The Roman emperor Nero had a mercurial personality. For example, he killed his wife by kicking her when she was pregnant, but then he gave her the most lavish funeral imaginable. He burned on her pyre all of the cinnamon in Rome.
There could have been no higher honor. The Romans believed cinnamon was sacred and every Roman emperor stocked cinnamon in his treasury. The Romans weren’t the only ones who valued cinnamon. The ancient Egyptians used it for witchcraft and embalming. Their references to it in Sanskrit manuscripts make it the first spice to be specifically mentioned in history.
Over the years cinnamon has been prized for its medicinal properties and the Chinese actually believed it was able to confer immortality.
No wonder, then, that cinnamon was once more precious than gold or that it was partly responsible for the beginning of world trade. And no wonder that traders such as Marco Polo deliberately kept its origin secret.
What might be surprising, however, is the fact that in this country most of what passes for cinnamon is not really cinnamon at all. And perhaps more startling still, a taste test conducted by Cooks Illustrated Magazine indicates that that’s just the way we like things.
Cinnamon is the dried bark of various laurel trees, but the genuine article comes only from a tree indigenous to Sri Lanka. Because of high cost it has not been readily available in this country for nearly a century. Instead, the bark of a similar tree is most often imported here. The term cinnamon can be legally applied to both.
When Cooks Illustrated conducted a blind tasting of nearly a dozen samples of cinnamon, including true cinnamon from Sri Lanka, ironically, the true cinnamon was rated only “acceptable.” Apparently, Americans have become accustomed to the flavor of the other kind.
Either way, however, cinnamon is truly the bark that makes for a great bite.
Lucille’s Caramel/Cinnamon Rolls
These rolls are the perfect showcase for cinnamon, says Dr. Jim Dufek of the Mass Communications department at Southeast Missouri State University. A cinnamon aficionado (he prefers Penzey’s Chinese Cassia), he has been making them for seventeen years from a recipe handed down by his mother whose renditions of these rolls in years past have sold at church auctions for as much as $500 per pan. One bite and you’ll see why.
5 cups flour
2 packages instant dry yeast
2 cups milk
1/2 cup soft margarine plus additional for spreading
1/2 cup sugar
2 teaspoons salt
2 and 1/2 cups brown sugar, divided
2 tablespoons cinnamon
1 cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon vanilla
Sift three cups of the flour and mix with the yeast. Warm milk to 125-130 degrees. Melt 1/2 cup margarine and add to milk along with sugar and salt. Mix well. Beat eggs until frothy and add to mixture. Add remaining flour a little at a time to form soft dough. Knead dough until smooth, place in a covered greased bowl and let rise until doubled. Punch down dough, let rise again, and punch down again. Roll half of dough out onto a floured surface and spread with additional margarine. Sprinkle generously with 1/4 cup brown sugar and 1 tablespoon cinnamon. Roll up tightly and cut into 1-inch slices. Repeat with remaining dough. Place rolls in a greased 9 x 13-inch pan and let rise until doubled. Combine 2 cups brown sugar, heavy cream, and vanilla and heat just to the boil. Remove from heat and let cool. Pour over rolls and bake at 375 degrees for 20 minutes or until topping begins to bubble. Serve warm. Makes two dozen rolls.