Benne Wafers

Please give a warm welcome to one of my dearest friends, Steve-Anna Stephens, who is guest authoring this post of one of her favorite recipes for the Southern classic, benne wafers. Steve-Anna sent us a tin of these cookies and we devoured them. So good! ~Elise

When I was a little girl growing up in Alabama, every year our family would get a Christmas gift in the mail from Charleston. Amidst the usual holiday mayhem, no one really paid a lot of attention to the tin of benne wafer cookies that emerged from the package – except for me. While everyone else was busy indulging themselves with homemade Christmas fudge and stocking candies, I was stealthily and systematically emptying the tin of benne wafers. As I recall, the round, flat cookies were arranged in stacks in paper liners around the tin. Instead of eating a whole stack of cookies from top to bottom, I would eat one from the top of each stack, hoping no one would notice how many had actually gone missing.
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The draw for me then, and now, is the combination of three flavors: the nutty taste of the toasted benne (sesame) seeds, a hint of salt, and the caramel sweet flavor from the brown sugar – a chewy crunchy dessert trifecta.

Sesame seed cookies, or benne seed cookies as we call them in the South, are a classic South Carolina tradition. It is believed that enslaved Africans brought benne seeds to Colonial America sometime in the 17th century. After trying several recipes in search of one that lived up to my recollection (including a number of recipes from my stash of Southern cookbooks), my favorite comes from Gullah Net. In South Carolina, communities of people descended from enslaved Africans are referred to as Gullah communities.

Ingredients

  • 1 cup sesame seeds, toasted
  • 1 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar
  • 4 tbsp. (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 egg, lightly beaten
  • 1/2 cup all purpose flour
  • 1/4 tsp. salt
  • 1/8 tsp. baking powder
  • 1 tsp. fresh-squeezed lemon juice
  • 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract

Method

1 Preheat oven to 325 F. Cover cookie sheets in parchment paper, silpat sheets, or lightly oil them. Toast the sesame seeds in a heavy skillet over medium heat until they are golden brown.

2 Beat the brown sugar and butter together in a medium-sized bowl for several minutes until fluffy. Beat in the egg. Whisk together the flour, salt, and baking powder, then add these dry ingredients to the butter, sugar, egg mixture, mix well. Stir in the toasted sesame seeds, vanilla extract, and lemon juice.

(Optional): Chill the dough for 30 minutes in the refrigerator. This makes it easier to drop the cookies on the sheets.

3 Drop by teaspoonful onto prepared cookie sheets, leaving space for the cookies to spread. Bake for approximately 15 minutes, or until the edges are slightly brown. Cool for a minute or two on the cookie sheets, then transfer to a rack to continue cooling.

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