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Tonka beans, a Pantry Special (Recipe: spice snap cookies)

Tonka beans

Did you know that can you toss seven tonka beans into a river to make your wish come true? You can, but it's so much more fun to bake with them. Tonka beans are the seeds of Dipteryx odorata, a tree native to northern South America. The inch-long, black, wrinkly seed has a hard shell, but when grated on a Microplane, it smells sweetly like vanilla, for which it's sometimes used as a substitute, and almonds. (Tonkas also lend that sweet smell to perfume and pipe tobacco.) Though popular in other countries, in the United States tonka beans cannot be used in food, because they contain coumarin, an anticoagulant that can be toxic in large doses. If you have health challenges, please use caution; for most people, however, tonka beans used a pinch at a time present no danger, and enhance the flavor of baked goods with a slightly exotic flavor. Some cooks suggest substituting mahlab, or a mix of vanilla and almond extracts, if you find yourself tonka-free.

Is this Pantry Special new to you?

Where to buy online:
Amazon.com ($4.95/1 oz)

How to use tonka beans:
Tonka bean spiced apple raspberry cake
Tonka bean and rice milk sherbet milkshakes
Chestnut and tonka bean brownies
Chocolate wontons and tonka bean ice cream
Meyer lemon mousse cake
Tonka pots de creme
Salted ginger molasses cookies
Peanut and tonka ice cream

Spice snap cookies. 

Tonka bean spice snap cookies

Aimee of Under the High Chair sent me my first-ever tonka beans a few weeks ago, so I wanted to make one of the recipes from her blog. The original recipe makes four dozen cookies, but I used my ice cream scoop to form the cookies and made two dozen large ones.


3/4 cup butter, at room temperature
2 cups sugar
2 eggs, at room temperature
1/2 cup molasses
2 tsp white vinegar
3-3/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1-1/2 tsp baking soda
2 tsp freshly grated ginger (or 3 tsp ground)
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp grated tonka bean (approximately half of one bean)
1/4 tsp ground cloves
Pinch of kosher salt


Preheat oven to 325°F.

In a large mixing bowl or in the bowl of a stand mixer, cream the butter and sugar. Stir in eggs, molasses and vinegar. Sift together the flour, baking soda, ginger, cinnamon, tonka bean, cloves and salt. Mix well, and, using a small ice cream scoop, make 24 balls, 12 on each cookie sheet, placed two inches apart. Sprinkle each cookie with a pinch of sugar. Bake 15-18 minutes, until tops have cracked and edges have started to brown.

Let cookies cool on the cookie sheets for 10 minutes, then transfer to a cooling rack. When the cookies are thoroughly cooled, pack them in an airtight container. Can be frozen.

More recipes in The Perfect Pantry:
Chocolate spice cookies
Amaretti cookies
Maple nut cookies
Honey gingerbread cookies

Disclosure: The Perfect Pantry earns a few pennies on purchases made through the Amazon.com links in this post. Thank you for supporting this site when you start your shopping here.


Lydia, I love tonka beans...one of the most soothing and exotic spices to fill the air in my kitchen.

I have read about Tonka beans out in the blogosphere, but they have never crossed my path...but I am still hopeful.

New to me too! Sounds like a wonderful addition to the pantry and a great test for my foodie friends. Hope I can find them.

I find tonka beans at a specialty shop located in my farmer's market. I love everything about them, their smell, their taste the fact that they're an exotic ingredient, everything! Those cookies sound like a great way to showcase tonka beans.

I've heard of tonka beans but never really knew what you could do with them, and i've never had a chance to come across them. These sound delightful.

Thanks for posting this! I have only heard of them this year, and had no idea what they looked like. How fascinating! I will keep an eye our for them.

The bottle of vanilla in my pantry says "contains no coumarin" and I didn't know what that was--now I know! Thanks for this post. Love learning new foodie things.

Where did you get your tonka beans? I've never heard of them before, but thanks for sharing!

I just picked up some tonka beans in my favourite shop in Paris a couple of months ago. Will have to give these cookies a try!

I never have heard of these before. I'll keep my eyes peeled for them.

Never heard of this one before!

Peter, LyB: I learned about tonka beans from a Canadian blogging friend -- you're so lucky to be able to buy these "on the street."

Bellini Valli, Neil, Natashya: you'll be able to find these in spice stores. It's only in the US that we cannot buy them at retail.

Alta, Kristin, Janet, Pam: this is my first time cooking with tonka beans. The flavor they lent to these cookies was amazing, and I'm excited to use them again (I have three more beans!).

Deena, according to what I've been reading, it's not uncommon for Mexican vanilla to contain tonkas instead of pure vanilla. So that explains the warning on the label.

Julia, these were sent to me, but I found them on Amazon.com (follow the link above). I was surprised, but there they are.

very cool & delicious dish, thank you very much for sharing.

Can I share this recipe on my recipe library?

this is an interesting post. I learnt something new today . tq :)

Hi Lydia, I saw your pretty picture from tastespotting and was curious about the usage of Tonka beans because as you've said, it is toxic in high doses. I suppose it's the same as eating a Fugu fish, just a tiniest bit of toxin for that yummy rush. :)

If I had a Tonka bean and a river, I know what I'd wish for right now ...

Lydia, thanks for a new ingredient. I am ordering them right away. Your cookies sound so good! I guess if I had a river and a Tonka bean, I would wish for more Tonka beans!

I think my fave part of mail-order ingredients is the day it arrives. All packaged and waiting for me;))))

Tonka beans remind me a bit of mace; funny ingredient where you only need a whiff to enhance the flavor of blueberry coffee cake...

I have never heard of Tonka's but now I want them to throw in a river and to cook with. I always learn so many new things over here!!!

Zurin, I'm always glad when you find something new here.

Elaine, while everyone needs to know her/his own dietary and health limitations, the amount of tonka bean in these cookies is definitely safe for most people. Yes, like fugu!

TW, let me guess.... cookies?

Candy, I'm so grateful to Aimee for sending these to me. (I'm happy to share, too.)

Janelle, isn't it fun to get food in the mail? I love it.

Noble Pig, it's always fun for me to learn new things, too, and I get great ideas from food bloggers like you.

Thanks for the info. I had heard of Tonka Beans but had no clear as to what they were and how they were used.

It wasn't clear but did you like the cookies and the flavor that the beans imparted to the cookies? Had you not known there was tonka beans in them would you have been left wondering what that "something" was? Thanks!

Ingrid, I almost never blog recipes I do not like, because if I don't like them, I'm sure many readers won't like them, either. I hope you'll try tonka beans for yourself to see if you can detect the "something" in the cookies. To me, the cookies were totally delicious, and the tonka flavor made them that much better.

Never heard of them! Glad I know now--so cool! Thanks for the tutorial.

Mahlab as a substitute for Tonka Beans? This I did not know!

Thanks for the informative article on this pantry special. I'd only recently learned of Tonka Beans myself, and had no idea of their origins, uses or toxicity.

You can get Tonka Beans in the US, they just cannot be sold as a food item. New age shops sometimes carry them as spell items. Not hard to find online either.

Too bad, they are now on Amazon, not for $4.75, but $32.76 per ounce! They are from a "magic" shop. I was going to use them in a spice necklace. But not now, that's for sure. Guess I'll miss out on tasting them, too.

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