Today’s recipe contains none of our traditional festive flavours. Meet the benne wafer: very thin, very crisp cookies that are caramelised and buttery, and flavoured with toasted sesame seeds. They’re utterly delicious, they hail from the American South and they have been presented in recent years as a great addition to the holiday cookie platter.
I’m always keen to find new recipes and I’ve said before that the USA is under-represented in my festive baking exploits. So I was keen to find out a bit more.
Benne wafers are from the city of Charleston in South Carolina, and they get their name from the word for sesame (bĕne) in the Malinke language spoken across parts of West Africa. When I started to research recipes for this year’s baking, I was initially excited to find an American recipe that goes back in time as this is quite the contrast to elaborately-iced sugar cookies.
However, it was really obvious really fast that recipes talking about “colonial times” and “African influences” were employing euphemisms. Benne was brought to South Carolina by enslaved people. This was upsetting, especially when I found out that the culture of those enslaved people saw benne seeds as being a source of good fortune, and for this reason they would grow them where they could. But I also found something hopeful in the fact that the original name has endured and become part of the culture of modern Charleston, rather than just being squeezed out by the English term as could so easily have happened. They are benne wafers, not sesame crackers. You might think that this is rather heavy commentary for a baking blog, but it simply did not feel right to skip over this point.
I also reflected on what this means for the history of the recipes that we make today, and in many cases hold dear to our collective consciousness. The history of food is the history of the world. This made me want to learn more about how the food we eat today has been influenced by our joint history – the good, the bad and the ugly. I sense some some heavy reading on my Christmas reading list this year, but I am confident that it is going to be illuminating and thought-provoking.
But to the baking. Unlike many of the recipes I have made this year, benne wafers are some of the easiest that I have tried. You just mix up the batter, spread on a baking sheet, then bake. No waiting, no chilling. And for your work you are rewarded by truly delicious, thin, crisp cookies. I happen to think that they are a very attractive shade of golden caramel with the pale sesame seeds peeping out. If you want to make them look a little more fancy-fancy, add a couple of spoons of black sesame seeds to the mixture to provide a bit of contrast.
Indeed, I would go so as to say that these might be the best cookies that you’re not making. They certainly give you a lot of reward for comparatively little effort. They also do not contain most of the traditional holiday flavours – no spice, no citrus, no fruit, no chocolate – so they offer a different flavour profile which I am confident will fly off the serving platter when (if?) we have friends round to our houses again…
Having said benne wafers are easy, there is one tip I want to share: bake a test cookie before you start with whole trays. Ovens can be fickle, and you want to work out how dark you want the cookies to be. They are delicious if lightly golden, and they are delicious is a deep caramel colour. It’s a matter of personal preference, but you do want to make sure you don’t over-bake as their thin, sugary nature makes them easy to burn too. Just a little tip to make life easier!
So there you have it – a cookie with a bit of history. But benne wafers are not unique in this regard. It doesn’t take too much to imagine what is behind the sugar and exotic spices that are much used in many traditional European festive bakes. This doesn’t mean that I will stop making these recipes, but it cannot be a bad thing to learn more about the history around them.
To make Benne Wafers (makes around 50)
• 150g sesame seeds
• 300g soft brown sugar
• 185g butter
• 1 medium egg
• 125g plain flour
• 1/2 teaspoon salt, finely ground
• 1/4 teaspoon baking powder
• 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
1. Preheat the oven to 190°C (375°F). Line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper.
2. Put the sesame seeds into a large frying pan. Cook over a medium heat for a few minutes, stirring constantly, until light golden brown. Watch them very carefully as they can burn very quickly. When done, pour onto a plate and leave to cool (they will keep cooking and burn if you leave them in the pan).
3. Put the butter in a large bowl, and beat until soft and creamy. Add the sugar and mix well. Add the egg and vanilla, and beat until it is smooth and well-combined.
4. Mix the flour, baking powder and salt, then fold into the main bowl. Finally, add the toasted sesame seeds and mix well.
5. Take half-teaspoons of the mixture and place on the baking sheet, leaving at least 5cm (2 inches) between each – I put 12 on each tray. Slightly moisten your fingers with cold water, then press the dough into flat discs about 1/2 cm (1/4 inch) thickness. You don’t need to be precise about this.
6. Bake the cookie for 6-7 minute, turning half-way to get an even colour. Remove from the oven, and allow to cool for a few minutes before transferring to a cooling rack. Note: store the cookies in an airtight container otherwise they will absorb moisture in the air and turn soft.