(Deadline for the drawing for Avery Gilbert’s book “What the Nose Knows” is Monday night, Dec 15th, at midnight US EST. Leave a comment and you’ll be entered!)
“Blow upon my garden, that the spices thereof may flow out.” Song of Solomon, 4:14
Cinnamon is the Queen of the “Christmas” spices; these include others like cloves, nutmeg and mace (which is the inner “skin” of the nutmeg.) All common cinnamons are ground from bark, but what we think of as cinnamon, at least in the U.S., isn’t really cinnamon. It’s cassia, a related plant with a tougher, thicker bark. Harvested in Southeast Asia, it’s simpler in composition than true cinnamon, and contains a bit of coumarin, a controversial perfume ingredient. (This is why children are generally not allowed to eat cinnamon sticks.)
Other types of cinnamons and cassias in general use include Vietnamese – the flavor of the American candy the “Red-Hot” – and is it ever! – and Chinese cassia, even stronger than the common cassia. A sub-species of that type, Korintje, is also a Chinese cassia (but is a little smoother.) Finally, there is Ceylon cinnamon. This is the “true” cinnamon, used in the UK and Mexico primarily, and is a bit citrusy and more complex than the other types. It’s also quite crumbly. If you see “cinnamon sticks,” they’re cassia. True cinnamon would crumble to bits during the packing and shipping process.
Mulled wine has been around for a long time, too. In Europe, most of the wine of the medieval period was so awful that spices were used to disguise its taste. (This is one reason spices were so highly prized in trade.) The nobility drank spiced wine routinely. Everybody else got beer or some sort of home-brew, and, if they ever got their hands on any spices, they saved them for use during the Christmas season.
A quick check at Basenotes reveals a number of perfumes that use cinnamon as an ingredient: Chaos, Cinnabar, CDG’s Parfum and White, Musc Ravageur, Noir Epices, Youth Dew and (have you guessed this one already?) Opium. (One of my favorites, Donna Karan’s “Black Cashmere,” isn’t listed, but I bet there’s some cinnamon in there somewhere.)
Here’s a recipe for Christmas Cheer, otherwise known as Mulled Wine, otherwise known as “Olfacta’s Holiday Punch.”
(I use Penzey’s (http://www.penzeys.com) “Mulling Spices,” but you could just mix your own, which would include:
Cracked cassia (cinnamon sticks) (crack them with a mallet) or cinnamon of your choice
Allspice berries, slightly cracked
Cracked Cardamom Seed (or cardamom powder)
(If you’re making your own mix, just remember that cloves are much stronger than the other spices here and adjust accordingly; also, use a light hand with the powdered ones.)
The Penzey’s recipe calls for 1 TBSP spices per bottle of wine, but I use twice that much, at least.
Some people use one of those little cheesecloth bags for the spices, but I prefer to just throw them in. Crush them slightly, inhale deeply, and then mix them into:
1.5 liter bottle of ordinary red table wine (or more, just increase all the other stuff too)
Brown sugar to taste (I use about 1/2 cup) per large bottle of wine
1 cup ordinary brandy per large bottle of wine (Olfacta’s secret ingredient)
(The brandy can be warmed separately and used to spike the mulled wine to taste.)
Simmer over low heat in a covered pot for at least 20 minutes, or keep warm in a crock-pot. Don’t let it boil, ever! (For a party, simmer uncovered and refresh everything once in a while.)
Pour through a tea strainer into coffee mugs, garnished with a cinnamon stick.
Holiday visitors love this!