Cinnamon (Recipe: cranberry rice pudding)
Nero Claudius Drusus Germanicus — he who reportedly fiddled while Rome burned — clearly had issues.
Who could blame him?
His mother, the ambitious and manipulative Agrippina, married the emperor Claudius and, to ensure the continuation of her own position of power, she schemed to have her son become the next emperor. To that end, Agrippina managed to get Nero betrothed to Claudius' daughter, Octavia. Whom he divorced soon after, at mom's urging. And then had killed.
And then, to demonstrate the depth of his supposed grief, he burned a year's supply of very expensive cinnamon on her funeral pyre.
Maybe that's why cinnamon is called a warm spice. (Groan.....)
Cinnamon comes from a small evergreen tree, cinnamomum zelanicum, and the spice is the inner bark of the tree, harvested in the rainy season between May and October. Native to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), cinnamon is one of the oldest known spices, its discovery dating to the 13th Century, and was so prized that it was traded as currency. In order to corner the market, Portuguese settlers occupied Ceylon until the Dutch drove them out in 1636. The Dutch began to cultivate cinnamon, which up to that time had been harvested in the wild, and kept prices high by burning excess supplies. They maintained a monopoly until the British East India Company took control in 1796, though competitive trade had begun two decades earlier, when plants were taken by traders to Java, India, and the Seychelles.
Often confused with cassia, which is darker in color and stronger in flavor, cinnamon comes in quills (what we call cinnamon sticks), one piece of bark rolled inside another. Most of what we buy in ground form in this country is actually cassia, either from China or Vietnam. In The Perfect Pantry, I have cinnamon sticks from Indonesia, and cassia ground cinnamon from China. It's just a matter of personal taste. Buy your cinnamon from a good spice vendor like Penzeys, and you'll have a choice of cassia or cinnamon, in different pungencies, from different countries of origin.
In cooking, cinnamon plays both sides of the field. Well known in sweet dishes, it's also fundamental to the savory cuisines of Morocco, India, and Thailand. Without cinnamon, we'd have no apple pie, no five-spice powder, no gingerbread, no Mexican coffee, no mulled wine — and no warm and gooey cinnamon buns.
Cranberry rice pudding
Good for breakfast or dessert, this sweet dish, inspired by a Mexican rice pudding in James McNair’s Rice Cookbook, serves 4-5.
3/4 cup arborio rice
1 2-inch cinnamon stick
Zest of 1/2 lime or lemon, removed in one piece
1-1/2 cups water
Pinch of salt
1 pint whole milk
1 cup evaporated milk
5/8 cup sugar
1/4 cup dried cranberries (or dried blueberries)
2 egg yolks, lightly beaten
1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract
1 Tbsp unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
Combine cinnamon sticks and lime zest with water in a saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, and add the rice and salt. Stir once. Cover, reduce heat to low, and simmer until the rice is tender and the water is absorbed. Add the milk, sugar and cranberries, and stir well. Increase the heat to medium and cook, stirring frequently, just until the mixture begins to thicken, 20 minutes or longer if you want a thicker pudding. Remove from heat and discard the lime zest. Stir 2-3 Tbsp of the hot pudding into the beaten egg yolks. Stir the egg mixture and the vanilla back into the pudding.
Preheat the broiler, and turn the pudding into a shallow flame-proof dish. Dot with butter and sprinkle with cinnamon. Place under the broiler just until the top begins to brown lightly, 3-4 minutes. Serve immediately or at room temperature.