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Common spice adds flavor to seasonal desserts

Editor's Note: This is the first in our "Spice of the Month" series, a monthly look at how to spice up your cooking.

Whether you're planning to host guests or to take a dish to a potluck dinner, spice up your desserts with a little cinnamon this year. Chances are, someone else will make or bring a pumpkin or pecan pie, which leaves you free to try some new recipes. We found a few dishes that should definitely inspire you to experiment with cinnamon.

Almond-Stuffed Baked Apples with Caramel-Apple Sauce

Filling:

1⁄2 cup sliced almonds, toasted

1⁄4 cup sugar

2 teaspoons butter, melted

1⁄4 teaspoon vanilla extract

1⁄8 teaspoon salt

Dash of ground nutmeg

1 large egg white, lightly beaten

Apples:

4 Braeburn apples, halved

cooking spray

1 tablespoon sugar

1⁄4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Sauce:

1⁄2 cup sugar

3 tablespoons water

1⁄2 apple cider

1 tablespoon brandy

1 tablespoon Grand Marnier (orange-flavored liqueur)

1 teaspoon butter

Dash of salt

Preheat oven to 350 F.

To prepare filling, place almonds in a food processor, process until finely ground. Combine ground almonds,1⁄4 cup sugar and next five ingredients, stirring until well combined.

To prepare apples, core carefully, scooping out 1 tablespoon from each apple half to form a cup. Cut a thin slice off the rounded side of each apple so it will sit flat. Place apples, cut sides up, on a jellyroll pan coated with cooking spray. Combine 1 tablespoon sugar and cinnamon, sprinkle generously over apples. Spoon about 1 tablespoon filling in cup of each apple half. Bake at 350 F for 40 minutes or until apples are golden and tender.

To prepare sauce, combine 1⁄2 cup sugar and 3 tablespoons water in a small saucepan. Cook over medium-high heat until mixture begins to brown (do not stir). Gently tilt pan and swirl to evenly brown mixture. Reduce heat to low and slowly add cider, stirring constantly. Remove from heat, stir in brandy and next three ingredients. Serve over apples.

Makes 8 servings. Each serving is one apple half with 11⁄2 tablespoons sauce.

Source: "Cooking Light Dessert," edited by Heather Averett (Oxmoor House, $17.95)

Spice Cookies

21⁄3 cups all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

11⁄2 teaspoons ground ginger

1⁄4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

1⁄2 teaspoon salt

1⁄2 pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened

3⁄4 cup sugar

1⁄2 cup dark molasses

2 large egg yolks

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Lemon glaze:

1 cup confectioners' sugar, sifted

Juice of 1⁄2 medium lemon, strained

To make the cookies, sift the flour, spices and salt into a medium bowl.

Place the butter in the bowl of an electric mixed fitted with the paddle attachment and begin mixing on medium speed. While mixing, add the sugar in a steady stream and continue mixing until light and fluffy, stopping at least once to scrape down the sides of the bowl. Add the molasses, egg yolks and vanilla and continue to mix until incorporated, stopping again at least once to scrape down the sides of the bowl.

Reduce the mixing speed to low and gradually incorporate the sifted dry ingredients, mixing until just combined. The dough will be very soft. Scrape it into a plastic container and set in the refrigerator for 30 minutes to an hour.

Preheat the oven to 350 F and line baking sheets with parchment paper.

Drop teaspoons of the dough about 11⁄2 inches apart onto the baking sheets and bake until golden, about 15 minutes. Set the cookies on a wire rack to cool completely, about another 12 minutes.

To make the glaze, whisk together the sugar and lemon juice until smooth and glossy.

To finish the cookies, drizzle the glaze over the cooled cookies, allowing them to dry completely before storing in an airtight container.

Makes about 36 cookies.

Source: "Black Forest Cuisine: The Classic Blending of European Flavors" by Walter Staib with Jennifer Linder McClinn (Running Press, $35)

Cinnamon-Honey Butter

Paula Deen serves this flavored butter on homemade waffles. It will also work well with muffins or rolls.

1⁄2 cup (1 stick) butter, softened

2 tablespoons honey

1⁄2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Combine the ingredients in a small bowl. Pack into a small crock or baby food jar with a decorative lid. Or roll in waxed paper into a log and twist the ends. Chill thoroughly. Wrap in colorful paper.

Makes about 1⁄2 cup.

Source: "Paula Deen Celebrates: Best Dishes and Best Wishes for the Best Times of Your Life" by Paula Deen with Martha Nesbit (Simon and Schuster, $26)

Hummingbird Cake

3 cups self-rising flour

2 cups granulated sugar

3⁄4 cup vegetable oil

1⁄2 cup finely chopped pecans

2 very ripe large bananas, mashed

One 8-ounce can crushed pineapple, with juice

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

4 large eggs, beaten

Icing:

One 1-pound box confectioners' sugar

One 8-ounce package cream cheese, at room temperature

6 tablespoons (3⁄4 stick) butter, softened

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 tablespoon milk, or more, if needed

1⁄2 cup finely chopped pecans

Preheat oven to 325 F.

Grease and flour three 8-inch round cake pans. In a large mixing bowl, combine the flour, sugar, oil, pecans, bananas, pineapple, vanilla, cinnamon and eggs. Stir well with a spoon until the batter is smooth.

Pour the batter into the prepared pans. Bake for 26 to 28 minutes, until the tops spring back. Cool in the pans for about 10 minutes, then loosen from the pans and invert onto wire racks to cool completely.

To make the icing, mix the sugar, cream cheese, butter, vanilla and 1 tablespoon milk in a large mixing bowl with an electric mixer until the icing is smooth. If needed, add more milk, 1 teaspoon at a time, to achieve the proper spreading consistency. Ice between the cake layers and on the sides and the top of the cake. Sprinkle the top with the pecans. Refrigerate until ready to serve.

Makes 12 servings.

Source: "Paula Deen Celebrates: Best Dishes and Best Wishes for the Best Times of Your Life" by Paula Deen with Martha Nesbit

(Simon and Schuster, $26)

All About Cinnamon

•Where it comes from: From the bark of a tropical evergreen tree. When partially dry, the bark is rolled into thin pieces, called quills, which are allowed to dry completely in the shade.

•Forms: Whole cinnamon quills are often called cinnamon sticks. The bark is also ground into cinnamon powder.

•How it's used: In cakes, pastries, fruit pies and preserved lemons. It also works well in curry dishes and in beverages such as chai.

•What it goes with: Spices such as allspice, caraway, cardamom, chili, cloves, cumin, ginger, nutmeg and turmeric.

•How it should be stored: Cinnamon powder should be kept in an airtight container and away from extreme heat or humidity. Whole cinnamon can be kept for two to three years if it is not exposed to extreme heat.

•What you might not know: Cinnamon is among the oldest of spices. References to it can be found in Egyptian records from 2,500 years ago.

In the United States, a similar spice called cassia is often sold as cinnamon or called baker's cinnamon. Cassia is more pungent than cinnamon and goes well with dried fruits.

Source: "The Spice and Herb Bible" by Ian Hemphill, with recipes by Kate Hemphill (Robert Rose, $24.95)