The Source of Cinnamon
With cinnamon always at the ready in our modern kitchens for spicing up coffees, teas, breads, cakes, candies, and potpourris, it’s almost impossible to imagine a world where this commonplace commodity was simply untasted and untouched by the common people. However, in the ancient world (at least 3,000 years ago), cinnamon was only known to grow on the small island nation of Sri Lanka (located off the coast of India). Cinnamon’s isolation in the times before globalized trade caused the price of 12 ounces of cinnamon (current market price: ~$10 USD) to be sold for over five kilograms of silver (current market price: ~$3,370 USD). With such a high price point, the use of cinnamon was limited to a very niche market: Gods and kings. Cinnamon became prized for its use in religious ceremonies (most notably in Egyptian embalming and mummification rituals and in the Jewish practice of anointing priests with spiced oil and offering consecrated spice mixtures in the Tabernacle).
By the time of the ancient Romans (according to a document from 301 CE), the cost of cinnamon began to fall, now costing only 125 denarii per pound, or roughly the amount made by a farmer in a week. This (relative) drop in price led to cinnamon’s use as an aromatic addition to funeral fires. According to legend, Emperor Nero is said to have used Rome’s entire annual supply of cinnamon to use in the pyre for his wife, either to show his grief and love for his beloved, or to mask the smell of the fire in order to hide his guilt for, allegedly, causing her death.
While cinnamon was used sparingly in food and drink during this time period, most culinary historians point to the 18th century as the true turning point for cinnamon’s role as an ingredient in food instead of religious ritual. By the late 1700’s, the European superpowers had fully annexed the cinnamon shores of Sri Lanka and India, and began growing their own cinnamon groves in their Asian landholdings, providing the common cook access to a near limitless supply of cinnamon. And, for better or worse, this unending supply of what just might be the modern world’s favorite spice continues to this day.
Can Cinnamon be Seasonal?
Since our first few excavations, we’ve been digging into recipes and skills that have been heavily reliant on the seasonality of key ingredients (pumpkins, apples, and peanuts, primarily), a practice I cannot help but stand behind. I find seasonality to be truly important in our modern kitchens because, with so many ingredients forever present in our modern grocery superstores, it’s far too easy to forget that every ingredient still has a season. And it just so happens that we’re in the midst of one of cinnamon’s two harvest times right now! From October to January, and from May to August, the rainy seasons in Sri Lanka provide cinnamon harvesters with the pliable bark necessary to successfully gather the spice. So, with November falling nicely in that window of seasonality, I thought autumn would be the perfect time to make a batch of cinnamon swirl raisin bread, a modern twist on an ancient ingredient!
Cinnamon Raisin Swirl Bread Recipe
Ingredients for Bread
- 1 cup raisins
- 1 cup hot water
- 1 Tablespoon active dry yeast
- 1 cup milk (I used soy, but any milk will work)
- 4 Tablespoons butter (I used 2 Tablespoons butter and 2 Tablespoons applesauce)
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 5 1/2 cups all purpose flour + 2 Tablespoons (I used white whole wheat for a healthier kick)
Ingredients for Filling
- 1/2 cup granulated sugar
- 1 1/2 Tablespoons cinnamon (about 4 full cinnamon sticks, if you’re grinding your own)
- 1 beaten egg
- 2 teaspoons water
- Place raisins in the cup of hot water to plump up for 10 minutes. Then, drain the raisins and pour the leftover water into a large mixing bowl.
- Add the yeast to the water and stir until dissolved.
- Stir in the milk, butter, and salt, followed by the flour. Stir until the mixture forms a rough dough, then knead for 8-10 minutes, or until the dough easily forms a lightly sticky ball (see pictures below). If the dough is very sticky, add another 1/2 cup of flour and continue kneading.
- Toss the plump raisins with 2 Tablespoons of flour to absorb any extra moisture. To incorporate the raisins, flatten your dough and cover with half of the raisins. Fold the dough in half from top to bottom (see pictures below), and then repeat. Continue kneading the dough for 3 – 4 minutes so evenly distribute the raisins.
- Return the dough to the mixing bowl, cover, and let rise in a warm place for 1 hour.
- While waiting for the dough to rise, mix the cinnamon and sugar in a small bowl; and mix the egg and water in another bowl.
- When the dough has doubled in size, divide it into two equal pieces. Flatten each piece until it is about the width of your bread pans, then stretch it as long as possible (see pictures below). Coat each piece with the egg wash and generously sprinkle the dough with cinnamon sugar.
- Starting from the bottom, tightly roll up the dough and pinch the seam closed. Place the rolled loaves in your bread pans and let rise for another 35 minutes (or until the loaves are about 1 inch above the edge of the pans.
- Preheat your oven to 375 F / 190 C, and coat the top of the risen loaves with egg wash and cinnamon sugar.
- Bake for 40 – 45 minutes, until the loaves are golden brown.
- Let cool completely, and enjoy a spicy slice of cinnamon raisin swirl bread!