It’s hard to describe the taste of tonka beans. The smell of the beans is reminiscent of sweet marzipan with something else…. One article referred to them as vanilla on steroids, and being a big fan of vanilla, I knew I had to try some. They are a baking little secret and have a distinct, wonderful and unforgettable flavour. Tonka beans take the humble panna cotta to a new level, and combined with a rich and slightly tart raspberry jelly: dessert heaven. I used caramelised pecans for texture and given I made the panna cotta with Greek yoghurt, I served it with a white chocolate sauce for some extra creamy sweetness. I don’t think the white chocolate is strictly necessary, as the tonka bean-flavoured panna cotta is sweet enough by itself.
Tonka beans are the seeds of Dipteryx odorata, a tree native to northern South America. The seeds look a bit like a desiccated slug, but when grated smells sweetly like vanilla and almonds. It is used in baking and in making perfume. Now that I recognise the fragrance, I think the trademark smell of Peter Alexander shops is from the tonka bean.
Tonka beans contain coumarin, an anticoagulant that thins the blood and can be toxic in large doses. They are quite hard to come by here (Essential Kitchen sells them in Canberra). For most people, a single tonka bean in a serving for four to six presents no danger. They are not recommended for everyone though, especially very small children and people on anticoagulant medication.
I have to apologise for my images of the panna cotta, as I’m not convinced they do justice to just how delicious this dish is! Food photography, like cooking, is an art that takes skill and practice.
Tonka bean panna cotta with raspberry jelly, white chocolate sauce and caramelised pecans
Makes: 6 – you will need 6 small 175 ml (6 oz) moulds (I use pyrex custard dishes) for this
- ½ cup fresh or frozen raspberries
- 30 g caster sugar
- ¼ cup (approx 50 ml) water
- 1 gelatine leaf (gold strength)
- Place sugar, raspberries and water in a small saucepan on the stove top and heat on medium until the sugar is dissolved and the raspberries are soft.
- Push through a sieve, discarding seeds.
- Return the puree to the saucepan and gently heat again on the stove top.
- Soak gelatine leaf in cold water for 5 minutes until soft. Squeeze out excess water and add to the raspberry mixture, stirring to dissolve.
- Divide amongst six glasses to a depth of 1 to 2 cm (depending on diameter of glasses).
- Cover with cling film and refrigerate for at least an hour, or until set.
- ¼ cup (approximately 40 g) pecan halves
- 110 g caster sugar
- Toast pecans in oven to 180°C (160°C fan forced) for about ten minutes.
- Scatter toasted pecans on a cold baking tray lined with baking paper.
- To make a dry caramel to caramelise the pecans, heat the sugar in a saucepan on the stovetop on a medium heat until melted.
- Keep it on the heat until it just starts giving off a little smoke, caramelises and goes a copper amber colour.
- Watch this carefully to avoid burning. You will know if the sugar has gone too far and burnt as it will smell and taste bitter. I’d recommend doing this on a low-medium heat. The sugar can go from melted to burnt in seconds if the heat is too high.
- Remove from heat and working quickly but carefully, pour the melted sugar in a thin layer over the pecans on their tray to make a sheet of caramel/pecan ‘glass’.
- Leave for an hour or so at room temperature until set and cool.
- Using the end of a rolling pin, break into a few large pieces, then wrap in baking paper, completely encase in a tea towel and bash until it is all crushed (you want to avoid ending up with large pieces of caramel glass, as these can be filling-breakers).
- Store in an air tight container until ready to serve.
- I used some left-over caramel to make some spun sugar, of sorts, to decorate.
Tonka bean panna cotta
- 250 ml cream (35% fat)
- 110 g caster sugar
- 1 tonka bean, finely grated
- 2 gelatine leaves
- 250 g Greek-style yoghurt
- Place cream, sugar and grated tonka bean in a saucepan on low heat. When the cream starts to simmer, remove from the heat and let it infuse for 30 minutes (the tonka bean will make the cream thicken and turn a slightly creamy yellow colour – it’s quite cool).
- Return saucepan to a low heat.
- Soak the gelatine leaves in cold water for 5 minutes until soft. Squeeze to remove excess water and add to the tonka bean cream, stirring for a minute to dissolve.
- Strain through a sieve to remove the tonka bean pieces, then fold through the yoghurt.
- Pour or spoon the panna cotta over the raspberry jelly in the molds.
- Cover, return to the refrigerator and leave to set for several hours.
White chocolate sauce (optional)
- 100 g white chocolate, grated or roughly chopped
- 50 ml cream (35%)
- Heat the cream on the stove top until simmering.
- Pour over the grated white chocolate in a heat proof bowl and mix until the chocolate is melted and smooth.
- Dip the panna cotta mould into a bowl of hot water (just boiled) for ten second (careful not to let it splash inside).
- Remove, wipe dry and leave on bench for another ten seconds.
- Place serving plate over the top and invert.
- The panna cotta and jelly should come away from the glass dish. If it doesn’t, run a hot knife around the edge to loosen.
- Serve surrounded by the melted white chocolate sauce and sprinkled with the caramelised pecans.
- Decorate with extra raspberries if desired.