Cinnamon, Magic Rafts, and Slavery
Until early in the 16th century, the origins of cinnamon were closely guarded by spice merchants. Tales of gathering the exotic spice, as outrageous as the price of the cinnamon itself, were crafted in order to maintain the merchants’ stronghold.
One of these stories, as documented by the Greek historian Herodotus, involved gigantic birds that collected cinnamon sticks and stored them in their nests high atop mountain peaks that were impossible to reach by mere humans. According to Herodotus’ account, cinnamon traders would leave huge pieces of ox meat for the birds below the nests. As large as the nests were, they couldn’t hold the weight of the meat and would collapse to the ground carrying with them the cinnamon sticks which were promptly collected by the courageous spice merchant.
Another tall cinnamon tale reported by Pliny the Elder – the Roman philosopher, not the beer – indicated that cinnamon was carried on magic rafts powered solely by “man alone and his courage”.
Portuguese traders discovered cinnamon in Ceylon, present-day Sri Lanka, in the early 16th-century bringing with the discovery hundreds of years of wars, occupations, and slavery for this small island kingdom. By the 19th-century cinnamon was being cultivated in other parts of the world and was no longer the expensive, rare commodity it had once been.
The Origins of the Cinnamon Roll
Whether you’re British, German or Swedish, you may lay claim to the origins of the cinnamon roll. The butter enriched dough, foundational to cinnamon rolls saw its origins in Northern Europe around the 18th-century. In turn, each country developed the rich dough into something uniquely its own. The British rolled the dough up with currants, sugar, and butter and called it the Chelsea bun, and the Germans used raisins and nuts rolled into sweet schnecken, both of which made way for the kanelbulle, Sweden’s iconic rolled bun with cinnamon and sugar served for fika.
So, as you make Thelma’s Cinnamon Rolls, rejoice in the fact that you don’t have to carry large pieces of ox up mountains or power a magic raft with your courage alone. But above all recognize the sacrifices made and the creativity employed by so many in order that you may savor this uniquely warming sweet spice enveloped in a buttery, rich dough.
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- 1 cup milk scalded
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- 4 tablespoons butter
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 envelope dry yeast
- 3 cups flour + a little more if needed
- 4 tablespoons butter melted
- 6 tablespoons sugar
- 1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
- Pour the warm milk into a large bowl. Add the butter, sugar, and salt and stir until sugar and salt are dissolved.
- Add the yeast and 1 and 1/2 cups flour, beat well to combine, about 1 minute.
- Add the remaining flour, 1/2 cup at a time, until a shaggy dough is formed.
- Turn the dough onto a lightly floured surface and knead until smooth and satiny, about 4 minutes. Adding 1 tablespoon of flour at a time, being careful not to add too much flour.
- Place the dough in a greased bowl, spreading the top with a little bit of melted butter.
- Cover with a dampened cloth and let rise to double in size, about 1 - 2 hours.
- Gently deflate the dough and knead. Roll into a 10 x 14-inch rectangle about 1/4-inch thick.
- Brush with melted butter and sprinkle with topping, leaving an 1/2-inch border around the edges.
- Starting at the long edge, roll the dough jelly roll-fashion. Pinch the seams together.
- Using a serrated knife, dental floss or heavy thread into nine 1 1/2-inch slices.
- Arrange the slices cut side up in greased 8 x 8-inch baking dish, brush with melted butter, cover and allow to rise until double, about 1 hour.
- Heat oven to 400˚F.
- Bake in the center of the oven for 20 minutes, or until golden brown and firm to the touch.
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