Ahhh, Charleston, SC. We love to visit her, but after a few 100-degree trudges around her streets, we have finally learned to wait for more temperate weather.
That said, we’re still planning on going in September. September in Charleston is still, usually, summer. Unless a hurricane blows things around. It’s no wonder the residents are known for their stoicism and heavy drinking.
Because of its proximity, Charleston is a regular getaway destination around here. But, so is Savannah. And, over the years we have enjoyed seeing our friends and acquaintances divide themselves into Charleston and Savannah camps.
It seems that those with a traditional, even conservative, view of life gravitate toward the genteel facade of Charleston’s Rainbow Road, the tony stores on Kings and the gentle embrace of the Indigo Inn. Those with a more artistic, even bohemian, view sing the praises of SCAD, The Pirates House, and the seamier side of history that Savannah embraces.
We love both cities. After all, Charleston has its share of pirates and ghosts and Savannah its share of old money.
And they both have benne seed wafers. The theory is that slaves brought sesame seeds, which they called benne seeds, to America from Africa. Seems like a good theory, since sesame has been used in cooking for about 3,000 years. And in America, anything good is better with plenty of sugar.
On our first trip to Charleston in the 1970s my mother bought a tin of these wafer-thin sesame cookies. We devoured them before we got home, so she found a recipe and started making them herself.
It wasn’t pretty. Oh, the cookies were gorgeous and crispy and perfect. But the process of peeling extra-soft, carmalized cookies off ancient cookie sheets in her un-airconditioned kitchen always caused her to break into a swearing jag that would make any pirate proud.
So we all knew to clear the decks when she whipped up a new batch, then steal back into the kitchen once the wafers had crisped up.
Things are a little easier now, what with air conditioning and silicone baking mats. I can make some sesame wafers without swearing. But, really, what’s fun about that?
If you purchase sesame seeds and don’t get around to making the cookies right away, store the seeds in the freezer because their high oil content makes them go rancid quickly. Let the seeds come to room temperature, uncovered, before proceeding.
Benne Seed Wafers
1/2 cup sesame seeds
8 Tbsp butter
1/4 cup solid shortening
1 1/2 cups dark brown sugar
1 1/4 cup flour
1/4 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
1 tsp. vanilla
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Line two cookie sheets with silicone mats or parchment paper.
Place the sesame seeds in a saute pan over medium heat. Shake the pan often, just until seeds start turning brown. Immediately pour the seeds on a plate and let cool completely before adding to dough.
Cream the butter and shortening together in a large bowl of a mixer. Add the brown sugar and mix thoroughly, then add the eggs one at a time. Beat until dough is fluffy. Sift the flour, baking powder, and salt together, then add gradually to butter mixture. Stir in toasted sesame seeds and vanilla. Use a teaspoon to drop the dough on the cookie sheets. Leave plenty of room, because these cookies need space to spread. You can fit six to eight on a standard cookie sheet.
Bake 12-15 minutes. Let cool 3-5 minutes before removing cookies from pan. This will make about 8 dozen wafers.
Air is the enemy of crispiness. As soon as cookies are completely cool, place them in airtight container.