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Professional cooks have access to a lot of ingredients which home cooks don't. Some are just a space issue, others are harder to find, and sometimes they're downright illegal.
I consider myself somewhat of a culinary pirate, so laws and general rules don't scare me, and I'm certainly not the first American pastry chef to play with tonka beans, a spice which is verboten by the FDA. I happened to stumble across some a couple months ago at a well-known spice store, and considered it a serious stroke of luck, considering most chefs have to import them, often by way of having international friends ship some over.
What's the appeal of tonka beans? If you're like me and find the smell of pipe tobacco irresistible, then you already love tonka beans. They're what give pipe tobacco that lovely vanilla-almond scent, which is a fabulous addition to anything dairy-based like panna cotta, creme brulee, and ice cream.
I'm also a big fan of raiding the bar wherever I happen to be working, a luxury I can't afford at home. Along with tasty liqueur enhancements for my recipes, I've played with wine, beer, bitters, and my personal favorite, hard liquors. Gin, rum, whiskey, and tequila have all found their way into many of my recipes, but out of everything behind the bar, I really love adding a little scotch to my desserts. A good-quality smoky scotch with the perfume of tonka bean? Excellent.
Since scotch can be very harsh on its own, I combined it with half and half (heavy cream works, too) and used them to make a caramel sauce, also adding a little bit of vanilla bean, which smooths out the flavors and adds a slight textural crunch. The caramel could also be reserved and slightly warmed to pour over the ice cream. And while you're at it, a little bruleed banana, toasted, salted pecans, whipped cream and a cherry wouldn't hurt, either.
However you go about it, this ice cream is something special. The flavor of tonka bean makes the ice cream taste surprisingly like my favorite storebought flavor, Cherry Garcia. And though the caramel contains no butter, the caramel swirl is decidedly buttery and savory from the smoky scotch.
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About the Author: Anna Markow is a pastry chef obsessed with doing things that no one else does and giving unusual ingredients their time to shine. You can follow her sometimes-pastry-related thoughts on Twitter @VerySmallAnna.
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