Close your eyes and picture yourself in a mall food court. Walk past the free samples of bourbon chicken on toothpicks and the rows of big, fat stromboli—hard, we know, but the reward is worth it—until you reach that distinctive blue-and-white-tiled shop. Can you picture it? More important: can you smell it?
Cinnabon has been eliciting Pavlovian responses in its customers since they opened their first store in the SeaTac mall in Seattle in 1985. The smell is truly unparalleled: first, a base of rich browned butter, with notes of caramelized brown sugar, yeasty bread, and fragrant, warm cinnamon. Today, that distinctive baked-good aroma wafts through over 1,200 stores worldwide, with a total of 1 billion (yup, that’s a “b”) buns sold each year. But whether you’re licking cream cheese frosting off your fingers in an airport in Tokyo or the middle of Times Square, one ingredient in the ‘Bon’s buns reigns supreme: their cinnamon.
You see, the cinnamon in Cinnabons (try saying that five times fast) isn’t some cheap generic blend chosen for its quantity over its quality. 32 years ago, at the company’s inception, the team tested cinnamon from virtually every growing region in the world to find which one complemented the heady brown sugar mixture that makes a cinnamon bun, well, cinnamon bun-y. The winner came from the Korintjie region of West Sumatra in Indonesia, a small, high-elevation area that produces cinnamon with a high-volatile oil and cellulose content (translation: a more pungent and tastier spice).
And your environmental lesson for the day: cinnamon is actually the dried bark of the Laurel tree. The “quills” you might buy for your spice grinder are the result of bark that has curled into tubular shapes after being stripped from the tree. Two types of Laurel trees, Cinnamomum Cassia, and Cinnamomum Ceylon, produce the two most common forms of cinnamon, called—you guessed it—Cassia and Ceylon. The former is redder, more pungent, and what Cinnabon selected as the spice base for their buns. To further preserve the essential oils, and therefore, the flavor, the company delays grinding the quills until they arrive stateside. Per year, they go through a whopping 240,300 pounds of the stuff.
Getting your paws on a jar actually doesn’t involve calling the corporate office in Atlanta. After Cinnabon trademarked their proprietary blend, called Makara, in 1996, they made it available to consumers. All flagship Cinnabon bakeries in malls carry the jars for around $4.99, and considering its potency, one bottle will last quite a while. Its scent is so powerful, in fact, that many assume the stores pump artificial fragrance into the air to entice customers to wolf down a pastry or three. “It’s our cinnamon!” says director of research and development, Jennifer Holwill.
This writer did an informal smell and taste test of her own, pitting the Makara against regular generic cinnamon from the grocery store while baking scones (I could lie and say cinnamon buns, but I’m not that patient). They may as well have been two different spices. The moment you open up the Makara, your nostrils are hit with a rich, slightly woodsy aroma. It’s tempting to dab a bit behind your ears. The generic, however, just barely tickles the nostrils with its scent. In terms of taste, there’s also no comparison: Makara has a richer flavor and is less sweet than an average cinnamon.
This uber-cinnamon can be utilized in myriad ways. Holwill says that fans love to sprinkle it into their coffee for an extra kick or add it into the spice blend for French toast. Its potency also makes it an excellent foil for savory dishes, like this lamb meatloaf with yogurt sauce. For baked goods, it’s absolutely perfect for sticky buns, schnecken, and, but of course, cinnamon buns.
SOURCE: BON APPETIT