Words, Recipe and Image by Ruby Dhalay
This month’s spice is warming wonder cinnamon. While it will always remind us of Christmas, it’s a really versatile spice that brings a warm richness to sweet and savoury dishes all year round. It’s also been proven to help stabilise blood sugar levels so is a great addition to your diet for your overall wellbeing… and cinnamon swirls.
The comforting smell of cinnamon always reminds me of basmati rice steaming away on the hob, with some turmeric, green cardamom and cloves in there too. This means my memory almost always associates the aroma with hungry impatience - if the rice is cooking, that means dinner’s nearly ready!
There are actually two types of cinnamon - the more strong and fiery rough bark of cassia, and the classically fragrant and sweet cinnamon, which is made from the smoother inner bark of a different tree. They’re both made by drying tree bark before being rolled into the quills you might already be familiar with. As a rule I suggest using cassia in savoury dishes like tagines, Indian curries and Vietnamese pho bases, and the latter in desserts.
Both cinnamon and cassia have an aromatic, woody flavour that coats your mouth in a warming familiar sweetness. I normally always champion using whole spices over ground, but ground cinnamon retains the flavour of the whole bark well and is pretty handy when you just want a little sprinkle on something like porridge or a baked apple. Plus it can take a lot of elbow grease to grind it down to a powder yourself!
This month we’re making kheer, which is an Indian rice pudding. Cooked on the hob rather than baked like the English classic, the use of lower-GI basmati rice and digestion-friendly aromatic spices mean it’s less stodgy and a bit lighter on your tummy after a meal too. Not that you ever need an excuse to reach for more pudding...
It’s normally made with just green cardamom but I like the toasty warmth that cinnamon brings to this version. Traditionally its perceived to be an auspicious dish served at festivals and special occasions. It’s so special and well-loved it’s even served with edible silver leaf on top too - possibly the most extra rice you’ve ever eaten?!
I’ve also opted to use coconut milk instead of whole cow’s milk which is a personal preference as I like the natural sweetness and tropical flavour that it brings. Feel free to use whatever milk takes your fancy, you might just need to adjust the sugar to account for the missing sweetness in other milks. Let your tastebuds guide you!
Kheer (Indian rice pudding)
1 tin coconut milk
1 cup basmati rice
4 tablespoons sugar (more to taste)
4 cassia or cinnamon bark quills
8 green cardamom pods
50g flaked almonds
Pinch saffron strands (optional)
1 tablespoon rosewater (optional)
In a bowl cover the rice in cold water and let it soak for about half an hour. While its soaking drain and change the water a couple of times, you should see it become less cloudy each time.
While the rice is soaking, heat the coconut milk and an empty tin’s worth of water over a low flame. With a pestle or the back of a spoon give the cardamom pods a bash and add those with the cinnamon or cassia bark to the milk. This will allow the spices to get a head start infusing the milk before the rice is added. If you’re using saffron, take a couple of teaspoons of the milk out and set aside and gently mix the saffron strands through.
Once its soaked add the rice and a pinch of salt and stir thoroughly. Increase the heat to let the milk come to a boil, and and then reduce and let the kheer simmer on a low flame until the rice is cooked through and soft. This should take around half an hour but add more water and cook for longer if it dries out during this time or the rice still has bite. Continue to stir throughout the cooking process ensuring it doesn’t stick.
Once the rice is cooked and the milk has thickened to a thick and saucy texture, stir through the sugar, almonds and raisins (and saffron and rose water if using). Taste and add more sugar if you like.
Serve with nothing but a spoon to envelope you in its comforting goodness. I love to eat kheer while it’s still hot from the pan, but it’s more traditionally eaten cold which is equally tasty.
Cinnamon’s not just for desserts - add a stick when cooking basmati rice et voila, you have a pilau!
Adding a cassia stick while frying onions for chickpea curry adds a subtle sweet note that results in a lovely richness in the final dish
Add a sprinkle of ground cinnamon to the apples when cooking down for another layer of comforting sweetness in your crumble
Ruby (@rubydhalay) is a foodie who is passionate about finding pleasure and nourishment in food, exploring an holistic approach to cooking and eating.
Every month she'll be taking culinary inspiration from her roots and focussing on a different spice - talking about flavour, provenance, health and wellbeing, and most importantly how to get the most out of them in your cooking