You may have seen these wrinkly little beans at your local spice shop, or tasted their distinctive warm flavour at a restaurant. If you’ve ever wondered which spice makes this distinctive aroma, something like a mix of cinnamon, vanilla, almond and cloves, you’re not alone.

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A wonderful alternative to ingredients like vanilla, cinnamon, almond extract or nutmeg, tonka beans are popping up on restaurant menus and slowly working their way into home cooks’ pantries. In Winnipeg, for example, you can sip it in an infused coffee cocktail at Clementine, or head over to Calgary for a scoop of tonka bean and cherry ice cream at Made By Marcus.

My first encounter with the tonka bean was at Silk Road Spice Merchant, a local spice shop in Calgary. A friend grabbed a small jar filled with stout, wrinkled black beans and said, “smell this.” The distinct aroma was unforgettable, but difficult to put into words. Part almond, part vanilla, a little cinnamon and maybe a hint of something fruity, like cherry. Whatever it was, it was intoxicating.

A little digging will tell you these beans are actually the seeds of flowers on gigantic trees (cumaru) that grow in Central and South America. Prior to its debut in the food world, the bean was used in tobacco and perfume production (and still are in some countries) because of its one-of-a-kind aroma. They’re also illegal in the United States, so consider yourself lucky to be an eager home cook in Canada!

The possibilities are endless with tonka beans, but here are few ideas to get you started.

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Simple Syrup: Use equal parts water and sugar, heat in a pot with one tonka bean until sugar has dissolved. Remove from heat, and let steep and strain into a bottle. Use in cocktails or in morning coffee.

Whipped Cream: Prior to whipping cream, place one tonka bean in a container with cream and let sit in fridge for at least six hours to infuse flavour.

Pumpkin or Apple Pie: The beans can also be grated the same way you would grate fresh nutmeg. Skip the pumpkin spice blend for once (blasphemy, I know) and use about a teaspoon or two of tonka bean for a new, delicious flavour.

Squash Soup: People seem to shy away from using ingredients typically associated with dessert (i.e. cinnamon, cloves, etc.) in savoury applications. Much like pumpkin pie filling loves its aromatic spices, a roast squash soup loves the same. Either drop a bean straight into the pot for 30 minutes or so to infuse its flavour, or ladle soup into a bowl and grate the bean on top using a microplane.

Caramel Sauce: Making homemade caramel sauce is really easy, so once you’ve made a batch and it has cooled down a bit, add a bean and let the magic happen.

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Tonka Bean Caramel Sauce

Cook Time: 15 minutes
Makes: 2 cups

Ingredients:
1 1/2 cups sugar
1/2 cup heavy cream, room temperature
1 Tbsp unsalted butter, room temperature
1 tonka bean

Directions:
1. Working in batches, sprinkle a thin layer of sugar in a large pot and place it over medium-high heat.
2. Once the layer of sugar turns to transparent beads, sprinkle a little more sugar on top. After repeating this several times, you’ll see that the sugar becoming more and more fluid.
3. Once you’ve melted enough sugar to cover the bottom of the pot, slowly add the rest of the sugar to the pan and as it heats, it will start to become darker in colour. You’ll be looking for a dark brown. (Note: this will happen progressively faster, so work quickly and do not walk away.)
4. Next, pour the heavy cream into the pan while stirring. The mixture will bubble up slightly. Once it goes back down, remove from heat and add in the butter. Stir until incorporated and add tonka bean.
5. Once cool, remove tonka bean and store in desired container or jar to use are desired.