The first time I used cassia was at a local cooking class and I was told that it was similar to cinnamon and was preferred by many chefs. It was nicknamed ‘bakers cinnamon’ and was milder than ordinary cinnamon according to the chef giving the class.
Imagine my surprise when I received information from Ian ‘Herbie’ Hemphill, the spice guru behind Herbie’s Spices, telling me that I had it all wrong.
Ian grew up with herbs and spices. His parents owned a spice and herb company and even in high school he got the nickname ‘Herbie’ because of that. No wonder when he started his own herb and spice company that he took his nickname for a company name.
He and his wife Liz have been traveling the world to source the best spices for their customers and then coming home to teach the best ways to use them. They know that if home cooks like me use herbs and spices well, their business will grow. It certainly has been a strategy that has worked for the busy couple.
Ian is the author of the wildly popular Spice and Herb Bible. I have a copy and seriously, if you want to kick your cooking up a notch (or ten) get a spice book. I have nothing but good things to say about it.
So what IS the difference between Cinnamon and Cassia?
While they both come from tropical evergreen trees related to the bay laurel, avocado and sassafras cinnamon and cassia are distinctly different in appearance and flavour profile. Where one of the major differences lies between these two spices is in the quills. Cinnamon quills are most often seen in 8cm lengths of many concentric layers of paper thin bark, rolled into cylinders like small cigars and are about 1cm in diameter.
Cassia bark by contrast, is generally found in two whole forms. One is flat pieces of dark brown slivers 10-20 cm long and 2-3 cm wide, smooth on one surface and rough and corky on the other. In quill form, they are smooth and can look similar to 8cm cinnamon quills, with the exception being a single scroll of bark that is also thicker.
Ian said, “Cinnamon has a mild and gentle sweetness that goes well with other light flavors. I use cinnamon to spice porridge or fresh fruits in syrup, such as pears, mangoes and
bananas. Cassia is stronger and sharper than cinnamon with a warm spicy background note. I use cassia in baked goods like muffins (hence the common name for it of baker’s
cinnamon) and with other strong spices such as star anise and licorice.”
Cinnamon is said to be among the oldest of spices, with references going back 2500 years to the land of the pharaohs. Even then it was noted that there was often confusion between Cinnamon and Cassia.
In some countries, including Australia, it has been illegal in the past to sell cassia as cinnamon, however the regulators have really given up on this one.
From Ian, “The best quality cinnamon Cinnamomum zeylanicum usually comes from its native Sri Lanka. Ground cinnamon is light brown, and should be quite fine with no detectable
coarseness. Some of the best cassia is from its native Vietnam and Indonesia, the colour of the powder is a dark reddish-brown and the aroma is highly aromatic.”
The versatility of these two spices, allows them to be used in both sweet and savoury dishes, however, it is important to note that cassia is more strongly perfumed and pungent than cinnamon, so it is best used with other distinctly flavoured ingredients such as strong spices and dried fruits.
Finally, Ian said, “These are both wonderful spices, however they are DIFFERENT and in my opinion should always be labelled so.”
So there you have it. I do use cassia in my baking and all this time I thought I was using it because it was milder and in fact I had it the wrong way around. Have you ever got your spices in a twist like that?
Over the holidays I had sheets of puff pastry left over from this and that and I couldn’t bear to toss them out. I spread the sheets with butter and then sprinkled a mixture of cassia and sugar over that and then rolled them up. I had a bright idea of putting them in a silicone mini muffin tray and it worked great.
I put them on the table when we had friends drop by and not a one was left. This is not an orgasmic recipe but it’s definitely a way to get sometime on a plate in next to no time at all and everyone enjoyed them. One woman said that her grandmother had made these with her when she was young and she couldn’t keep away from them. I know just how she feels.
I hope you have a terrific New Year’s Eve. It’s afternoon here and it won’t be long before it’s time for fireworks. We can see them from our balcony so we’ll have a few friends, a glass of bubbly and a nice welcome to 2014.
p.s. This is not a sponsored post. I just love Herbie’s Spices. I’ve never been disappointed with the quality and the company is owned by people who put customer satisfaction ahead of the almighty dollar. Rare, these days.