by Sarah Bryan
As Christmas of 2015 approached, I discovered yet another reason to be glad that I work for NC Folk. I already knew that my colleagues, Executive Director Joy Salyers and Director of Programs and Development Evan Hatch, are great folks to work with: they’re kind, smart, and deeply dedicated to NC Folk’s work of preserving and promoting the traditional cultures of North Carolina. What I hadn’t realized, though, until this Christmas, is that they’re also purveyors of outstanding cookies. In mid-December Evan and his partner Tasha made a batch of wonderful ginger cookies, which they shared with me and Joy; and last week I got to bring home some equally delicious ginger cookies made by Joy and her mother, son, and daughter. On both occasions I think the idea was that I was to share the cookies with my family. Nothing doing: I ate them all myself.
I particularly appreciated being so amply supplied with Christmas cookies because, for me, the baking of holiday cookies comes not at Christmas but at New Year’s. Along with the collard greens and black-eyed peas that I eat every January 1 to bring good luck in the new year, I have benne wafers, a treat that I developed a taste for during my childhood in the Lowcountry. Benne wafers are, for the true believer, as powerful a source of new-year good luck as peas and greens.
Benne (pronounced “benny”) is the Gullah word for sesame seeds. Linguist and Elizabeth City, North Carolina, native Lorenzo Dow Turner, in his classic study Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect (1949), points to the word’s origin in the Wolof and Bambara languages of West Africa, spoken in the region of Senegal, Gambia, Mali, and Mauritania. The culinary as well as linguistic heritage of the coastal Carolinas is deeply influenced by Gullah culture, and for Lowcountry natives, benne wafers are the equivalent of Proust’s madeleine. The fact that benne is believed to be good luck makes them all the more appealing. I load up on benne throughout the year—eating my weight in such sesamoid products as tahini and cold sesame noodles—and while doubtless those bring me good luck too, I think it’s when baked into benne wafers that sesame tastes most lucky.
Benne wafers have an incredibly distinctive taste, full of the earthy savor of sesame, and with a texture that could be described as something between caramel and a brittle. The trick is to use enough sugar in the recipe to create a texture that’s both crispy and chewy—and which becomes lacey, punctured by air bubbles and punctuated with sesame seeds—without making the wafers too sweet. Too much sugar overpowers the sesame. The recipe that I use every year is from the iconic cookbook Charleston Receipts. (My copy is the 1950 edition, given to my parents when they married in 1973. It was a gift from my great-aunt Jakie and her husband Big Claude, mentioned in my earlier post about Cataloochee Prune Cake.) The cookbook is in many ways an artifact of a vanished era—exemplified by the fact that many of the people credited for recipes therein are identified first by their husbands’ names, with their maiden names in parentheses. My favorite benne recipe is credited to Mrs. Gustave P. Richards (Lizetta Wagener). It follows:
Benne Seed Wafers
2 cups brown sugar
1 cup plain flour
½ teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
1 egg, beaten
1 block butter, or ¾ cup cooking oil or oleo
1 teaspoon vanilla
¾ cup benne seed (toasted)
Cream the butter and sugar, add beaten egg, then flour sifted with salt and baking powder. Add vanilla and benne seed. Drop by teaspoon on greased cookie sheet. Bake in moderate oven 325 degrees. Cook quickly. Allow to cool one minute before removing from pan. This makes a transparent wafer. Yield: about 100.
[Note: Being a vegan, I make some substitutions in this recipe. Rather than an egg, I use 2 tablespoons of arrowroot flour, which can be found in the health and gluten-free sections of many grocery stores. Rather than butter, I use Earth Balance. Because Earth Balance is very salty, I add just a pinch of salt rather than the prescribed ¼ teaspoon.]
Mrs. Richards doesn’t tell us how long to leave the cookies in the oven, other than instructing us to “cook quickly.” The baking time will depend on your oven, so watch to see when the ingredients melt together and spread out flat on the baking sheet. (These will not be bready cookies with any elevation to them—just crisp wafers.) For me, starting with balls of dough about the diameter of a quarter, it took between 10 and 15 minutes. It’s very important to follow the rule of allowing the wafers to cool for a minute or more in the pan before removing them; when they come out of the oven they’re still in a nearly liquid form (picture hot caramel) and need to set before you slide a spatula under them.
Let’s eat our fill of benne wafers, share them with our friends, and hope for a happy and healthy 2016 for all of us.
Visit the website of the Gullah-Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor to read about efforts to preserve the Gullah heritage of the coastal Southeast. The Corridor, designated by an act of Congress in 2006, includes Brunswick, New Hanover, Pender, and Columbus Counties in North Carolina, and stretches all the way south to Jacksonville, Florida.