I made my check list and went to Penzeys Spices in Grand Central Market.
Cinnamon was first on my list. Penzeys stocked four different kinds of ground cinnamon plus cinnamon sticks in different lengths, and nubs of cinnamon that I could grind as necessary at home. I'd read in Cook's Illustrated that not all cinnamon is "true cinnamon". The two women working at the counter confirmed that and guided me through smelling four different cinnamons, from the mild citrusy ceylon cinnamon to bolder cassia. Before you begin holiday baking, ask Penzeys for this impromptu cinnamon class. This alone is well worth a trip to Grand Central.
While some of the other stores in Grand Central look like they were art directed by a Broadway set designer working with a team of Parisian shop keepers, Penzeys is far more toned down. I'm glad Penzey's practical looks didn't keep me from checking out this useful shop.
They slipped a catalog into my bag as I left the store. The catalog is excellent, providing far more information than the web site or the product packages. The catalog is a spice primer -- from adobo to zatar -- written for cooks of many skill levels and palettes. The catalog is written in a tone more similar to Cook's Illustrated than standard catalog copy. Penzeys also has a magazine that I must check out soon. The next issue will feature a recipe for Brooklyn-style meatballs.
While Grand Central Market is largely a showcase for merchants with New York City roots, Wisconsin-based Penzeys stands out. I welcome their expertise, their reasonable prices and their helpful employees. Penzeys has stores in 21 states. The Grand Central store keeps amazing hours. On weekdays, they are open from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., giving us plenty of time to stock up before the holidays.