Benne wafers are small brown-sugar cookies seasoned with sesame seeds. They’ve been popular in the South since the 18th century. How did sesame, which many Americans associate with Asian cuisine, end up in the American South?
Before we get to the cookies, here’s:
A HISTORY OF SESAME
The plant, Sesamum indicum grows wild in Africa; some varieties also grow wild in India. Today, thousands of varieties are cultivated in tropical regions worldwide. The seeds grow in the pods (the fruit) of the plant.
Sesame seed is the oldest oilseed crop known to man, domesticated more than 5,000 years ago. It has one of the highest oil contents of any seed. The seeds are also rich in calcium, iron, vitamins B and E and zinc, high in protein and cholesterol-free.
The nutty, buttery taste, which becomes even nuttier when toasted, led to the use of sesame seed by cuisines around the globe.
Now on to America:
Benne cookies, a.k.a. sesame cookies, from Charleston Cookie Company. Photo by Elvira Kalviste | THE NIBBLE.
In Colonial times, a small amount of benne—the Bantu word for sesame—arrived in Charleston, possibly in the pockets of enslaved Bantu who considered the seeds to bring good luck (irony noted). The seeds were planted, and by the 18th century the crop became cultivated extensively throughout the South.
BENNE WAFERS EMERGE
According to Southern Sisters Bakers, which makes benne wafers, when plantation owners had large parties, they sent their guests home with benne wafers as a good luck party favor.
Benne wafers have a richer, less sugary flavor than many cookies, thanks to the use of brown sugar instead of hite sugar. Some recipes add 1/4 teaspoon salt for a subtle salt counterpoint; the salt adds nuance and also makes the wafers pair well with cheese. If you like sesame honey crunch—those small rectangular candies of sesame seeds in a base of honey (we love them)—you’ll like benne cookies.
You can get a gift tin with a Charleston watercolor on the lid from Byrd Cookies.
If you want to bake your own benne wafers, here’s a recipe. Like chocolate chip cookies, oatmeal cookies and many others, there are endless recipe variations. You can search online to find one that best suits your tastes.
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