I have a kind of love-hate relationship with cinnamon. It seems to go in phases, from childhood moments where cinnamon toast remains a delectable memory, to the times where a well-meaning but perhaps absent-minded or possibly selectively deaf barista has dusted cinnamon atop my coffee drink, despite my exhortations not to do so. I now loathe it on coffee -- although I occasionally liked it brewed in coffee when I was in college. I like spice cakes and breads and cookies, where cinnamon usually leads the called-for combination of spices. I'm also fond of the Mexican-chocolate or Eastern-European Lebkuchen effect of chocolate exposed to a very small quantity of cinnamon, although some of my family members feel that this spoils chocolate entirely.
I often like cinnamon in fruit desserts, but not used to excess, and not with every fruit. I won't, for example, use cinnamon with apricots or peaches, although I will sometimes with plums and apples. People seem to think that a recipe using apples is carte-blanche to throw in spoons of cinnamon, which will, especially if you're using wonderful seasonal apple varieties like Northern Spy or Winesap, completely obliterate all the glorious apple flavor. Just a pinch, just a hint -- that's really all that's needed. The first time I made an apple tart using cardamom and vanilla was something of a revelation; I had discovered that while cinnamon is fine with apples, it's not strictly necessary. I love using just a whisper of it in ricotta ice cream -- not enough to even tell it's there, but enough to give the flavor an indefinable boost. And I like cinnamon very much as a subtle touch in savory dishes; Moroccan and Greek food as well as the late, deeply-lamented Laurie Colwin's favorite company dish of crunchy, oven-baked chicken all come to mind. It just seems important not to use it to excess, especially if one has strong, high-quality cinnamon. This finicky approach of mine is in sharp contrast to G, whose adoration of the spice leads him to crave cinnamon toast made on cinnamon-raisin bread, a longing of his which I indulge occasionally at breakfast or for a snack. And when I make it for him, the scent rises warm to my nose and, often as not, I'll make a piece of cinnamon toast for myself on a piece of plainer bread, since I don't really need or want the double-cinnamon whammy.
Probably the best thing I had to eat during my recent trip to Montana was the chocolate chip cookie I received on arriving at my Doubletree Hotel -- which contains, although you might not even realize it, the faintest ghost of cinnamon (that last statement, by the way, is not intended to cast any aspersions on the local cuisine, about which I still know very little, sad to say. It was just that this was a 3-day business trip, with a) no time for searching out restaurants, b) late night work sessions, and c) room-service or hotel-restaurant dinners). Actually, I didn't receive my cookie on arriving. But being a veteran of numerous stays at Doubletree Hotels from San Diego to Tarrytown, I knew my rights. At some point after getting settled, I remembered that I hadn't received my signature warm check-in cookie. So I marched up to the desk to demand (actually to politely ask for) it.
It was good. It always is. In fact, it's pretty much the best thing about staying in a Doubletree Hotel -- which is by no means a bad place to stay when you're on business. It's not exactly luxurious, but it's reasonable comfortable and serviceable. And they've got cookies. But they just give you one, although it's a pretty good size. The cookie sets up a serious craving for more cookies, which the nice Doubletree people use to their advantage by having tins of cookies available for sale at the desk. A tin of six cookies costs anywhere from $9.00 to $12.00, depending on which Doubletree you're staying in. Or they're available by mail for $8.95 a tin, plus shipping and handling.
Now, the ones handed out by Doubletree are pretty good cookies. I think it's safe to say that they're made with excellent ingredients, since I have a fairly good taste-detector in terms of anything made with a mix or ersatz components. The problem is that it can get pricey to fill a cookie habit like this, once it's initiated. So I restrained my craving until I got back to NYC and googled Doubletree cookies. I found not only online recipes, but discovered that a number of bloggers have made and enjoyed this recipe, whether it is indeed the actual Doubletree formula or not. That was good enough for me, so I made it too. They were very delicious, and did hit the craving spot. In fact, the ones I brought in for colleagues and for my cooking class set up a whole new series of cravings in others. The cooking class availed themselves of the opportunity for some consumer math. I explained to them that even using premium quality chocolate chips (Ghirardelli) and other relatively expensive ingredients, it only cost about $10 to make 40 very large cookies, comparable in size to Doubletree's. Now that they realize it's possible to make cookies that retail for $1.50 for only 25 cents, they now want to hold a bake sale to fundraise for our cooking class.
After a day or so, these cookies aged into being just a tiny bit cakier than I would want; I'm always seeking the holy grail of the crisp-chewy nexus when it comes to chocolate chip cookies. These met that criterion when they were oven fresh, and can recapture it upon a slight reheating. Everyone who tried them absolutely loved them. But for my taste, there was too much cinnamon in the recipe. Mine seemed more cinnamon-y than the original Doubletree cookies, where I didn't really notice the cinnamon presence. You would think that just a quarter-teaspoon would provide that subtle, almost-not-there quality I was seeking. But it was still too much. Perhaps I'm using stronger cinnamon than they do; whatever the reason, if I make these cookies again, I'll cut back the cinnamon.
More successful was my recent use of cinnamon in what I am currently calling "the best chili of my career." Every year, as soon the air breathes even its faintest chill, G starts making noises about chili. I like to respect this wish, since for the most part this is a man who eats and appreciates almost any dish I create for our dinners. But chili has had me a bit befuddled. I like it, sort of, but I always find it too heavy. Three spoonfuls and I'm done. I never seem to make the same chili twice, since I'm not usually happy with the results. But this time, using as a template this recipe from Epicurious, I devised a formula which, while not exactly "light", doesn't leave you feeling as if a colony of large heavy things have taken up residence in your stomach and are never going to go away. I have a feeling that part of the secret rests in my having used lean cuts of meat, and ignoring G's pleas for the addition of sausage, which I have often added in the past, but which ups the fat content exponentially. I'm not fond of Cincinnati or "sweet" chili, but I did want a mellow kick to counterpose some of the powdery sharpness of the other spices. Cinnamon was my friend here, providing a flavor balance which neatly tipped the occasionlly acrid notes of chili powder and cumin. Sadly, I have no picture for you, although I'm not sure chili is the most photogenic of foods anyway. We ate this for several dinners, along with my favorite cast-iron skillet buttermilk cornbread and each time we were so greedy with anticipation that I forgot to take a pic. It seems I've finally found a chili recipe I'll save, and make again.
Practically Perfect Chili
This makes a moderately spicy chili, but nothing that will win the kind of competition where the purpose is to burn down through the judges’ esophagi all the way to their stomach linings. Personally, I like spicy food, but I also like to be able to actually taste what I’m eating. Now this is not to say that there isn’t room here for your preferences. If you’re a Texas chili die-hard, leave out the beans. If you eschew the use of tomatoes in chili, eschew to your heart’s content (although the tomato presence here is not noticeable – the gravy is thick but with a meaty, not an acid flavor). Don’t like peppers? Ditch ‘em. Spicier? Add another chipotle or seven, and leave in the seeds. I have full confidence that you can fine-tune this one to your likes, and find it just as delectable as I did.
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 ½ pounds beef stew meat or chuck steak, trimmed and cut into ½ inch cubes
2 ½ pounds boneless pork butt or boneless country-style spareribs, trimmed and cut into ½ inch cubes
2 large onions, chopped
1 green bell pepper, chopped
1 red bell pepper, chopped
10 garlic cloves, chopped
1 26-ounce box Pomi chopped tomatoes
½ cup strong black coffee
1/3 cup New Mexico chili powder
3 canned chipotle chilies in adobo, seeded and chopped
1 tablespoon smoked chipotle Tabasco sauce
2 tablespoons ground cumin
1 tsp. ground coriander
1 tsp. oregano
½ tsp. cinnamon
2 19-ounce cans kidney or small red or pinto beans, rinsed and drained
Grated cheddar cheese
Chopped fresh cilantro
Chopped red onions
Heat oil in large Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add beef and pork to Dutch oven in small batches and sear well over high heat. Cook over medium-high heat until no longer pink, stirring occasionally, about 10 minutes. Transfer mixture to bowl, using slotted spoon. Add 2 onions, bell peppers and garlic to pot and sauté until tender, about 12 minutes. While sautéing, add in all the dry spices: chili, cumin, coriander, cinnamon and oregano. Return meat mixture to Dutch oven. Add tomatoes with liquid, coffee, Tabasco, and chipotles. Season with salt and pepper. Cover Dutch oven and simmer until beef and pork are almost tender, stirring occasionally, about 1 hour.
Add beans to chili. Simmer uncovered until beef and pork are tender and chili thickens, about 30 minutes. Adjust seasoning. Ladle into bowls. Serve, passing cheese, cilantro, and sour cream separately. Best accompanied by a hot pan of cornbread.