FEATURED RECIPE

Benne Wafers

Benne Wafers
📷
Jerrelle Guy

Before the advent of baking powder and soda, beating biscuit dough with a wooden stick, hammer, or heavy rolling pin with up to one thousand whacks—a minimum of half an hour—to tenderize the dense paste was a common pathway to small, crisp “beaten biscuits.” Remembered in the Slave Narratives as “the grandfather of all afternoon tea refreshments,” beaten biscuits held a place of honor in black cookbooks for generations, presumably because white families in the Old South always considered beaten biscuits a luxury, and a hostess’s pride. The historian Arturo Schomburg’s list of party dishes included them. Street vendors in New Orleans sold them, and beaten biscuits are the very first recipe in Abby Fisher’s dignified collection from 1881, What Mrs. Fisher Knows about Old Southern Cooking.

These crackers, perfect for dips and spreads, became easier to make with the introduction of baking soda and baking powder, and took on an African character when cooks stirred in sesame seeds—called benne by African slaves—which arrived in the Sea Islands in the early eighteenth century and were cultivated in their hidden gardens for nearly a century. By the time the authors of Charleston Receipts published the recipe for the ethereal, seed-studded crackers in the mid-1950s, to which they gave the title Benne (Sesame) Seed “Cocktailers,” the New York Times assured readers that this cocktail biscuit would “revolutionize cocktail parties.”

I serve benne wafers in a sweetgrass basket I purchased from a basket weaver near Boone Hall plantation in Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina. Weaving the baskets is a craft handed down through generations of Gullah/Geechee women that enabled their African ancestors to winnow rice or carry water from a brook, stream, or well to the kitchen house. It’s my way of reconciling our artisanal past with its burdens.

INGREDIENTS

  • ½ cup white sesame seeds
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for the work surface
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon salt, plus more for finishing
  • ½ cup shortening or lard, cut into ½-inch dice and chilled, plus more for greasing the baking sheet
  • 6 tablespoons cold whole milk, plus more if necessary

Directions

  1. Preheat the oven to 425°F. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper.
  2. Spread the sesame seeds in an even layer in the pan and toast until lightly browned and fragrant, about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent scorching. Watch carefully as the seeds burn easily. (The seeds also smoke as they toast.) Remove from the oven to cool completely, but leave the oven on and reduce the temperature to 350°F.
  3. When the baking sheet has cooled to room temperature, lightly grease it or line with a clean sheet of parchment paper. Grease or line a second sheet for quick baking.
  4. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, and salt. Sprinkle the shortening pieces over the dry ingredients. Using your fingertips, a pastry blender, or two knives, cut the shortening into the dry ingredients, blending until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Sprinkle the toasted seeds over the mixture. Stir with a fork to distribute evenly. Make a well in the center, add the milk, and use a fork to blend the dry ingredients and milk, sprinkling over more milk as needed to make a stiff, rough dough.
  5. Scrape the dough onto a lightly floured board. With floured hands, knead the dough 15 to 20 seconds, until smooth. Divide the dough in half. Using a floured rolling pin, roll it out to slightly thinner than a dime. Cut the dough with a 1-inch biscuit cutter and transfer the rounds to the prepared baking sheets with a spatula. Re-roll the scraps, handling as lightly as possible, and cut out more rounds. Prick each round 2 times with a fork and sprinkle with additional salt, if desired.
  6. Bake 10 minutes, until the dough rises slightly. Rotate the pans and continue to bake until light brown, 5 to 10 minutes longer. Immediately remove to wire racks to cool. Store the wafers in a tightly covered container for 2 to 3 weeks. Before serving, reheat the wafers 2 to 3 minutes in a 250°F oven.

Note: To freeze benne wafer dough, shape it into a log and wrap it in parchment paper. To bake it, thaw slightly, slice it into 1⁄8-inch rounds and bake as directed.

Reprinted with permission from Jubilee: Recipes from TwoCenturies of African American Cooking by Toni Tipton-Martin, copyright Š2019.Photographs by Jerrelle Guy . Published by Clarkson Potter, a division of Penguin Random House, Inc.

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