From the blog February 12, 2015 Caren

A Confection Dissection: Love and Tonka Beans

Love is a particularly difficult emotion to define. If you ask 10 people what love is and how it makes them feel, you’re likely to get 10 different answers. It’s an abstract concept that wraps up any number of emotions we feel because of another person. We soar and then fall. We gain wisdom and then lose ourselves momentarily.

It’s no surprise then that Valentine’s Day elicits a motley crew of reactions. On February 14, some of us celebrate the people we love, while others celebrate their interpersonal independence. We mourn, we embrace, we cry, we reflect, we ignore, and we laugh at what Valentine’s Day has become. What we can all agree on, however, is that it’s a day to enjoy chocolate.

This year we wanted to create something that would appeal to everyone, from die-hard romantics to cynics, and capture the complexity of the holiday. Of course we wanted to do it with a twist. Our literal interpretation of a chocolate heart is a dark wink to all of the heart-shaped confections out there.

We’re incredibly lucky—head chef Migoya knows a thing or two about chocolate, which makes it easy to turn our sweet ideas into a reality. “Let’s make a chocolate model of an anatomical heart,” we joked. And then it happened. The proof of his incredible skill is in the pictures.

Modernist Cuisine Milk Chocolate Heart

The discussion then turned to ingredients and what we could incorporate to continue the literal nature of our theme. Enter the idea of dehydrated red velvet cake for texture. Why? Because red, of course. New questions emerged. What ingredients could we add to play on the duality of the day? What could we do for the bleeding hearts out there? “We should add tonka beans,” chef Migoya suggested. And we did.

Tonka Beans

If Jack and the Beanstalk has any basis in fact, his beans must have been tonka beans. Tonka beans are flat legumes that are roughly the length of a shelled Brazil nut. When cracked, the wrinkled black shell reveals a dense brown fruit. Although these beans will not cause skyward beanstalk growth, their aroma is intoxicating. It’s often referenced as a vanilla substitute; however, this is a bit misleading. Tonka has a beautifully complex scent—spicy with notes of vanilla, tobacco, and smoke, plus a hint of cinnamon. Tonka beans have been used as a tobacco additive, to create perfumes such as Guerlain’s iconic scent Shalimar, and as an aphrodisiac in some cultures. It’s rumored to have mystical properties, used in some traditions as a “love-wishing bean,” in addition to summoning courage and incurring money.

Tonka beans pop up every now and then on menus stateside, but by far it’s not an ingredient you often encounter. It has a rather nefarious reputation, despite its incredible flavor profile.

Tonka beans are the seeds of Dipteryx odorata (commonly called cumaru), a large tree that grows in the rainforests of Central and South America. The seeds contain a chemical compound called coumarin, which we have to thank for the beans’ distinctive aroma and bitter taste. Coumarin was first isolated in tonka beans; however, it naturally occurs in many plants, including cassia cinnamon, vanilla grass, sweet clover, sweet woodruff, strawberries, cherries, lavender, licorice, and even apricots. It’s the source of the sweet aroma of freshly cut grass.

Modernist Cuisine Tonka Beans

At high enough concentrations, coumarin can be moderately toxic to the liver and kidneys. Tonka beans have relatively higher amounts of the compound, which is why their consumption is regulated. In 1954, the FDA restricted the use of tonka beans as a food additive after a study found that coumarin was hepatotoxic in rats at high doses. More recent studies have not been able to replicate the results in other rodents, such as hamsters, and some researchers have noted that other species of rodents and mammals, including humans, likely metabolize coumarin differently than rats.

Like nutmeg, a little bit of tonka bean goes a long way. Single beans are typically shaved or grated into food, and because small amounts make a big impact, it’s unlikely an individual would consume enough in one sitting to cause medical concern or an adverse reaction. Its use as a food additive is legal in many countries, including Britain and France; however, many have created guidelines for how much coumarin should be consumed each day, though many note that short-term elevated intake is not harmful.

Here’s where the bleeding heart comes in. A common, and persistent, misconception is that coumarin is also an anticoagulant that causes hemorrhaging when high concentrations are consumed. It’s a bit of a culinary myth, but the association is not far off. Coumarin can be transformed into a natural blood thinner, but it takes certain molds and fungi to make that transformation happen. When these organisms feed on plants containing coumarin, it is converted into a chemical substance called dicumarol, an anticoagulant. Dicumarol is the toxin responsible for sweet clover poisoning, which occurs when animals hemorrhage after eating toxic quantities of spoiled sweet-clover hay. The phenomenon was somewhat of a mystery until dicumarol was isolated by biochemist Karl Paul Link and his team. The compound was used as a pharmaceutical to treat and prevent blood clots until it was replaced by synthetic derivatives, such as warfarin and coumadin.

Anatomical Chocolate

Back to our heart. We have a lot of unconventional tools at our lab, such as the fishing-lure molds we use for our Olive Oil Gummy Worms, but no human-heart-shaped mold. So we created one using food-grade liquid silicone. Food-grade liquid silicone actually consists of a base and catalyst that are mixed together just before you’re ready to cast the mold. Mix ratios vary depending on the brand you use—we used CopyFlex, which has a 1:1 ratio. You’ll need a standard kitchen scale to ensure you’re measuring the base and catalyst equally. To start, estimate the smallest amount of silicone needed. You can easily mix and add more if you underestimate; however, you don’t want to be stuck with superfluous silicone. We used a spare can—you don’t need a special container to make the mold in, instead use something that you can discard and recycle afterward.

Heartcut-640px-.5sec-Loop

We wanted the shape to be as realistic as possible, so we found a life-sized teaching model, intended for anatomy classes. To cast the mold, Chef Migoya submerged the model in food-grade liquid silicone and then allowed it to set for 12 hours. Once the mold was ready, it was sanitized with very hot water, and then placed in baking soda to sit overnight so that the chocolate wouldn’t absorb the flavor of the silicone.

For the chocolate, he combined milk chocolate, cocoa butter, oil, tonka bean shavings, and the ground, dehydrated red velvet cake, which he baked the previous day and allowed to dry uncovered overnight in a dehydrator. The fats from the cocoa butter, oil, and milk chocolate make it easy to slice through the finished chocolate and surround the crumbs without rehydrating the cake, keeping the crisp texture intact. The result is a satisfyingly delicate crunch.

We used milk chocolate to complement the flavors of the tonka bean and red velvet cake. We found that milk chocolate was the best conduit for these ingredients—the finished product is pleasantly complex with hints of spiced vanilla, tobacco, cinnamon, and cocoa. To finish, the set heart was coated with a vibrant red cocoa butter and, for effect, plated it with splatters of pomegranate juice that we thickened with xanthan gum.

We think the result is a rather stunning tribute to Valentine’s Day and evidence that the world needs more chocolate offal.

Modernist Cuisine Milk Chocolate Heart

Discussion

  1. Connie Warmholz February 24, 2015 Reply

    Hi Chefs, one of the reasons that I keep coming back to Modernist Cuisine is, by fact, that I always find something for the eyes, something for the mind and something for the nerdy chef in me. Thanks for the well researched and executed post. Please, keep it amazing and unconventional…. Chef Connie

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