Tonka Bean Creme Caramel

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IMG_6315-1In the summertime, us Greeks try and beat the heat any way possible. Days are spent at the beach, siestas in the middle of the afternoon and cooking when the home has cooled down or minimizing cooking.

During the summer in Greece, meals are prepared the evening before or that morning and simply reheated for lunch, the biggest meal of the day. With Greece’s hot summers, one must drink alot of liquids and fruits and vegetables supplement your water intake.

Personally (and I’m sure the same holds true for many) the heat actually cuts my appetite. I get by with less when I’m in Greece. A salad, some grilled sardines and a cold potato salad do me just fine.

Desserts for Greeks will usually be a platter of whatever is fresh and in season. As we speak, Greeks are enjoying watermelon, cantaloupe and honeydew melons.

Us Greeks do not abandon desserts in the summer. One visit to any one of the “zaharaoplasteia” (patisseries) will prove that the desserts business in the summer is quite brisk.IMG_6262-1

One quick, refreshing and satisfying dessert in the summer is Creme Caramel. The other countries that hug the Mediterranean basin have their own versions of this baked custard dessert and Greece’s version stands proud with the rest.

The very first time I had Creme Caramel was in 1980, the day my family and I returned to Canada. We had flown to Greece with CP Air and we had to change planes to get to/from Thessaloniki.

Back then, Athens had two airport terminals…one that exclusively serviced Olympic Airlines flights and the other serviced the foreign-held airlines. Outside of the  foreign airline terminal was a restaurant that catered to passengers in transit or delayed.

My family had a few hours layover and we decided to grab a lunch to kill time and to spend some the loose Drachmas (Greece’s old currency) we had on hand. We ate a wonderful Pastitsio, shared a Greek salad and for dessert, Creme Caramel.

The “mothership” recipe is pretty basic…eggs, sugar, milk and the flavouring of choice. The most common flavouring in a Greek Creme Caramel would be vanilla but Mastic or lemon or orange zest would also work well.

In keeping with the vanilla flavouring, I grated some tonka beans for the first time. The tonka bean is a black and wrinkled seed. The aroma is dreamy with warm notes of vanilla, cinnamon, almond and clove (all beloved flavours in Greek cuisine). Tonka beans are banned in many countries due to it containing Coumarin and large doses of this can be harmful to humans.IMG_6824

The Coumarin dosage is reduced to about 10% after the tonka beans go through a distilling stage, making them safe for consumption. For this recipe, I used two tonka beans and I’m still standing.

I cannot find tonka beans in Canada or the US but the French use it more in their cooking and there are some sources available on the internet.

Regardless, Creme Caramel is a wonderful and easy dessert to prepare and to offer as a summer dessert. For my recent Canada Day BBQ I was in the mood to use tonka beans…what kind of Creme Caramel will you make?

Tonka Bean Creme CaramelIMG_6314-1

(12 – 3 inch Ramekins)

5 cups scalded milk

2 tonka beans, grated with a microplane

1 cup sugar (for custard)

4 eggs

8 egg yolks

2/3 cup  sugar (for caramel)

1/4 cup  water (for caramel)

Preheat the oven to 350F

  1. Put the eggs and the 1 cup of sugar in a stainless steel bowl and mix them. Put the milk in a small saucepan and add your grated tonka beans. Over a medium-high heat, bring the milk to just below a boil. Remove it from the heat. Pour the milk over the egg mixture while whisking.  Mix well. Let the mixture cool for a few minutes.
  2. Meanwhile, make your caramel. Put the sugar (1 cup) and the water in a small pot over a high heat. Wait until the sugar caramelizes and turns a nut-brown colour (colour of a penny). Remove the pot from the heat and pour a small amount of the caramel into the bottom of each ramekin. Allow it to set.
  3. Pour the custard mix over the caramel in each ramekin. Cook in a bain-marie filled half way with water. When cooked let the creme caramel rest in the refrigerator over night, then un-mold them by running a knife around the edge, placing the plate on top then inverting the custard onto the plate.

A special thank-you goes out to Stephane of Zen Can Cook who was kind enough to send me some tonka beans, merci!

© 2009,
Peter Minakis

. All rights reserved.

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47 Comments for “Tonka Bean Creme Caramel”


This is the first time I am seeing Tonka beans, actually never heard of it before either. always something new & unique here. Creme Caramel is one of my childhood memory living & I love it.. i posted a Flan today:-)


My yiayia used to make a sweet squash pita (served room temperature)that was my favorite summer dessert. She died when I was 8, leaving no written recipes behind and I can’t find one anywhere. Owners of zacharoplasteia laugh at me when I ask for it. They say it’s an old village dessert that no one makes any more. Have you ever had it, and more importantly, do you have a recipe you would share?


I’ve never heard of those beans before but that dessert of yours looks good! I love creme caramel – yum.


Peter, this is a wonderful dessert! I’m curious about the tonka bean as it sounds quite exotic! The texture looks amazing (and I bet the taste was too!).


Creme caramel is one of my all time favorite desserts, and I agree it is perfectly refreshing in the hot summer.

Also, since I havent told you yet: the new header/design looks fabulous!! Congrats.


Thx for the interesting bits on the tonka beans….I did not know about them!!! The creme caramel….dreamy and delish!!!


Gorgeous! I’ve been meaning to make a creme caramel and now I have found the perfect recipe! I cook less in the summer too, especially on those hot sweltering days. This might have to wait until the fall, though I want to try it right now.


wow, that’s an attractive dessert! i’ve never met a tonka bean, but that doesn’t mean i don’t crave this VERY much!


Oh, I love cream caramel but I’ve stopped making it because it has too many eggs in it, same as with flan. I can’t stop drooling watching your picture.


I agree that summer always makes me less hungry… I know that’s when people BBQ the most and make burgers w/ lots of toppings and brats and sausage… But honestly, it’s just too much!!!

I love creme caramel! I have never heard of tonka beans before… Maybe the US is one of the countries that bans them? Either way, interesting!


Sadly, tonka beans are banned in the US — but a Canadian blogging friend has offered to send me some, so I think they must be legal up north. Will bookmark this recipe to try when the beans arrive.


Lydia, I could not find them here in Toronto. Perhaps your friend is in Montreal, where I’ve heard tonka beans are available? I know…same country but there are different food regulations from province to province.


I’m a big fan of early-morning cooking during the summer. I usually have most of the day’s meals ready before 9:30, otherwise it’s so just not pleasant to cook, when it gets so warm!
I’ve never seen Tonka beans here, will have to source them from the internet for sure!
Lovely flavouring for a creme caramel!


I have heard of Tonka beans but never seen them. If I see crème caramel on a menu I always save room for dessert. What a delicious picture Peter.


I wish hot weather would make my appetite go away. Alas, it seems nothign makes me want to stop eating in large quantities.

I always get so envious when I hear of someone getting a stash of tonka beans for a dessert. I wnat to try them so badly.

I love creme caramel. I’m sure your illegal beans made this wonderfully taste and over the top.


i just can’t get over “i used two and still standing” LOL LOLLLLLL

my lil gwei-lo, u re hilarious! the creme caramel looks heavenly…

lemme feed the rest of the beans to zen man


You’re so kind Mr Peter. Thank you for using the bean in such a beautiful dessert. I’m glad you didn’t OD on them. hehe.

Wait.. did Mocarita just say she would feed me the rest!? Damn! What did i do to deserve that? :)


Never heard of beans like that, but then, never seen such a pretty caramel. Beautifully set & oh-so-delicious Petah! Do you think nutmeg could replace the elusive tonkah?


Peter, thanks for shedding some light on Tonka beans, which just happen to be one of my favorite spices! They are easily available here in Montreal (ironically, I picked up 5 today) so let me know if you ever want any more.

I’ve made a creme brule with tonka, but not creme caramel–it looks really fantastic.


Wow!! This looks really yummy !! I have done a cake for the morning flavored with Tonka beans, I recommend it !
Thank you for that recipe !
Melanie from Toronto



Hi Peter,

I love to read your blog but never really got around to trying any recipes. This was the first one that I tried and it came out better than any Creme Caramel that I have ever made. I took it to a party and every single person there loved it. Thanks a lot!


J’adore la crème caramel et la fève tonka. Alors les deux ensemble devraient faire mon bonheur prochainement.

P.S. On trouve des fèves tonka au Marché Jean-Talon, à Montréal. (1 $ pièce…!)