For most North Americans, cinnamon is a familiar spice; its warm, woody, slightly sweet aroma and flavor evoke memories of home and holidays. But most cinnamon sold in the United States is actually “cassia,” not the spice called for in Mexican cuisine…
True cinnamon (Cinnamomum zeylanicam) is native to the island country of Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon), and has a more delicate aroma and subtler and sweeter flavor than the more strongly flavored cassia, which is cultivated in China, Viet Nam, India, and Indonesia. Though the spices are similar, they are by no means identical and generally should not be substituted for each other. For example, cassia might be excellent in a curry, but true cinnamon is more appropriate for a Mexican mole. After all, you wouldn’t substitute a green bell pepper for a poblano in a recipe and expect the results to taste the same.
Luckily, cassia and true cinnamon are easy to distinguish. When sold whole, as canela entera, true cinnamon is beige in color and comprised of several thin layers of tender inner bark that have been rolled into long, relatively brittle “quills.” These quills are soft enough to grind in a mortar or grinder. By contrast, the woody “sticks” of cassia are much harder and reddish-brown in color.
Cinnamon could be thought of as the spice of conquest—it was introduced to Spain by Moorish invaders during the 8th Century and subsequently brought to the New World by Spanish conquistadors in the early 16th Century.
In both instances, the invaders were eventually overthrown, but not before the spice had found a permanent home in the native cuisines. In Mexico, the people soon discovered that cinnamon was the perfect complement to their chocolate, moles, picadillos, and myriad other savory and sweet dishes. In fact, “Mexican chocolate” implies chocolate with cinnamon.
Today, Mexico is the largest single importer of “true” cinnamon in the world.
Mexican Wedding Cookies
Makes 2 dozen
1 cup butter, softened (1/2 pound)
1/2 cup powdered sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon almond extract
1/2 teaspoon canela, ground to a fine powder (see note)
2 cups flour (I use half King Arthur all-purpose and half White Lily)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 ¼ cups raw pecans
Place pecans on a cookie sheet in a single layer and bake for 6-8 minutes or until lightly toasted and fragrant. Allow to cool. When cool, place pecans in a food processor or chop with a knife until they are very finely chopped (you should have about a cup of chopped pecans)
Place softened butter, vanilla and almond extracts in a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment and stir together for a few seconds. Add the powdered sugar, canela, and salt. Cream ingredients at medium speed until the mixture is light and lemon colored.
Gently add the flour a little at a time until it is fully incorporated.
Fold the pecans into the dough.
Chill dough in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour; meanwhile, preheat oven to 350 degrees.
When dough is firm, shape into 1 inch balls (a small ice cream scoop works well for this). Place on an ungreased cookie sheet 1 inch apart.
Place cookies in oven, reduce the oven temperature to 325 degrees, and bake the cookies for 12 – 15 minutes or until light golden brown on the bottom. Cool on a wire rack.
While the cookies are still barely warm, roll in powdered sugar to coat. Place back on the wire rack and allow to cool completely.
Use a spatula to transfer the cookies to a serving platter.
Place powdered sugar in a fine sieve and dust the cookies a second time before serving.
If you purchase the canela in “quills” (sticks), break a few pieces up and place in a coffee or spice grinder. Grind to a fine powder.