It’s getting cold outside, the first holidays are upon us, and nothing says invite your family and friends over for a cozy evening like a tray full of baked goods. And if you’re like me, you’ve perused the baking aisles a few times, curiously picking up those “other” ingredients like tahini, tonka bean, carob, and rose water. How do you use them? What do they taste like?

Up your baking game with these underused (but not overrated) ingredients and never look back.


You could call tahini the Middle Eastern peanut butter; it is the hulled and ground paste of sesame seeds, turned spreadable with the addition of a bit of oil. It is used throughout the Levant, from Greece to Armenia to Northern Africa, in both savory and sweet dishes.

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Tahini has a rich, slightly bitter, and buttery flavor of a natural nut butter with a similar dense consistency. Because this ingredient has quite a mild flavour, it lends easily to baking and cooking, adding fat, creaminess, and body to recipes without altering the flavor profile. In this White Chocolate Matcha Latte, tahini adds creamy thickness as well a hint of sesame flavor. It is also simple to make yourself, by whirring up some sesame seeds in a food processor and adding a neutral oil, like a vegetable oil or better still, a sesame seed oil, until it reaches a smooth, spreadable consistency.

Tonka bean

Hailing from Central America, specifically from the Cumaru tree, this small bean is full of complex flavor, described as having rich vanilla notes, spicy cinnamon and clove aroma, and a sweet, fruity cherry finish.

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While it is banned in the United States for its coumarin—a naturally occurring property, which if ingested in large doses can cause liver damage, this law might be overkill, as the amount of tonka bean required to cause harm is 30 whole beans.

Despite the laws, avid bakers and chefs are finding creative ways of injecting it into their most innovative desserts. If you do get your hands on it, grate tonka beans, similarly to nutmeg, or infuse whole tonka beans into a syrup or custard, to unlock their flavor. The potency and complexity of flavor means that a little will take you a long way, so use the spice sparingly, one to two teaspoons will be sufficient. Its taste lends well to desserts, and their natural spicy, warm aromas are ideal for autumn fruits like apples, apricots, pumpkin, and pears.


Grown and used traditionally in Mediterranean desserts, carob is now known in the Western world as a healthy substitute for chocolate. It is roasted, ground, and sold as a powder, pressed into chips, boiled into syrup, and even used as a thickening agent in manufactured foods.

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While it is often touted as a vegan chocolate, the two are quite different in flavor and texture. Carob is described as having an earthy, nutty, and naturally sweet flavour. Lauded for being caffeine-free, unlike cocoa, a good source of calcium and fiber, and dairy-free, this ingredient has much to recommend it.

If you are substituting it for cocoa powder, it is recommended to use twice as much carob as cocoa. Carob can also enhance the earthiness of cocoa powder, so it can be used alongside cocoa or chocolate in desserts to add more depth of flavor. Be advised that the chips will not melt like a chocolate chip.

Rose water

Many people associate rosewater with perfume (old lady perfume, at that) and overpowering floral flavors, but this ingredient, when delicately used, can be that special something that elevates your desserts and the other flavors within them.

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Rosewater is made by steaming the petals, which caused them to distil into a fragrant and clear liquid. It is commonly used in all sorts of Middle Eastern and South Asian cooking, from main dishes to beverages to ice cream and candies. Straight from the bottle, the scent and flavor is of roses, though cooking mutes its heady flavours, bringing out sweeter, more vanilla notes.

If you are interested in experimenting with rosewater, begin by adding a few drops to sliced fruit or pudding. When cooking, use about a quarter teaspoon. Just as they say “what grows together goes together” in cooking, rosewater naturally goes with the spices and fruits of its native region—cinnamon, cardamom, pistachios, figs, almonds, and honey. For example, in this recipe for Mini Rose Cakes, the flavors of the ground almonds and the rose water are a natural pairing and complement each other.

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