Tonka bean panna cotta

by Ed Smith

A sweetly spiced dairy dessert with vanilla poached pears

Frustrated with being unable to find many (any) recipes that majored on the tonka bean for my latest instalment of the spice series, I took to doing what most books and websites suggest: and used it as a replacement for vanilla.

There are lots of options if you take this approach: cakes, custard tarts, creme brulée and so on. I went with panna cotta, adapting a tried and tested recipe of mine, which is a simple blend of dairy, spice and honey. I’m so glad I did. The tonka beans added a complex sweetness: nutmeg, cinnamon, almond, cherry, liquorice and, yes, vanilla, were all there. But bound together into a unique tonka aroma. It’s really lovely.

Panna cottas make superb desserts when entertaining. They’re simple but very effective crowd pleasers, where all the fiddle has been done well in advance. These use a relatively small amount of gelatine (I hate it when this type of dessert is over-set, rather than wibbly). Which means you do need to make this at least eight hours beforehand. 


For the panna cotta:
300ml double cream
200ml whole milk
50g honey
1 tonka bean (approx 2g), finely grated
2 sheets of gelatine

For the pears:
1 vanilla pod
1 lemon, zest and juice
250g golden caster sugar
2 ripe comice pears


All of this can (and should) be done well in advance of when you’re planning to eat them—the panna cotta needs 8 hours to set, and the pears may as well be done at the same time.

Put half the cream, all the milk, the honey and the grated tonka bean into a small saucepan. Bring to the boil, stirring to dissolve the honey into the liquid, and remove from the heat just as the bubbles start to climb the side of the pan. Set aside to infuse for 30 mins.

In the meantime, poach the pears: split the vanilla pod in half and scrape the seeds into a small-medium sized saucepan that’ll snuggly fit the pears. Add the pod, too, plus the zest and juice of the lemon, the sugar, and 700ml warm water. Whisk to dissolve the sugar and disperse the vanilla seeds. Peel the pears with a vegetable peeler, place in the pan and heat to a gentle simmer for 10 mins (don’t allow it to boil), before removing the pan from the heat source and leaving to cool for about 10 mins more—until the prongs of a fork will slide easily into the base of the pear.

Remove the pears from the saucepan and leave to cool. Reduce the poaching liquor by half, allow to cool and pour over the pears. Cover and leave in the fridge until required, ensuring the pears are completely submerged otherwise they’ll discolour.

Finish making the panna cotta while the pears are cooling. To do this, gently reheat the infused cream. Put the gelatine in a bowl of cold water and leave to ‘bloom’ for 3 mins, before squeezing the water out and dissolving into the warm cream. Remove from the heat source and strain through a fine sieve into a jug. Leave to cool to room temperature.

Put the remaining 150ml cream into a mixing bowl. Whisk so that the cream just starts to ribbon and sit-up (it’ll take only a few secs because the volume is small). Pour the infused cream mix into this, gently mix, then transfer back to the jug. Then use the jug to pour into four dariole moulds (or coffee cups). Cover with clingfilm and leave to chill for at least 8 hours.

To release the panna cotta from their moulds, put a dessert plate on top and flip them over, then use a hot flannel or even a blow torch to warm the outside, until the puds slip gently onto the plate. Cut the pears into quarters and cut away any core. Serve two pieces of fruit with each panna cotta, plus a spoon or two of syrup.

Use the remaining syrup as a cordial for drinks and cocktails. It’ll last at least a few days in a sealed bottle.

Recipe and image: Ed Smith