Tonka beans look like dusty, wrinkled pods, but they smell like smoky cherries, sugared almonds and sun warmed hay. Many fragrance raw materials have heady aromas that are as complex as those of a finished perfume, but few rival tonka bean for its luscious seduction. Gourmand doesn’t even begin to describe it. It’s decadent, sultry, and addictive.
The best way to experience the complexity of tonka bean is not just to smell it, but to eat it. Tonka bean is the flavor of the moment in Europe, where I’ve encountered it in cakes, ice cream, chocolates, and even savory dishes. The sweetness of tonka lends itself perfectly to desserts, especially anything that contains almonds, vanilla, or cherries. These ingredients explore natural affinities, and you can’t go wrong by adding a pinch of tonka to cherry compotes, almond cakes or vanilla custard. The best way to imbue as much tonka flavor as possible into a dessert is to grate it finely and either infuse it in warm liquid, or as I do in the recipe for Viennese Vanilla Crescents (Vanillekipferln), cream it with butter.
European chefs may be having their love affair with tonka bean, but in the US it’s not allowed for food consumption according to an old FDA law. The culprit behind the ban is coumarin, which is thought to be a blood thinner. New findings dispute this claim, and according to the Atlantic article, The Tonka Bean: An Ingredient So Good It Has to Be Illegal, “at least 30 entire tonka beans (250 servings, or 1 gram of coumarin total) would need to be eaten to approach levels reported as toxic—about the same volume at which nutmeg and other everyday spices are toxic.” Tonka beans are so strongly flavored that you need hardly more than a pinch to flavor a pound of dough.
Besides tonka beans, coumarin naturally occurs in other edible plants such cinnamon, licorice, and lavender. You can explore the nuance of this fascinating flavor by pairing it with complementary ingredients. For instance, cinnamon coffee cake accented with tonka bean will taste like smoky coconut. Or take a cue from the perfumers, and create your own edible fougère accord by blending lavender, lemon zest and tonka bean.
The most dazzling marriage is between tonka bean, vanilla and almonds. You experience the full-spectrum of tonka’s aroma, from the caramelized richness to the creamy sweetness. For this reason, vanilla crescents, or as they are called in German, Vanillekipferln, often end up with a tonka flourish in my kitchen. It’s a traditional holiday cookie that traces its roots to Vienna, but can be found in other countries in the region. Kipferln mean morsels, and these are irresistible. They melt in your mouth and leave a dusting of vanilla sugar on your lips.
Last year I shared a Viennese recipe for macaroon-like Almond Crescents, but Vanillekipferln are quite different. They are crumbly, buttery and decadent, a perfect holiday treat in other words. As much as I love kitchen gadgets, I urge you to forget about them and make this dough by hand. Even before you taste it in the cookies, you can enjoy the heady perfume of vanilla and tonka bean lingering on your fingers.
Viennese Vanilla Crescents with Tonka Bean (Vanillekipferln)
There are many variations on this traditional recipe, but I like the version from the German baking book, Backvergnügen Wie Noch Nie, by Christian Teubner and Annette Wolter. I’ve been making it for many years, and while I experiment with other versions, I always return to this recipe. It includes hazelnuts and almonds, and the result is a richly perfumed cookie.
To make vanilla scented sugar, you can either mix commercial vanilla sugar into confectioner’s sugar, or better yet, leave a piece of vanilla bean in the jar. Even after one day, the sugar will smell heavenly.
Since US FDA law prohibits tonka beans for food consumption, please read the available information and make your own decision. If you don’t want to use tonka beans, simply leave it out. The cookies will be just as delicious.
Makes 40 cookies
25g (1/4 cup) blanched almonds
25g (1/4 cup) hazelnuts, lightly toasted
150g (1 1/4 cup) all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
100g (7 Tablespoons) unsalted butter, at room temperature
seeds from 1/2 of vanilla bean or 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 of a tonka bean, finely grated
50g (1/4 cup) granulated sugar
1 egg yolk
vanilla flavored confectioner’s sugar for dusting
Grind nuts finely and mix with flour and salt. If using vanilla bean, split it in half with a sharp knife and scrape out the seeds. Cream butter with vanilla, tonka bean and sugar, and add the flour mixture. Rub butter into the flour with your fingertips till the dough looks crumbly. Add the egg yolk and mix till the dough comes together. It will be soft and pliable, but not sticky. Form into a disk, wrap in plastic and chill at least 2h or overnight.
Preheat the oven to 375F/190C. Take dough out of the fridge. Working with a small amount at a time, shape it into a pencil-thin rope. Cut the rope into 2 inch (5 cm) pieces and shape each piece into a crescent. If the dough softens too much as you’re shaping it, put it back in the fridge.
Place crescents 2 inches apart on baking sheets lined with parchment paper. Bake 1 sheet at a time, until barely golden, about 10-12 minutes. Coat liberally with vanilla sugar while warm. (Traditionally, the cookies are coated much more heavily than in my photos, but I prefer a light dusting of sugar. Feel free to be more generous.) Warm cookies are fragile, but they firm up as they cool.
Tonka beans are available from various gourmet shops and online. I usually buy mine from Mountain Rose Herbs (4oz for $5).
Photography by Bois de Jasmin