Benne Wafers: A (Cookie) Gift from South Carolina

December 15, 2015

We found the recipe for these wafer-thin, sesame-seed studded cookies—lacey, crunchy, and caramel-colored—in The Gourmet Cookie Book.

Photo by James Ransom

It's the cookie that the editors of Gourmet considered the single best from 1954, and there's also treasure in the headnote.

Preparing for Christmas, Gourmet's editors in 1954] suggested a few mail-order gifts. These included: 6 live Maine lobsters, packed in seaweed and shipped in a free kettle ($9.92); a brace of Texas pheasants ($9); three 2-foot-long Louisiana sugarcanes ($1.19); a dozen sweet, stringless Colorado Pascal celery stalks "in a gay box" ($5.75); 3 Cornish pullets from the Danish humorist and musician Victor Borge, who bragged that his birds ate better than he did ($12.50); and 8 dozen fresh Long Island oysters in the shell ($5.50). If you wanted to offer your friends sweet benne wafers from South Carolina however, the only option was to make them yourself. A tin of the thin, chewy, caramelized sesame-seed cookies ("benne" is an African word for "sesame"), with their stark nutty goodness, is a truly wonderful gift.

Our resident Southerner Amanda Sims was thrilled to see we were making the benne cookies:

Benne wafers, which are impossibly thin, sweet and savory snack crackers, are to me one of the best food ideas out of the lowcountry: They melt in your mouth like chocolate but taste like sweet tahini (with none of the pretension). "They're a reminder of how amazing Charleston is!" my mom says, "because you really only find them in the area so it's something to look forward to when traveling there."

Like so many great ingredients associated with the American South—see: sweet potatoes, collards, peanuts, okra, black-eyed peas, and more—benne, which is just a Bantu (a branch of African languages) word for sesame, was brought to the region by slaves. The Bantu believe benne wafers bring good luck, and if that is the case then Charlestonians have more of it than the Irish.

Looking for more good luck? Make these cookies, too:

When we made these cookies in the test kitchen and followed the recipe exactly, we encountered some spreading issues:

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Luckily, baking the cookies on Silpat-lined baking sheets seemed to stop the spread. And you had some theories as to why.

Photo by Sarah Jampel

Blob cookies aside, these benne wafers are easy to make—and sending them to your friends and relatives is simpler (and less expensive) than ordering a live lobster.

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1 Comment

Liz T. December 12, 2015
Actually, there is a big difference between modern sesame seeds and benne seeds. South Carolina farmers have been working for a while to bring back the benne seed: