A couple of the cheaper samples did very well, while one of the most expensive was at the bottom. Of the top two, one was a supermarket brand (McCormick), and the other was a spice purveyor brand (Penzeys). The two Ceylon samples - known in some quarters as "true" cinnamon - didn't stand out as either better or worse; one was second from the top, the other was dead last. They did, however, stand out as the most expensive; they were both more than twice the price of the most expensive cassia sample (Simply Organic, at $32.59 per pound). It's worth noting that, although none of our tasters could identify the Ceylon samples, a couple of us did describe them in similar terms. (I thought both of them had a clovelike flavor.)
What was most notable, though, was that most tasters remarked on how different the simple syrup samples tasted, but how similar the cinnamon toasts were.
Yes, there are differences in cinnamon, and it is worth buying a few brands to see which one you prefer. But once you bake it in a cookie, stew it in a tagine or sprinkle it on toast, you will be unlikely to notice the difference.
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NAME / RATING / PRICE PER LB.
1. McCormick / 3.3 (out of 5) / $23.80
2. Penzeys Ceylon Cinnamon / 3.1 / $79.50
3. Badia / 3.0 / $15.92
4. Simply Organic / 2.8 / $32.59
5. Spice Supreme / 2.6 / $4.92
6. 365 Korintje / 2.4 / $23.80
7. Simply Organic Ceylon / 2.3 / $69.15
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Pumpkin Apple Dapple Cake
16 to 20 servings
Cinnamon rings loud and clear in this moist, easy-to-assemble cake.
MAKE AHEAD: The cake can be stored, covered, for up to 4 days.
Adapted from a recipe on the blog called A Southern Grace.
For the cake
3 cups flour
1 1/2 cups sugar
2 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
3 large eggs
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 cup pure pumpkin puree
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 cups peeled, coarsely chopped apples
1 cup chopped pecans
For the glaze
1 cup sugar
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter
1/4 cup buttermilk, whole milk or low-fat milk
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
For the cake: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Use cooking oil spray to grease a 9-by-13-inch pan, preferably with tall sides.
Whisk together the flour, sugar, 2 teaspoons of the cinnamon, baking soda and the salt in a mixing bowl. Make a well in the center of the mixture.
Whisk the eggs in a large liquid measuring cup until lightly beaten, then add the oil, pumpkin puree and vanilla extract, stirring to incorporate. Pour into the flour mixture's well and stir until there is no trace of dry ingredients left.
Sprinkle the remaining 1/2 teaspoon of cinnamon over the apples, then stir them and the pecans into the cake batter. Spread the batter evenly in the pan. Bake (middle rack) for about 40 minutes, or until a tester inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean. Transfer the pan to a wire rack.
Meanwhile, make the glaze: Combine the sugar, butter and buttermilk or milk in a small saucepan over medium-high heat. Cook, stirring, until the butter has melted and the sugar has dissolved. Bring to a boil, then cook for 1 minute, to form a thickened glaze. Whisk in the cinnamon until well incorporated. Remove from the heat.
Let the glaze cool for a minute or so, then drizzle it over the still-warm cake (in its pan). Wait until the glaze has cooled and set before serving.
Nutrition | Per serving (based on 20, using buttermilk): 320 calories, 4 g protein, 43 g carbohydrates, 15 g fat, 5 g saturated fat, 40 mg cholesterol, 85 mg sodium, 2 g dietary fiber, 27 g sugar