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The Best Thing Since Sliced Bread

By Bonnie S. Benwick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 24, 2008

A smart friend once pulled up next to me at a homemade breakfast buffet. Together we surveyed the spread, then looked down at his plate, which was packed quite efficiently.

He grinned, shrugged and said, "You know, I could have just had toast."

While that bulletin was immediately deflating -- it was my table -- I agreed. And we both added simultaneously: cinnamon toast.

It's the comfort food everybody can make. It conjures memories of grandmas and glasses of whole milk and that time the larder wasn't really bare, after all. If you're in bed with the flu, you want it on that tray. (You need it on that tray.) Fathers Who Don't Cook get points for producing slice after slice.

It's why you keep the really good butter around.

General Mills understands the power of cinnamon toast. It is still reaping the rewards of market research that identified the flavor as powerfully seductive to breakfast eaters. Sales of its Cinnamon Toast Crunch, a whole-wheat and rice cereal introduced in the mid-'80s, were up 12 percent in the past year.

John Mendesh, vice president of research and development for the company's Big G cereals, helped develop the winning formula. (That made him famous among his children and their friends, he has told us via e-mail.) Research started with his team members making their own favorite versions of cinnamon toast to "get a clear idea of exactly what we were trying to create," he said.

Mixing cinnamon with sugar and sprinkling it on bread might have been a 17th-century flash of culinary brilliance, as mentioned in a rare tome kept at the Library of Congress. But long before that, Egyptians used cinnamon to embalm their pharaohs, and spice traders returning from Sri Lanka introduced "true cinnamon," Cinnamomum verum or zeylanicum, to Rome and Greece, and later, the Netherlands and Mexico.

Mexicans retained their taste for the real thing; in 2008, their country imported about 8.4 million of its 8.6 million pounds of whole cinnamon from Sri Lanka. Nearly 70 percent of Sri Lankan cinnamon is exported to South American countries such as Peru, Colombia, Guatemala and Chile, a fact worth knowing once you realize the cinnamon many cooks use in the United States is quite different.

True cinnamon implies the presence of a false one, and American consumers who buy the spice in the form of three-inch, double-curled sticks and premixed in cinnamon-sugar bears usually are getting just that: cassia, or "bastard cinnamon." According to "The Field Guide to Herbs & Spices" (Quirk, 2006), it is illegal to sell cassia as cinnamon in England and Australia. Now that's a fine example of well-placed standards.

Spice guides list cassia-type cinnamon under several names: Vietnamese, Saigon, Indonesian, Chinese, Korintje, Dutch or Indian. It fails to compare to Ceylon cinnamon in several ways: Its flavor can be bold, bordering on bitter. It is brittle, darker in color and very fragrant, especially when it is ground and volatile oils are released. A tin of powdered cassia-type cinnamon will usher forth a promising whiff each time it is opened, years after it has lost much of its flavor.

Cassia looks almost coarse when placed alongside the longer, more delicate quills of true cinnamon. Ceylon cinnamon's rolled sticks have multiple concentric layers and are softer and much easier to crush by hand, with an almost-buff color and a more delicate aroma.

All that could explain why some pieces of cinnamon toast turn out better than others. To live up to the hype of wordsmiths who have connected the dish with genteelness and civility . . . well, the true spice must have been in play.

Any quest to make the best cinnamon toast ought to start with Cinnamomum zeylanicum. Penzeys Spices (in Falls Church and Rockville; online at http://www.penzeys.com) sells the equivalent of a quarter-cup of its Ceylon cinnamon for less than four bucks. Remarkably, the best spice for the job is available for a song at many Latin markets or found in the international aisle of larger grocery stores. Even then, consumers must be diligent. A spice company that packages Sri Lankan sticks of "canela" or "canela suave" might use cassia for its ground cinnamon. And the packages rarely list a country of origin.

(What to do with those bastard cinnamon sticks from the baking-aisle spice rack? Save them for mulled wine and savory Middle Eastern fare.)

There is no need to fuss over special sugar; white granulated works just fine. The ratio of spice to sugar is key: Visually, the mixture should look more white than brown. It's a matter of personal taste, of course, but start with about two tablespoons of ground (true) cinnamon for every half-cup of sugar.

For butter and bread, the basis of every worthy cinnamon toast project, there are certain paths to follow. Salted butter responds to the sweetness. It should be at a cool room temperature to spread easily, leaving an occasional small knob that has not melted. The decadence of one such sweet, salty, creamy bite is almost enough to satisfy.

Almost.

An immediate application of cinnamon sugar upon the melting butter is required, but only for bread straight from the toaster or toaster oven. The under-the-broiler method to caramelize the sugar is old-school and must be watched carefully, so as not to burn the spice. For further exploration, New York bookseller and cinnamon-sugar fan Bonnie Slotnick referred me to Jessie Ziff Cool's 2003 "Toast: Sixty Ways to Butter Your Toast and More," but she and I turned up our noses at the mention of "a more luscious rendition" made with cream cheese instead of butter.

Come to think of it, the Philadelphia brand does a version of its cream cheese with swirls of cinnamon sugar. I'm sure the company has solved the grit problem (how could the sugar melt into cold cream cheese?), yet how could it have the same universal appeal?

A thinly sliced piece of toast has merit as a vehicle, as do split pita breads (a former favorite of Slotnick's). But it's hard to improve upon thick slices of toasted brioche or challah. They provide a veneer of crisp surface and enough softness for the melting butter to work its way in. They can handle a first, then a second application for maximum coverage.

Cut it on the diagonal and take it with afternoon tea, as Random House editor Judith Jones did when she was growing up. Order it at trendy London restaurants, where chefs prefer to start with stale bread. Or serve it to a tableful of children reputed to be picky eaters: They won't be able to resist.

Then teach them how to make it.

Staff researcher Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.

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