Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Sweetest Heat

The weather was dry, cool and clear, in this desolate, rock strewn valley, a place they would guard with their lives. 

With barely a hint of a breeze brushing through the deep valley pass, it was here, they would gather at dawn to wait, searching the skies for the giant birds of prey.

Large, fierce and carnivorous, with giant wingspans and fearsome hooked beaks, the birds would appear from nowhere, swooping down from the imposing mountains above.  Black against black mountains, almost impossible to see, with the only signal that they were near, being the whistling wind breaking over their wings.

It was then that the men would jump into action, producing from packs strapped to the sides of their animals, large, bundled chunks of raw, fresh meat.  Tossing them, in unison, into a stone ringed circle, the birds would swoop up, then down, then back up again, black against the icy blue sky.  The men tossed again and again, then drew back as the birds swooped lower, talons glinting in the rising dawn’s light.  In an instant, the huge pile of meat was gone, taken where no man would dare venture, back to the creatures’ enormous nests, hidden high in the mountains above.

And in a matter of minutes, a low rumbling would begin, that would soon crescendo into a deafening roar.  The nests, broken from the weight of the heavy meat, were hurtling down from the mountaintop, thousands of deep brown and dried pungent sticks, ending up with a crash in the valley below.  And once all was quiet, the men would carefully gather up their treasure, packing it well for the long and treacherous journey to market.

And this was the tale they told all who would ask, of the source of their most precious commodity.

Cinnamon.  Highly prized among ancient nations and regarded as gifts fit for a monarch and even for a god.  An ancient Greek inscription records the gift of cinnamon to the temple of Apollo at Miletus, while in ancient Rome, upper class Romans used cinnamon to make their strong, bitter wine palatable. 

In fact, it was so expensive and in such short supply, that according to the Roman historian, Pliny, a pound of cinnamon was equal to 10 months of a laborer's wages.  So when the Roman emperor, Nero, burned a year’s worth of the stuff at his wife's funeral in 65 C.E., he must certainly have been desperate to really show off.

Called “kayu manis” (meaning "sweet wood") in Indonesia, where it is cultivated in Java and Sumatra, cinnamon, as you might have already guessed, has nothing to do with birds and nests, but is actually the dried and ground inner bark of an evergreen tree native to Southeast Asia.

The cinnamon itself is harvested from the tree by scraping off the outer bark to reveal the inner bark, which is then loosened and pried out into long strips.  These long strips, which when left to dry, curl up into tight rolls, reveal the source of cinnamon's Latin name – “cannella,” meaning "little tube.”

Rich in hue and warm in aroma, cinnamon brings spicy sweetness to all kinds of dishes.  But once you get cooking, it won't be long before you discover that not all cinnamon is exactly alike.

Actually, there are 3 main species of cinnamon and they all have their charms.  Ceylon Cinnamon from Sri Lanka (known as "true cinnamon" or by its Latin name, “cinnamomum verum”) is light brown with a sweet, subtle and delicate flavor and is still the most preferred cinnamon in Europe.

Our second cinnamon is Cassia Cinnamon (which is a close botanical relative of the true cinnamon tree).  Cinnamon, as we commonly find it in the U.S., is usually Cassia cinnamon from Indonesia.  In comparison with Ceylon cinnamon, it’s darker and redder brown in color, with a stronger and more bitter flavor.

And lastly, but not leastly, is the most highly prized member of the Cassia cinnamon family - Saigon Cinnamon, or, to call it by its full formal name, Vietnamese “Saigon” Cassia Cinnamon.  Even darker and richer in both color and flavor, this cinnamon, with its high oil concentration, has a pronounced pungent fragrance and an intense, spicy, sweet red hot candy like flavor.

Potent and powerful would be apt descriptions and it's absolutely perfect in sweet or savory dishes where what you want is the kick of sweet heat.  And at this time of year, I can't think of anything better than being warmed on the inside with sweetness and heat.

So let me introduce to you my latest holiday creation.  It’s perfect for eating, baking or gifting (but I'm sure I'll forgive you if you keep them all to yourself).  And what makes it especially special is the pungent Saigon Cinnamon I've chosen, for when the cold wind blows, there's nothing like heat with your something sweet.


Serves one to many

½ pound fresh ginger root
2½ cups water
2 cups white granulated sugar
½ cup raw turbinado sugar
¼ teaspoon Saigon cinnamon *

Combine the raw turbinado sugar and cinnamon in a small bowl and set aside.
Place a cooling rack atop a sheet pan lined with parchment or wax paper and set aside.

Peel and thinly slice the ginger root, then add it, along with the water, to a heavy saucepan set over medium high heat.  Cover and cook the mixture for 35 – 45 minutes until the ginger is tender.

Drain the ginger, reserving ¼ cup of the cooking liquid.
Add this cooking liquid back to this saucepan, along with the white granulated sugar.
Stir gently to combine, then add the cooked ginger and bring to a boil, stirring frequently.
Reduce the heat to medium low and continue to stir frequently until the mixture is almost dry.

With tongs or a spoon, transfer the ginger pieces to the turbinado cinnamon mixture and toss gently to coat, before placing them on the cooling rack to dry.

Once cool, store in an airtight container.

* I use the pungently flavored "Highland Harvested Saigon Cinnamon" from "The Spice Hunter." It's readily available at finer grocers. .

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