Viennese Vanilla Crescents with Tonka Bean (Vanillekipferln)

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

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52 Comments

  • Anne: They look gorgeous and I can almost smell them through the screen! btw, I once had delicious chocolate truffles flavored with tonka bean. December 20, 2012 at 9:01am Reply

    • Victoria: They are richly scented. Tonka bean has such a wonderful aroma. Chocolate and tonka bean is a great combination! December 20, 2012 at 1:51pm Reply

  • George: Fascinating article- between you and Wikipaedia I just learnt a lot (the most interesting fact being that the drug “warfarin”, commonly used here as a rat poison, derives its name from from the acronym from the University of Wisconsin (WARF) and coumarin, as it is derived from a two stage process from coumarin, as it seems are a lot of blood thinners. God bless the internet, and those like yourself who so generously contribute! December 20, 2012 at 9:02am Reply

    • Nikki: I had no idea, thanks George! I know somebody who has to take this every day. December 20, 2012 at 10:24am Reply

    • Victoria: Yes, in order words, before coumarin becomes blood thinner, it undergoes quite a process. Plus, coumarin is found naturally in many edible plants anyway.

      By the way, in old Russian cookbooks some types of bread are baked on wet hay. This is done to prevent bread from sticking to the floor of the oven, but also to impart a delicious roasted almond flavor. December 20, 2012 at 1:55pm Reply

      • George: The Danish restaurant Noma currently serves lamb on hay plates which it burns with a blow torch just before serving, obviously to give the eating experience a coumarinic touch. December 20, 2012 at 2:06pm Reply

        • George: By the way, if you haven’t read the fat duck cook book by Heston Blumenthal I can highly recommend it for you; it’s full of interesting writing on sense perception with regards to cuisine and reminds me very much of The Guide in its being in with that connecting area between art and science. December 20, 2012 at 2:12pm Reply

          • Victoria: I had a copy at work. One of the perfumers bought it for the library, because he also found that Blumenthal’s writing was relevant to everyone interested in perfumery. December 20, 2012 at 2:25pm Reply

            • solanace: Interesting… December 21, 2012 at 12:59pm Reply

  • Barbara: A fascinating and inspiring post! There is a Polish liqueur with a grass that smells like tonka bean. When I first tried, it made me think of Tonka Imperiale. Off to google it. December 20, 2012 at 9:43am Reply

    • Barbara: It’s called Żubrówka! December 20, 2012 at 12:15pm Reply

      • Victoria: Oops, I missed your response. I’ve never tried Zubrowka, but I have Kusmi tea by the same name. It has little pieces of zubrowka, bison grass, and it really does smell like tonka bean. The combination of black tea and roasted almond is just perfect. December 20, 2012 at 1:56pm Reply

        • Cornelia Blimber: Does bison grass smell like tonka bean? There is a Stolichnaya wodka with bison grass. Strange combination! I think the grass will spoil the pure taste of wodka. I like pepper wodka,though. December 20, 2012 at 4:12pm Reply

          • Victoria: It smells like sweet hay and almonds, close to tonka bean, but without the intense cherry note. I just remembered that I tried a version my mixologist friend made herself, and it was aromatic. But I don’t think strong liquor like that, so I was more tempted to dab it on my wrists. I may be half Russian, but I have no taste for vodka at all, pure or flavored. December 20, 2012 at 5:27pm Reply

            • Cornelia Blimber: You don’t have to be Russian for a good, healthy, icecold glas of pure wodka. Everyone has his qwn taste. December 21, 2012 at 5:58am Reply

    • Victoria: That’s interesting! Thanks, Barbara. December 20, 2012 at 1:55pm Reply

  • Cristina: wicked! December 20, 2012 at 10:07am Reply

    • Victoria: They’re so tempting. I’m eyeing the plateful right now. :) December 20, 2012 at 2:07pm Reply

  • Leah: I had coincidentally just read the Atlantic article myself and was adding this to my list of reasons why I need to plan an overseas trip soon! Thanks for the enticing recipe – I can only imagine how good this would smell as a fragrance! December 20, 2012 at 10:15am Reply

    • Victoria: I thought that the article was interesting. I realize now cooking with tonka beans that most chocolates I ate as a kid were flavored with them, rather than vanilla. Of course, it’s less expensive, but it also gives a different flavor dimension. December 20, 2012 at 2:08pm Reply

  • Nikki: Oh Victoria, I love these! For me, these are symbols of Kaffeeklatsch, lace tableclothes, fresh flowers, really good coffee….when I grew up, this is what we did every Sunday or whenever we went over to other peoples’ houses: they brought out the best china, the best coffee, always fresh flowers (you can’t go to anybody’s house in Germany without taking fresh flowers), Vanille Kipferln or Bundtkuchen or Baumkuchen, and then one had a really pleasant and timeless 2 hours. I do hope that these traditions will endure! Thank you for the recipe! December 20, 2012 at 10:22am Reply

    • Victoria: By the way, the lace napkin in the photo was made by my grandmother. I never use them though, except for special occasions.

      Your description of a Sunday tea reminds me very much of what we had at home. As I learn more about Austrian and German baking, I realize that the Russian pastry tradition takes its roots from it more so than from French. No wonder, I love just about anything with nuts, poppyseeds or apricots. December 20, 2012 at 2:11pm Reply

      • Nikki: Yes, I have noticed the similarity in baking and cooking myself. Especially the sweet/sour tastes in many dishes such as “Sauerbraten” made with ginger cookies, or other meat dishes made with dried fruit or “Koenigsberger Kloepse” made with lemon and capers. Then we all seem to have similar recipes for stuffed cabbage rolls, or cabbage soup, always with a vinegar/sugar/honey/sweet beetroot component. French cooking is heavily influenced by Italian cooking, brought to France by Catherine de Medici while the German/Austrian/Russian cooking seems to be in a different cultural hemisphere. Maybe Katharina the Great who was German has something to do with it…the fact remains that our cuisines are very similar. December 21, 2012 at 9:24am Reply

        • Victoria: Russian cuisine was heavily influenced by German and French. Peter the Great was an avid westernizer, and he even made Russian drink coffee! December 21, 2012 at 10:37am Reply

  • iodine: I bought some tonka beans in a faboulous épicerie in Paris, this summer, and used it in some desserts- the most successful being a chocolate soufflé.. Thanks for this recipe and the beautiful article!
    Talking about its potential harmfulness: when I made it smell to a dear friend of mine, chemist like me, she stated that the slight (bitter) almondy note was certainly due to cyanide traces!!! I laughed a lot, but avoided using since!! It’s time to put it out from its box again! December 20, 2012 at 10:46am Reply

    • Victoria: That’s a different beast altogether though. The almond note is tonka is not the bitter, Amaretto kind, but sweet and mellow. That comes from coumarin, not cyanide!

      Tonka and chocolate is a perfect duo. In fact, I’m going to make some hot chocolate with tonka bean in a moment. December 20, 2012 at 2:18pm Reply

  • Samantha: Do you have to shape these into crescents, or can you do other shapes? Also, what are the cookies in photo #4? They all look delicious. December 20, 2012 at 11:14am Reply

    • Victoria: You can make them into little rounds or pretty much any shape. Just nothing too big, or else they don’t bake properly.

      The cookies with jam centers are thumbprint cookies. They are made from similar dough, with hazelnuts and vanilla. December 20, 2012 at 2:19pm Reply

  • Jillie: Dear Victoria – a wonderful post with amazing photos, as always! I can almost smell these, and suddenly my appetite is returning after a brief spell of sickness. I can’t say that I have ever seen tonka beans for sale in the UK, but I shall now do some research to see if I can buy them here. Thank you! x December 20, 2012 at 12:24pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you, Jillie! I wish you well and I hope that you’re feeling better.

      In the UK, I even saw tonka beans at Tesco of all places. And I just spotted them at Spice Mountain, an online UK spice shop. December 20, 2012 at 2:22pm Reply

      • Jillie: My goodness!!! Tesco??? Well, I never! Thanks for the info! December 21, 2012 at 1:27am Reply

        • Victoria: I know! I was surprised myself. :) December 21, 2012 at 10:38am Reply

          • Daisy: Tonka beans at Tesco?! Whoa. December 23, 2012 at 12:30am Reply

            • Victoria: Tesco stores in London are fancy (this might have been near Mayfair). December 23, 2012 at 6:27am Reply

  • Margo: Oh, these look heavenly! Thank you – I will definitely be making them. I can almost smell them through the pictures! December 20, 2012 at 5:03pm Reply

    • Victoria: Please let me know what you think when you try the recipe. We just had them with tonka bean flavored chocolate. Now, that’s beyond decadent! December 20, 2012 at 5:29pm Reply

  • kaori: Thank you for the great recipe. I’m busy for writing useful tips, sites, tea and a nice book. I will try them.

    Kaori December 20, 2012 at 9:08pm Reply

    • Victoria: It’s my pleasure! I think that you would like this flavor. December 21, 2012 at 12:30pm Reply

  • solanace: These look delicious. And now I’m curious, because I’ve never seen a tonka bean, and yet they are from South America! Will try to find these at the huge central market, I bet this will be a fun quest. And I also bet that if I happen to find tonka beans, they will have come from England, or something like that! :-) December 21, 2012 at 1:17pm Reply

    • Victoria: I would love to hear what turns up. By the way, when you buy them, look for the dustiest ones. The white powder is actually coumarin, and it is so strongly perfumed. December 23, 2012 at 6:28am Reply

  • Daisy: These look absolutely mouthwatering, Victoria! Beautiful crescents.

    And as I was reading, I couldn’t help but giggle at the song that kept going through my head:

    “Breakin’ the law! Breakin’ the law!” December 23, 2012 at 12:32am Reply

    • Victoria: They are really delicate and crumbly. I occasionally make them very small, so that you can just pop the whole thing in your mouth, but of course, that’s more time consuming.

      Hey, I’m in Europe now. :) It’s a legal tonka bean zone. December 23, 2012 at 6:34am Reply

  • az: hi victoria! this is not re this recipe but the one you gave me in the speculaas thread. the gingerbread turned out great. everyone in my family loved it! so thanks. :) merry christmas! December 23, 2012 at 3:56pm Reply

    • Debbie: Can you please give me a link to Victoria’s gingerbread? I want to try some new recipes. December 24, 2012 at 10:06am Reply

      • Az: Replied with links below- sorry got misplaced.:) December 24, 2012 at 3:10pm Reply

    • Victoria: Merry Christmas, Az! I’m so glad that the recipe turned out well. December 25, 2012 at 2:25pm Reply

  • Liz K: These are wonderful! I made them without the tonka bean because I didn’t have them and they are delicious and will require a second batch. We also made the persian orange blossom cookies and the kurabie next are the little gingerbreads. Your photos are lovely and make me long to try all the recipes you post. Thank you so much for sharing. December 23, 2012 at 11:42pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much, Liz! Enjoy them. I made kurabie the other day too. Such a nice treat with a cup of strong black tea. :) December 25, 2012 at 2:26pm Reply

  • Debbie: Victoria, I made these cookies on Saturday and they are already gone. I made these with vanilla and cinnamon at my daughter’s request, and they came out to be scrumptuous. They hold their shape well, but they are so delicate. A new favorite recipe. Thank you so much and Merry Christmas! December 24, 2012 at 10:05am Reply

    • Victoria: Merry Christmas, Debbie! Vanilla and cinnamon sounds like a great combination. This recipe can be adapted for many different flavors. I also like lemon and vanilla. December 25, 2012 at 2:33pm Reply

  • Az: Hi! This is the original thread:

    http://boisdejasmin.com/2012/12/belgian-gingerbread-treasure-speculoos-speculaas.html

    And this is the gingerbread recipe victoria pointed me to:

    http://labellecuisine.com/features/How%20to%20Make%20Gingerbread.htm December 24, 2012 at 3:09pm Reply

  • Lynn Morgan: Yum! Suddenly, I am both hungry and craving a rich, vanilla perfume- Van Cleef & Arpel’s “Orchidee Vanille” perhaps? Happy Holidays, Victoria! December 26, 2012 at 5:28pm Reply

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