American Classics: Benne Wafers
Editor's Note: You may know Alexandra Penfold as Brownie from the popular blog Blondie and Brownie. She'll be stopping by weekly, digging up long-lost classic desserts and regional favorites.
Equally at home in savory and sweet dishes, sesame seeds are beloved the world over for their delicate nutty flavor. As a kid I loved koulourakia, twisted sesame seed topped Greek butter cookies traditionally prepared at Easter time. But it wasn't until recently that I learned that sesame seeds are part of American cookie heritage as well—you'll find them center stage in the Benne Wafer, a lowcountry classic.
Benne (pronounced benny) is the Bantu word for sesame and according to tradition the seeds were brought from Africa to South Carolina by slaves during the 1700s. Benne wafers in the form we know today—thin, crisp cookies studded with plenty of sesame seeds and bound by flour, butter and brown sugar—date back over one hundred years and are a favored souvenir from Charleston.
Recipes vary widely in the amount of sesame seeds and flour. The 1954 version found in Gourmet Magazine's The Gourmet Cookie Book: The Single Best Recipe from Each Year 1941-2009 calls for just two tablespoons of flour for an super-thin, crunchy cookie. Playing with the recipe from King Arthur Flour, which not surprisingly used significantly more flour than Gourmet, I came up with a version that's slightly denser and thus retains its chewiness long after cooling. The butter, brown sugar and toasted sesame seeds come together in a slightly smoky and earthy treat that makes for a delightful end to a meal or snack. Sweet but not too sweet, they proved to be a perfect antidote/palate cleanser for some Serious Eaters after the rigors of the hot fudge taste test.