If we were trapped on a desert island, cinnamon is definitely one of the spices we'd want in our magical picnic basket. Cinnamon, or one of its cousins, is used in almost every world cuisine, plus it can do double duty in both desserts and savory dishes. There are literally hundreds of ways it can be used!True cinnamon comes from the inner bark of a tropical tree related to the bay laurel (of all things!) and is distinguished as Ceylon or Sri Lankan cinnamon. As the bark dries, it curls on itself into those distinctive slender sticks, or "quills." Cinnamon is light reddish-brown in color and highly aromatic. It has a mild and sweet flavor without the robust spiciness of cassia.
As with most spices, whole cinnamon sticks will keep longer and have better flavor than ground cinnamon spice. We keep both in our cupboard for convenience sake. We use whole sticks in braises, for cider or mulled wine, and to infuse milk or simple syrups. The finely ground spice is best for pastries and other desserts, though you can also grind your own using a microplane.
Cinnamon really is found all around the world: Indian curries, Scandinavian pastries, Vietnamese pho, Mexican chili spice mixes, Moroccan tagine - not to mention our apple pies and snickerdoodles! Once you start looking for it, cinnamon is everywhere.