11 of the best cinnamon dishes, from Mexican caldillo to Moroccan harira

From a spicy-umami Mexican beef stew to German festive biscuits, here’s our pick of some of the world’s best cinnamon dishes.

Best known as a dessert ingredient, cinnamon is also key to some of the world’s savoury staples.

Photograph by Getty Images
By Sarah Barrell
Published 20 Mar 2022, 15:00 GMT

The spice star of indulgent desserts, cinnamon is also a staple in savoury dishes from Asia to the US, Morocco to Mexico. The latter is the world’s biggest market for Ceylon, or ‘true cinnamon’, which is native to Sri Lanka and Southern India. These delicate, quill-like sticks are light brown with a soft, sweet flavour; sturdy cassia, which grows in China and Southeast Asia, is darker in colour, rougher in texture, spicier in flavour and cheaper to buy. Both come from the bark of cinnamon trees and, for the most rounded flavours, are best used in unrefined stick form, either broken up or freshly ground.

1. Caldillo

Mexico’s cuisine sings with cinnamon. Introduced by Spain (where it was, in turn, a legacy of the Moors), it’s a key ingredient in desserts and classic dishes like mole poblano sauce and barbacoa (slow-roasted marinated lamb), it also balances the meaty umami and spicy green chilies of this beef stew, when combined with sugar and oranges for the dish’s topping.

2. Khichdi

For this South Asian comfort food, a stick of cinnamon is tempered in ghee or oil with turmeric, cumin seeds and fresh ginger, then added to lentils and rice, ideally in a pressure cooker. The fragrant warmth of the cinnamon, contrasting with the fresh mint, yoghurt and lime juice that tops the dish, leaves khichidi in an unexpectedly delightful limbo somewhere between dal and rice pudding.  

3. Pastitsio

If you thought lasagne was indulgent, Greece’s own layered pasta bake involves cheesy bechamel and a cinnamon-spiked, thick ragu, rich with red wine and a hint of cloves, which gives this dish its distinctive personality. For the punchiest pastitsio, grind cinnamon from a stick or add it whole to the meat sauce as its simmers low and slow, removing before baking.

4. Cincinnati chili

It’s believed this Ohioan sweet beef chili laced with cinnamon was designed to sate the palates of Greek immigrants to the Midwest in the early 1900s. None of the ingredients need to be pre-sauteed, and there are no spices to temper — everything is added in one go, to one pot, along with allspice and cloves. Some recipes call for the addition of nutmeg, paprika, oregano, Worcestershire sauce or even unsweetened chocolate powder.

5. Harira

Zesty and fragrant, this Moroccan soup is packed with tomatoes, ginger and fresh herbs. Chickpeas and lentils are given depth and warmth by the cinnamon, which is added (freshly grated or whole) as the soup simmers in a pressure cooker or stock pot. Rice and diced chicken, lamb or beef add the calories required during Ramadan, when it’s a preferred recipe for breaking fast.

6. Kai palo

This salty-sweet broth, smelling sweetly of cinnamon and topped with slices of pork belly and boiled egg, is a staple of Thai school canteens and food markets and popular with home cooks. Cinnamon sticks, slightly broken up, are added to a spice bag with star anise, cloves, coriander seeds and Sichuan peppercorns (all tempered beforehand). This then simmers in the stock with the slow-cooked pork.

7. Kanelglas

Cinnamon ice cream might make an occasional appearance on adventurous gelato menus but it’s a staple flavour in Sweden, where the spice is added to pretty much every dessert, pastry or sweet bake. If you’re looking to make this at home, it’s well worth grinding the cinnamon yourself, which will bring a spicy heat to the icy treat.

8. Zimtsterne

These star-shaped, macaron-like Christmas biscuits are a German treat named after the cinnamon that’s at the heart of the recipe. Again, freshly ground cinnamon, rather than powdered will add proper presence to these nutty, almond flour bakes, which should be both chewy and crisp. Topped with icing sugar, they’re fairly easy to make and a lovely festive gift for gluten-free friends.

9. Cinnamon babka

The Eastern European sweet bread, named from the Yiddish/Slavic for ‘grandmother’, is enriched dough — ideally leftover challah bread — rolled with cinnamon sugar into a sticky loaf. Chocolate babka has become more prevalent — particularly in the US, where it arrived in 1800s with Polish and Ukrainian immigrants — but the cinnamon version is the original; the streusel topping a modern addition.

10. Kheer

This slow-cooked, spiced Indian rice pudding hums with cinnamon and cardamom, which, along with rose water and an edible flower garnish, create an almost celestial perfume. Creamy and often jewelled with nuts and dried fruit, it’s a real winter warmer. Add cinnamon sticks as the pudding simmers or grind them fresh and leave a sprinkling of the finest powder to garnish with ground pistachios or almonds.

11. Kanelbullar

These Swedish buns are popular across Scandinavia, either rolled or fashioned into swirls. Traditional Swedish offerings are covered with cardamom, topped with pearl sugar. Infuse the milk with cinnamon sticks for real depth of flavour or use sourdough for a hipster edge and a lovely tangy contrast to the spices.

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