I’ve long been intrigued by the lure of tonka beans, and given that they are off limits in the US thanks to the FDA its a clear cut case of desiring what you cannot have. I mean any spice described as tasting and smelling like a heady combination of vanilla, almonds, cinnamon and cloves sounds like perfection.
Tonka beans are actually the leguminous seed of the tonka tree (Dipteryx odorata), a large rainforest tree (growing to 120′ high) native to South America and are actually belong to the pea family. Their flavor is reminiscent of vanilla, and in fact the vanilla extract sold in Mexico just might include some tonka bean thrown in for good measure.
Tonkas Many Uses
Tonka beans have found great favor as flavoring in cookies, cakes and cream dishes. Due to its incredible scent it has also found its way into perfume, soaps, candles, and tobacco. It is commonly used in deserts in France (example from a culinary genius, Pierre), and at least one European candy company produces a tonka bean-flavored milk chocolate bar. In South America the bean is made into a paste and mixed with milk resulting in a sweet beverage, thought to have aphrodisiac properties.
Some other recipe ideas include:
Whole beans are soaked in rum and then air dried, resulting in the formation of coumarin crystals that make the beans appear frosted. The bean is shaved as it is applied to foods. The temperature at which it is served greatly affects its flavor.
Why they are not sold in the US
The beans contain coumarin, which is suspected of being toxic and carcinogenic it is banned from being used as a food ingredient in the US. These bans are not in place in Europe or other parts of the world. Whether tonka beans are in fact bad for you is a hot topic for debate; take this excerpt from The Atlantic.
“Before the law, refined coumarin was commonly added to commercial foods like cream soda, and used in synthetic vanillin. Extreme concentrations caused liver problems in rats (how unappetizing), and a rather overreaching ban on even natural sources of the compound was put in place. Coumarin has since been found to occur naturally in cinnamon, lavender, licorice, and a host of other commonly eaten plants—all of which would seem to be illegal under the regulation. Coumarin also accounts for the particular smell of fresh-cut grass and of fresh-dried hay (both in Alinea’s grass-gas scent-pillows, and on your front lawn).
The fear of coumarin in the U.S. stems from the oft-repeated saw that it is a blood thinner. It’s not. Coumadin® is the blood thinner trademarked by Bristol-Meyers Squibb. To make matters more confusing, Coumadin is made, in part, by changing the chemical structure of coumarin. Doctors who spoke with me (and who were terrified of being quoted) said there they’re aware of no anti-coagulant effect from naturally occurring coumarin in general, or tonka beans in particular. In nature, only certain rare decomposition fungi can convert coumarin to the anti-coagulant molecule. Cows grazing on (pounds of) such rotting sweet clover led to the discovery of the Coumadin drug.
Humans would need to eat an unreasonably bovine amount of tonka bean to fall ill. The shavings of a single bean is enough for 80 plates. At least 30 entire tonka beans (250 servings, or 1 gram of coumarin total) would need to be eaten to approach levels reported as toxic—about the same volume at which nutmeg and other everyday spices are toxic.” source: The Atlantic – An Ingredient So Good It has to be Illegal
So now that I whetted your apeitite, the pièce de résistance. Or put another way, the masterpiece, the magnum opus, the chef’d'oeuvre, the tour de force, the showpiece, the jewel in the crown. Adrienne of Gastroanthropology has created this amazing and versatile cream that enhances anything it comes in contact with. For those of you not yet familiar with the incredibly talented and generous Adrienne, I suggest you check out her blog immediately, especially, I might add if baking is your thing. Adrienne is a trained pastry chef and culinary adventurer, originally from the Bay Area but now residing across the pond in the village of London. I have a wonderful time following her culinary adventures. Check out her post on tonka beans.
Tonka Bean Mascarpone Cream
- 4 oz mascarpone
- ¾ cup heavy whipping cream
- 1 egg white
- ¼ cup sugar
- 1 tonka bean, finely grated
Finely grate 1 tonka bean (microplane works great for this). Put cream in a small pot and add the grated tonka bean. Bring to a gentle boil and immediately remove from the heat. Set aside to steep. Strain after 1/2 hour – it is not necessary to use your finest mesh strainer – a little bit of tonka bean in the finished cream is desired. Chill in refrigerator for about 1 hour.
Meanwhile, make an Italian Meringue with the egg white and sugar. To do this begin to whip egg white with a mixer. When you are close to stiff peaks put the sugar on to boil on medium heat. Add a bit of water to the sugar so it looks like wet sand. The amount of sugar is very small so it will come to a boil very quickly. Typically for an Italian Meringue you will want to melt the sugar to just past 230°F (it will continue to heat up once it is just off the heat and the sugar should be around 240°F when it hits the egg whites). For this recipe the small amount of sugar makes it nearly impossible to take an accurate temperature reading. I would forgo trying to take the temperature and just remove from the heat when all the water has boiled off and just the sugar starts to bubble. If it turns even the tiniest shade of carmel you have gone way too far. If the sugar has cooked too much it will just candy in the egg white, rather than incorporating within. In this case it is better to be cooked a bit under than over. As soon as just the sugar is boiling drizzle into the beating egg white.
If you feel uncomfortable making such a small batch of Italian Meringue or have never made Italian Meringue before I suggest that you can make a larger batch, say 4 egg whites and 1 cup of sugar. This will allow you to use a candy thermometer to take the temperature of the sugar. Use 1/4th of the final amount for this recipe and reserve the rest for Pavlova or for Baked Meringues.
Once you have completed the Italian Meringue set aside. In a bowl whisk together the mascarpone and tonka bean infused heavy cream. Once it is smooth and combined, fold in the Italian Meringue. Serve with fresh berries or with a chocolate dessert, such as chocolate tart or brownie. You can refrigerate this for up to a day, just whisk to recombine the cream.