Chef Kieran Fleming Says Cinnamon Is the Perfect Spice Addition

The Agua Caliente Casino Palm Springs executive chef talks about the spice's historical use and implementation on The Steakhouse's winter menu.

April 11, 2023
Apple Sausage Salad with Cinnamon Vinaigrette.  
PHOTOGRAPHY BY MOLLIE KIMBERLING

Here’s a hint for time travelers: If you’re headed back to meet royalty and want to bring a gift of good faith, leave your rings and pearls in the 21st century. The perfect present is lurking in your spice cabinet.

“Cinnamon is an amazing spice when you start to look into it,” reports Kieran Fleming, Executive Chef at Agua Caliente Casino Palm Springs. “It has been around for thousands of years and was traded as a commodity.”

Once more valuable than gold, cinnamon cost ancient Romans the equivalent of 50 months’ labor for less than 12 ounces. In addition to its use as an offering to monarchs and deities, the spice was burned at high-profile Roman funerals. (Emperor Nero allegedly set a year’s worth of the city’s supply alight in memory of his deceased wife in 65 A.D.)

Ancient Egyptians added cinnamon to the mix of herbs and spices used in mummifying bodies. Chinese healing books from antiquity made mention of it — for good reason. Cinnamon is anti-inflammatory and loaded with antioxidants. Studies have found links between cinnamon and a reduced risk of heart disease, infections, and even cancer.

Witches and magic-makers both ancient and modern swear by the spice’s potential to charge up healing and protection spells and attract love and money.

Of course, cinnamon has also been a longtime standby ingredient in many cultures’ cuisines. “It is used in so many ethnic dishes,” Fleming notes. “Mexican chocolate has cinnamon in it, and there are also a lot of Asian, Persian, and Middle Eastern dishes that use it.” Diners might detect hints of the spice in unexpected places, from pork tacos to pickles.

Fortunately, today’s chefs can pick up cinnamon for only a few dollars at the average grocery store — and, according to Chef Fleming, the spice’s potential to elevate food remains just as powerful. “It really rounds out and balances and gives that depth of flavor that some dishes are missing.”

When developing the winter menu for The Steakhouse at Agua Caliente Casino Palm Springs, Fleming and his team searched for a way to add interest to a new entrée. “We had braised short ribs that were lacking a special flavor; it was kind of flat,” he recalls. “We decided, ‘You know what? Let’s try some cinnamon in this.’ It’s got such a distinct aromatic nose to it, and when you try the cinnamon braised short rib, you do notice it.”

The short ribs’ presence on the restaurants’ cooler-seasons menu is no mistake. “Cinnamon is used more in fall and winter meat dishes because it [has] a warm flavor and aroma,” Fleming says. That’s also why the spice plays especially well with seasonal produce like apples, pumpkins, and yams.

For home chefs looking to incorporate cinnamon into their culinary repertoire, Fleming recommends easing in. “Start with a very small amount,” he suggests. “It’s always easier to add more than it is to take away.”

Fleming offers another option celebrating cinnamon: his Apple Sausage Salad with Cinnamon Vinaigrette. The ingredients feature cubes of toasted cinnamon-raisin bread and ground cinnamon in a refreshing and flavorful mix that includes mixed greens, juicy Bartlett pears, and dried sweet cherries.

Once you’ve found your sweet spot, keep a record of it. “Sometimes people forget to write down how much they’re putting,” Fleming says. “When you’re trying a new recipe and adjusting it in some way, take notes so that it’s easier for you to replicate it later.”

Another tip: Skip the powdery stuff. Cinnamon growers harvest the ingredient by peeling off the inner bark of cinnamomum trees and curling it into cylindrical shapes called quills. Sellers dry the quills and cut them into smaller pieces, which are distributed as is or ground up and poured into jars.

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You probably recognize cinnamon quills mostly as a yummy-smelling garnish in holiday drinks. But Fleming suggests reaching for the fragrant sticks — not the pre-ground powder — every time. “You don’t know how long that ground cinnamon has been sitting on the shelf in the store, or in your pantry, for that matter. Spices really do lose their effectiveness, their potency, and will change the flavors in your recipes,” Fleming explains. “[The sticks are] kept a little bit fresher. You get so much more of a true, robust flavor.”

You can grind the quills with a mortar and pestle or grate them with a microplane to sprinkle cinnamon on toast or to coat chicken. For other recipes — including Chef Fleming’s braised short ribs — the sticks need no modification. Just place them in the pot with the meat and other flavor-boosting ingredients like veal stock, tomato paste, and fresh herbs. “As it’s braising, the flavors and the oils and the aroma from the sticks are actually coming out,” Fleming says.

You might also toss whole quills into soup or oatmeal as it cooks or boil them in water and sugar to create a cinnamon simple syrup for mixed drinks and mocktails. “[Cinnamon] can be used in savory dishes, but it’s used in sweet dishes just as much,”
he notes.

Nowadays, your beloved might be less than pleased if you tried to mark an anniversary with a cinnamon stick instead of fine jewelry. But with so many uses, offering a fresh jar of cinnamon quills to a budding chef is like handing them a pot of gold.

This story originally appeared in Me Yah Whae: The Magazine of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, Spring/Summer 2023.