My dessert-making life exists in two eras, Before Smoked Cinnamon and After. I hate to be hyperbolic about something as straightforward as baking spices, but since it came into my life a few years ago, my spice cakes, brownies, ice cream, hot cocoa, and snickerdoodles have never been better.
Smoked cinnamon is exactly what it sounds like. A unique creation from spice mastermind Lior Lev Sercarz of La Boîte, who develops custom spice blends for restaurants and food and drink brands, it's made of cinnamon sticks gently smoked over a mix of grape vines, apple wood, and hickory, then ground into a fine powder. That touch of smoke tames some of the cinnamon's spicy-sweet bite, while adding a subtle savory element that stands out even in complex spice blends.
Next to the ginger and allspice in honey cake, you might not even realize the smoke is there, but an extra umph makes you pay attention. It turns humdrum sweets like coffee cake and cider doughnuts into desserts that make you take notice. And it really shines in cinnamon-centric recipes like crisp fried churros or straightforward snickerdoodles, where that savory smoke comes to the forefront like a wisp of burnt chile from Spanish pimenton.
The idea came to Sercarz while he was working on a line of smoked sea salts. As long as he had the setup, he wondered, what else could he infuse with smoke? Cinnamon is a must-have product for any spice business, but its popularity is somewhat seasonal; it shines in fall and winter around the holidays, then drops out of the spotlight. “I thought if we added smoke to the cinnamon, we could get more people excited about it,” Sercarz explains. “A lot of people think of it as limited to a certain time of the year with just a few uses, but there are no limits to it.”
Since releasing the spice for retail in 2011 at the opening of his New York spice boutique, he's seen customers use it in all kinds of desserts as well as vegetable dishes and spiced, meaty stews. "It's very good with beef, or even just a really special cinnamon toast." I've had great success with white bean soup full of bay leaves, where the cinnamon stands in for smoked ham hock without all the fuss of an actual trotter. Barbecue sauce is a no-brainer.
Technically, the smoked cinnamon isn't actually cinnamon. It's Cinnamomum cassia, a cousin species of 'true' or 'Ceylon' Cinnamomum verum, which is native to Sri Lanka but also grows in Mexico and East Africa. Most of the world's cassia comes from China, and it's actually a far more popular spice for its bolder flavor and punchy heat, the kind you taste in a pack of Hot Tamales candy. Sercarz says he needs that strength to stand up to the smoke. "I got interested in the idea of smoked spices that don't affect the nature of the spice too much. There's a limit to how much I want to change things."
Which is why I'm over the moon about this stuff, despite the preponderance of trend-catching smoked products out on the market. We have space-age smoke guns, an infinitude of smoked salts, bottle after bottle of smoked bourbons and bitters. There's even something called smoked water now, which is basically plain old liquid smoke rebranded with a shockingly high price tag.
Most of those products taste like charred wood instead of anything palatable. By contrast, La Boite’s cinnamon is all about subtlety. You don’t use it to make your desserts taste like smoke. You use it to make them taste extraordinary.