Tag Archives: sesame seeds

{8} Benne Wafers

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.


Filed under Christmas, Recipe, Sweet Things

{3} Biscotti di Regina

Biscotti di Regina originate from Sicily, and the name means “queen’s cookies”. I’m not sure if they are named for or after a particular queen, but with a name like that, they are promising a lot!

These delightful little morsels are sweet and buttery, with a coating of sesame seeds the pop slightly when you bite into them. They also look very pretty, as the seeds form a neat pattern on the outside of the dough. I think they are a nice addition to the festive table, providing a contrast to all that chocolate, ginger, citrus and dried fruit. Yes, I know, shocking to believe that those flavours can all get a bit much, but sometimes you want something simple to enjoy with a cup of tea.

I think these cookies have something of a Middle Eastern flavour, what with the sesame seeds and orange blossom water. Hardly surprising when you think about the history of trade across the Mediterranean.

However, if you want to play around with the flavours, you could swap the vanilla and orange blossom water for something else – aniseed is a typically Italian choice, and orange or lemon zest would add a stronger citrus note than the orange blossom water. If you’re feeling particularly creative, you could really depart from Italian flavours, and add things  like cardamom or even rose water. There are even versions that use saffron, if you want cookies with a spectacular golden glow.

These biscotti are very straightforward to make – just rub the butter into the dry ingredients, then add egg and flavourings to get a soft dough that is just very slightly sticky. You’re rolling these guys in seeds, so you want it to be a bit sticky. If it is clinging to your fingers in great lumps, you’ve probably got too much liquid, so just add a bit more flour.

I shaped the biscotti by rolling into balls, then flattening into a squat sausage shape, so when they baked they formed an oval shape. If you prefer, roll them into very long, thin fingers for a more elegant shape to dip in coffee or vin santo, and adjust the baking time accordingly. For finishing, I used hulled white sesame seeds, which I think makes them look quite festive, almost like they’re coated in snowflakes. If you’re feeling adventurous, add a few black sesame seeds for some contrast, or go the whole hog and roll them in only black sesame seeds for a dramatic look.


To make Biscotti di Regina (makes 30)

For the dough:

• 375g plain flour
• 225g butter
• 150g caster sugar
• 1 1/2 teaspoons of baking powder
• 1/2 teaspoon of salt
• 1 egg
• 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 1 teaspoon orange blossom water
• cold milk, to bind

To decorate:

• 100g sesame seeds

1. Preheat the oven to 175°C (350°F) and line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper.

2. In a bowl, combine the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt. Add the butter and work until it resembles breadcrumbs.

3. Beat the egg with the vanilla and orange blossom water. Add to the main bowl, and work to a smooth dough. If necessary, add cold milk, a tablespoon at a time, to bring the mixture together. It should be firm, but slightly sticky.

4. Divide the dough into three batches. Roll each piece into a long sausage about 30cm long, and cut into 10 pieces (3cm each).

5. Roll each piece into a ball, then form into a sausage shape between your hands. Roll in the sesame seeds to coat completely, then transfer to a baking sheet (leave enough space between each piece to expand).

6. Bake for around 25 minutes until golden, turning after 15 minutes to get an even bake.


Filed under Christmas, Recipe, Sweet Things

Open Sesame!

I tried my hand at Moroccan gazelle horn cookies recently, and one reader left a comment suggesting that they can also be made rather more easily with sesame seeds instead of the fiddly pastry way. I was intrigued and wanted to give this a try. Here are the results, and very delicious they are!

These really are very, very simple to make. It’s a simple almond paste filling, left to chill, then shape them, dip in lightly-whipped egg white and roll in sesame seeds. The seeds crispen up in the oven, while the centre is soft and chewy. I changed the filling slightly this time – adding orange zest and a dash of cinnamon, while the egg white is flavoured with a little orange blossom water. All in all, I think these fellows look rather jaunty! They are delicious with mint or green tea. Makes you think of the sun when it’s a blizzard outside!


To make sesame gazelle horns (makes around 25):

• 200g ground almonds
• 100g white sugar
• 1 egg, beaten
• zest of one orange
• almond extract, to taste
• ground cinnamon, to taste (around 1/2 teaspoon)
• egg white

• 2 tablespoon orange blossom water
• sesame seeds

Before making these, I recommend watching this excellent video which explains the technique.

1. Put the ground almonds, caster sugar, beaten egg, orange zest, almond extract and cinnamon into a bowl (with regard to these last two, be guided by your preference – a little of each, or a lot, depending on the flavour you like). Mix to a smooth, even paste. If the mixture is too dry, add a little cold water (a teaspoon at a time) but make sure the paste is fairly stiff – it should not be wet or liquid. Cover and chill in the fridge overnight.

2. Preheat the oven to 180°C (360°F) and line a baking tray with greaseproof paper.

3. Divide the almond paste mixture into 25-30 equal pieces (the easiest way to do this is roll it into a long sausage 25-30cm in length – then cut into pieces every 1cm to achieve equal pieces!). Roll each into a ball, then flatten into a sausage shape between your palms. They should be fatter in the middle, thinner in the middle, and around 7cm long).

4. Put the egg white into a bowl, add 2 tablespoons of orange-blossom water, and whisk until foamy. Dip each piece of almond paste in the egg white, shake off the excess, then roll in the sesame seeds until coated.

5. Place the sesame-coated almond paste onto the baking sheet. Roll each lightly between clean hands to press the seeds into the paste, then shape the pieces into crescents. Pinch the ends slightly to get points.

6. Bake the cookies for 12-15 minutes until just starting to turn golden at the edges, but they should not become dark. Remove from the oven and leave to cool on a wire tray.


Filed under Recipe, Sweet Things