Lockdown Küche: Tonkabohnen Crème Brûlée

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As the Bavarian lockdown stumbles on into the fourth month, how about some experimentation with Tonka beans? They’re from Brazil. I had seen them in TV, assumed they were a (cheaper) substitute for vanilla, and didn’t really have much interest until I learned…

Tonka beans are banned in the United States. Now I’m interested. The reason for the ban is they contain a chemical called coumarin that can damage the liver when consumed in a large quantity. This chemical is also found in cinnamon, which is why the EU regulates how much cinnamon is allowed in prepared foods and baked goods. Ceylon cinnamon, which has less coumarin than cassia cinnamon but also a less intense flavor, is the most common cinnamon in the EU; I was able to get cassia from a dealer (heh) but all the packaged stuff at the grocery stores is labeled Ceylon. Cassia cinnamon is the common cinnamon in America, and probably what you’re buying at the grocery store. So you can eat coumarin for breakfast, but only from one source but not the other. I am fascinated. (Don’t worry too much; if you have a healthy liver you’ll need to ingest TikTok-Challenge amounts of cassia to hurt yourself, and you’re not that dumb.)

After looking around a bit in Freising, I finally ordered some online from a spice vendor. Ten grams, which worked out to ten dried beans, for 1,50€, which I think is a bit cheaper than vanilla bean. Straight out of the package, they smell like almond extract.

Tonka beans
Freising, February 2021

Next I found a German recipe for Crème Brûlée, flavored with ground tonka beans. It was easy enough, probably the only difference between this recipe and your favorite Crème Brûlée recipe is the flavoring.

The directions called for grating the beans with your nutmeg zester, which every good German cook has but somehow I don’t; I used the smallest ouchy-things on the standard four-sided box grater and that worked fine. I used a bean and a half. Only grated my knuckles twice. This was followed by a 30-minute rest for the cream to take on the tonka flavor.

Cream with tonka bean flakes
Freising, February 2021

Some of the flakes stayed on top and others sank to the bottom of the dessert.

Tonkabohnen Crème Brûlée
Freising, February 2021

There were notes of vanilla and almond in the cream, stronger at the bottom, but they were overpowered by the crunch of the burnt sugar. Maybe the beans are more potent fresh?

I’ve got some beans left, so I’ll try something else and see if that works better. Also, I’m not going to smuggle any into Iowa for anybody, but if you drop by sometime maybe I can cook with them for you. 😉

Gratuitous digital art.