Ancient, Magical Cinnamon & Amazing Muffins

Cinnamon has been part of human history since 2800 BC when it was first mentioned in Chinese medical writings. Used in ancient Egypt, Europe and China starting in 2000 BC as perfume in the embalming process, an aphrodisiac and in the preservation of meat, the Arabs held the monopoly on its trade until the Portuguese discovered a prized variety in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) in the 1500s. Cinnamon is now more widely grown, readily available and cheap but it's magic remains strong.

Our ancestors didn't fully understand the molecular mechanisms by which cinnamon displayed it's incredible health-promoting effects. Nonetheless, anecdotal evidence led them to use it for respiratory ailments, the flu, digestive upsets and to prevent spoilage of meat by bacteria. Modern science is now lending credibility to ancient wisdom and adding to the list of powers of this miracle, ancient spice.

Cinnamon is obtained from the inner bark of a dozen species of evergreen trees. Ceylon cinnamon is called 'true cinnamon' because it's origin is the small Cinnamomum verum tree native to Sri Lanka, an island country south east of India (and absolutely worth a visit if you ever get the chance!). Most of the cinnamon available in regular super markets and 90% of the cinnamon imported into the United States, however, is of the cassia variety, grown in Indonesia, China and other countries. Pictured above, cassia cinnamon can come in all sizes! (a friend gifted me the giant bark from a local spice shop here in Hong Kong and we are all clearly fascinated). According to Ana Sortun, executive chef at the lovely Oleana restaurant in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Ceylon cinnamon has "lighter, brighter citrus tones" versus cassia cinnamon with is "stronger and hotter" but these flavor differences aside, there is another important, medically relevant distinction worth noting. 

Cinnamon contains a natural compound called coumarin, which acts as a blood thinner and prevents blood clotting. At high doses, coumarin can cause liver toxicity and cassia cinnamon contains measurable amounts of coumarin. While a sprinkling on your French toast or in the amazing muffins we share here today won't really matter, if you love cinnamon and use it routinely (on apples, in smoothies, in oatmeal etc), you may want to make the effort to procure Ceylon cinnamon, which has only trace amounts of coumarin and is well tolerated at high doses. It can be found at speciality shops and on Amazon. A simple way to tell if your cinnamon is indeed 'true cinnamon' is to take a closer look at the quills. Cassia cinnamon sticks are tougher and made up of a single layer of bark whereas Ceylon cinnamon is thinner with multiple layers within each bark. As a result, the latter breaks easily. It's delicate flavor is perfect for perking up oatmeal, smoothies, fresh fruit, coffee, tea and hot chocolate whereas cassia varieties work better in baking, meat and savory dishes.

As discussed in a previous post, I like to grind my own cinnamon every few months and store it in airtight containers away from heat and light. I simply smash the barks into smaller pieces in a kitchen towel, dry roast on medium low heat for 1-2 minutes to activate the aromatic oils and powder in a dedicated coffee grinder. The flavor and aroma are the ultimate reward for your labor (it's much easier and quicker than you think). 

Next week, we'll delve into what modern science has uncovered about cinnamon's true health benefits. Until then, let's get baking!

With Love & Spice 

RECIPE

Healthy Chocolate Chip Cinnamon Muffins
Toddler, Kid, Adult

Science Corner
Oats contain a special kind of fiber called beta-glucan which has been shown to lower cholesterol, prevent heart disease, boost immune function, stabilize blood sugar and even prevent breast cancer. Bananas are an excellent source of potassium which is critical for heart function. Creamy and naturally sweet, they contain fiber which aids digestion and is a 'PREbiotic' - food that feeds the good bacteria in your digestive tract. Mangoes are brimming with carotenids like alpha and beta-carotene, which are precursors to Vitamin A production and potent anti-cancer agents due to their antioxidant free radical-scavenging activities. Vitamin A is especially important for eye development in children - being fat soluble, it is well absorbed in these greek yoghurt muffins. Mangoes also offer a boatload of Vitamin C and some B vitamins, particularly folate - if you're pregnant and seeking sources of folic acid, you can devour these with your kids. With blood sugar-stabilizing and anti-inflammatory cinnamon, a touch of honey, low glycemic coconut palm sugar and a few indulgent milk and white chocolate chips, these muffins are just the right amount of decadent while still being so good for you. A truly delicious and nutritious way to start your day!

Yield
12 muffins

Ingredients
2 cups whole grain rolled oats
3/4 cup full fat Greek yoghurt
1 banana
1/2 cup chopped mango (~ 1 medium mango)
2 tablespoons honey
1/4 cup coconut palm sugar (or brown sugar)
2 eggs
3/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
11/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 cup milk chocolate chips
1/4 cup white chocolate chips

Method
Preheat the oven to 375F / 190C. Grease a muffin tray or line cavities with paper liners. 

Blend all the ingredients except the chocolate chips in a food processor or blender until smooth. Stir in the chocolate chips saving a few for sprinkling on top of each muffin just before baking. Scoop batter into muffin cups until each cavity is about 2/3 full. Sprinkle with a couple of chocolate chips. Bake for about 20-25 minutes until a toothpick inserted into the center of the muffin emerges dry. Allow the muffins to cool. Serve or store in an airtight container for 5 days (if they can last that long ;). Makes for a perfect, healthy lunchbox item too! 





Love & Spice in Bombay

Home is where the heart is, and despite the global, cosmopolitan gal that I think I am, my heart and real sense of home reside in India. Toddler and I spent ten food, love and action-packed days in the homeland this month. Bombay, in particular, despite its chaos, strange smells, startling inequality and horrendous traffic, stole our hearts once again. I have come to terms with these disturbing facts of life in India for on the other side of the same coin are family, love, a rich history, a fascinating juxtaposition of ancient and new, exuberance, optimism, fun, food and of course, spice! 

Here are some highlights of our 48 hr stay in Bombay (now called Mumbai, but always Bombay to me). Spice permeates the food and rituals in every household including foods for babies, kids and all sorts of fascinating health remedies for every ailment imaginable. We wrap up our Bombay recap then with a simple turmeric-infused recipe that is a healthy snack staple in many Indian urban families. Here's to love, spice and incredible India! 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dosas for breakfast at the ITC Grand Central Hotel


MODERN SCIENCE

Curcumin inhibits NFkappaB, a protein that promotes the expression of cancer causing genes. As a result, curcumin blocks a wide range of cancers in several animal studies and is currently in human trials for its anti-cancer effects. Therapeutic limitations include its poor absorption into the bloodstream and requirement of very high doses for effects. 

RECIPE




It doesn't get better than dosas for breakfast. Or dosas for lunch. Or dinner. You get the picture. Dosas are a southern Indian speciality, a crisp, thin pancake of sorts made with a batter of fermented rice and lentils and served with an assortment of chutneys, a lentil stew called sambhar and sometimes stuffed with spiced potatoes for a 'masala dosa' experience. The overnight fermentation increases the vitamin B and C content and the combination of rice and lentils makes it a complete protein, high carbohydrate food, great for growing toddlers. I will confess that I eat dosas as an accompaniment to chutneys - the delicious variety from tomato to coconut to coriander to ginger is gloriously dizzying. Toddler wanted nothing to do with the chutneys so I took inspiration from a Russian couple seated beside us, who took the pancake analogy quite literally and had their dosa with honey (and mimosas on the side!). Toddler was satisfied with the honey and I had the mimosa <smile>.

Shopping & Peekaboo-ing at Bombay Electric 
 

This hip and inspiring concept store is a must-visit to get a glimpse into New India and its emerging designer scene. From Indian to Western and Indo-Western clothes, jewelry and accessories to metallic bronzed tiffin boxes for the perfect compartmentalized school lunch (my practical side won and I didn't get it this time), this creative delight of a store is a really fun way to spend an hour or so for mummy and toddler alike. 

Indo-Western Lunching at Ellipsis, Colaba

There is something about the way India does Western food that is just plain delicious to my palate. There's always extra flavor, extra garlic, extra tang, extra spice. Perhaps that results in a loss in subtlety precious to many other cuisines but most Indians will unapologetically admit that they don't fancy subtlety in food, period. As much as I have now grown to appreciate nuance in food, I can't help but also love the in-your-face, taste-bud-tantalizing flavors of Western and really all food in India. For a Western lunch with a desi flare, we checked out a cool, newish spot in the Colaba area of Bombay called Ellipsis. Housed in a gorgeous colonial style building, the food was absolutely delicious. Cayenne spiced fish tacos, couscous with roasted beets, pickled radish and goat cheese and a gorgeous tagliatelle pasta with tomato sauce and broccoli for the toddler made for a memorable, delectable lunch. 

Swooning Over Traditional-Meets-Modern Luxury at Good Earth

Good Earth hands down blows me away every single time I visit this store. By marrying tradition with modernity in the most gorgeous, creative and awe-inspiring ways, this store is a visual and sensory treat - an anthropological journey of sorts - and worth a visit even if you don't want to shop. From stunning cushion covers, bedding, crockery, clothing and kids' furnishings, toys and clothes, Good Earth is a veritable feast for the eyes. Toddler, as you can see, was equally impressed. I picked up some adorable bamboo plates and bowls for kids' meals back home and a baby 'King Louis' for my Jungle Book fan. There's a beautiful cafe adjoining the store called Taste which serves up top quality Western fare also definitely worth a pop-in even if just for a snack or a glass of freshly squeezed mandarin juice. 

Home Cooked Indian Thalis at my Dearest Friend's Bombay Pad

A 'thali' or plate is a very traditional platform for eating in most Indian households. Usually made of steel (or silver for special occasions!) a thali is the perfect canvas for a varied, multi-ingredient, complete meal usually consisting of 1-2 vegetable dishes, a lentil soup, fresh homemade yoghurt, homemade bread and a pickle and or salad. When my childhood friend who lives in Bombay insisted that we come over for a 'thali' dinner, I simply couldn't refuse. I was curious to see how toddler would react - he's eaten Indian food loads but never in this traditional format. Oh how comforting, wholesome, nutritious and delicious our meals were! The first evening, we had carrots and peas, potato, okra (that's 3 veggies I know but that's how hospitality rolls in India), a lentil soup, yoghurt, homemade wheat bread and a wedge of lime to liven up the lentils. We were so blown away that we went back the next night for a second thali comprised of cauliflower and peas, a chickpea stew, more potatoes and the usual bread, rice and yoghurt to round it all off. I couldn't help but wonder if this format of food presentation, as time consuming as it seems, helps kids' palates explore, reject and re-explore a plethora of flavors and textures, getting used to more variety. 

RECIPE

Turmeric Popcorn
SOME 
Toddlers, Kids, Adults

So impressive was the homemade, healthful and simple fare at my friend's, that I had to pick her brain for turmeric-infused recipes that are favorites with her daughters, 7 and 5 yrs of age. This turmeric popcorn has been a hit with her kids and apparently loads of other toddlers and children in many Indian homes, fusing a very traditional Indian spice, turmeric, with a modern, comforting and crunchy Western snack. 

Some experts consider popcorn a choking hazard for toddlers. As described in the article below, parents are the best judge as to whether their toddler can handle popcorn or not, depending on how well she chews and swallows other foods. You can err on the side of caution and wait until your child is 4 to give them popcorn. My 2 yr old seems to handle it fine, for what it's worth. 
http://everydaylife.globalpost.com/can-child-eat-popcorn-4201.html

Nutrition
Popcorn, believe it or not, is a very healthy snack as long as it's not the butter and sodium-doused movie theater variety or the chemical-laden kind found in ready-to-pop, microwavable popcorn. Popping your own corn is ridiculously simple (see details below) and when done so, this crunchy, tasty snack is a rich source of antioxidants (yes, really!), fiber, folate and other minerals like iron and manganese. Combined with anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory turmeric, this is a bright, healthy and delicious snack you can feel good about giving your kids and yourselves.

Science Corner
The most vigorously studied use of turmeric and its active ingredient, curcumin, is for cancer. While most of the evidence is limited to animal studies, a few clinical trials are ongoing to determine if curcumin can treat cancers in humans. The ability of curcumin to thwart cancer in has been linked in several studies to its inhibition of a protein in the cell, called NFkappaB, which promotes the expression of genes that assist cancer growth. Research has shown that curcumin can slow cancers of various organs including the lung, breast, skin and colon. Given its poor absorption into the blood stream previously discussed here, it may be more promising for cancers of the esophagus and gut where it can exert its function without having to be absorbed. It's also important to keep in mind the limitations of dietary curcumin as a therapeutic given the high doses required. We see the benefits of dietary curcumin more as an anti-inflammatory molecule, potentially useful in preventing rather than treating cancer, which we consider reason enough to embrace it in our kitchen! 

Yield
~10 cups of popped popcorn

Ingredients
1/2 cup popping corn
2 tablespoons coconut oil, preferably the anti-oxidant rich, unrefined or virgin variety
1-2 tablespoons butter depending on richness desired
1-2 teaspoons turmeric powder depending on strength of flavor desired
Pinch or 1/8 teaspoon black pepper
Salt to taste

Method 
Heat the coconut oil with 4 kernels of popping corn over medium-high heat in a pot with the lid on. Once the kernels pop, take the lid off, add the remaining corn and give them a good stir. Cover the pot and take it off the heat for 20 seconds, allowing all the kernels to come to popping temperature at around the same time. Place the covered pot over medium-high heat again. Once the kernels begin popping, lift the pot off the heat and shake it from side to side every 10-15 seconds to prevent the bottom layer from burning. Once there is a 30 second gap or so between pops, turn the heat off and lift the lid off the pot. 

Melt the butter in a small pan, add the turmeric and pepper and stir for about 30 seconds. Pour in batches over the corn, stirring well between pours to evenly incorporate the seasoning. Sprinkle with sea salt to taste stirring once again. Store in air-tight containers for prolonged freshness. Serve as a snack, during an at home movie night or as a lunch box side. Spice it up further with some cayenne for adults mmmm.