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The inch-long, black, wrinkly Tonka bean has a hard shell, but when grated on a Microplane, it smells sweetly like vanilla, for which it's sometimes used as a substitute, and almonds. (Tonkas also lend that sweet smell to perfume and pipe tobacco.) Though popular in other countries, in the United States tonka beans cannot be used in food, because they contain coumarin, an anticoagulant that can be toxic in large doses. If you have health challenges, please use caution; for most people, however, tonka beans used a pinch at a time present no danger, and enhance the flavor of baked goods with a slightly exotic flavor. Some cooks suggest substituting mahlab, or a mix of vanilla and almond extracts, if you find yourself tonka-free. Tonka Beans of the large tropical Tonka tree have the fragrance reminiscent of newly mown hay or a freshly cut meadow. They have a high coumarin content, which provides a sweet, herblike fragrance. Tonka beans were and may still be used as an adulterant to vanilla. The beans are used to flavor tobaccos and snuffs. The essential oil is widely used in the perfume industry. Tonka beans are often used in sachets and potpourri. They are said to lighten one's mood and be emotionally balancing. Use in small amounts.
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Tonka bean tastes like bitter almond and vanilla combined to a light touch of clove. Courtesy: http://www.latartinegourmande.com "Friends who have tried pastries I've prepared with this fragrant bean tell me so, and I have to agree with them. I typically use the bean to infuse milk or cream for crèmes brûlées or flans, and I prefer to grate it finely — a microplane grater works like a charm — into a cake batter. Either way, the flavor is strong, and cannot be missed."
The unmistakable smell of the tonka bean (Dipteryx odorata) has been well known to my nostrils while growing up. My father grew a cocoa tree on our land and we made our own creole chocolate from time to time. First we would pick the cocoa; dry it out in the sun; parch it when it was dried properly and then pound it in a large mortar.
This is where Mr. Tonka bean would come in. Because of its aromatic qualities, the tonka bean was used together with the other spices while the cocoa was pounded with the pestle. Long after the cocoa was made and rolled you would still get the wonderful smell mixed in with the bay leaf and other spices. I'm sure many of the older heads will know what I'm talking about.
Another use we had for the Tonka bean was in making sweet bread and cakes. The tonka bean was grated and used as a substitute for vanilla. I can't put into words how these sweet bread and cakes tasted. Nowadays with more commercially made spices and ease of buying in a supermarket, this bean has been overlooked probably because of the coumarin it contains which is toxic in large quantities. But then it's not like we're going to eat three tonka beans a day!
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Great American Tonka Brownies Recipe!
7-9 whole roasted chestnuts,
4 ounces unsweetened chocolate
(1 stick, 4 ounces) unsalted butter
1/4 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon unsweetened cocoa powder
2 teaspoons baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/3 cup packed brown sugar
1 grated tonka bean
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Line a 9-inch square pan with parchment paper. Coarsely chop the chestnuts; you should have 1/2 cup. Melt the chocolate and butter together in a heatproof medium bowl set over a pan of simmering water, whisking to combine them. Set the bowl aside in a warm spot. In a clean medium bowl, whisk together the all-purpose flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, and salt and set aside.
Transfer the chocolate and butter mixture to the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Add the sugars and beat on medium speed to combine the ingreidnets thoroughly, about 30 seconds. Beat in the eggs, one at a time, followed by the vanilla extract , scraping down the sides of the bowl after each addition. On low speed, beat in the dry ingredients, followed by the chestnuts.
Pour the batter into the prepared pan and spread it evenly with an offset spatula. Bake the brownies until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean and the brownies have begun to pull away from the sides the pan, 20 to 25 minutes. Rotate the pan 180 degrees halfway through the baking time to ensure even baking.
They are easiest to cut after being chilled several hours or overnight; after cutting the chilled brownies, allow them to come to room temperature before serving.