In Joseph Dabney's, The Food, Folklore, and Art of Lowcountry Cooking, he spends a chapter on the legacy of benne seeds (pronounced bennie). Bene means sesame in Gambia and Senegal and they were brought to the Carolina-Georgia coastal plain with slaves from Africa in the colonial era. The plants grew so well on the slave plots that Lowcountry farmers quickly realized their humidity and fertile soil were perfect grounds for planting the oily, nutty benne seeds.
At the same time, slave cooks were introducing plantation women to the extensive culinary applications for the tiny pale seeds. Candies, cakes, wafers, brittles, breads, salads, and breading for fried foods, but one of the most iconic creations is the benne seed cookie. Countless batches emerge from local bakeries as well as households. This recipe is from Charleston native, Clementa Florio, who at ninety-five years old was still baking nearly 500 cookies as Christmas gifts for friends and family.
Ment Florio's Benne Seed Cookies
Makes 10 dozen
Adapted from Lowcountry Cooking
1/2 cup benne (sesame) seeds
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup butter, softened
1 cup granulated sugar
1 large egg
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
Cook the sesame seeds in a heavy skillet over medium heat, shake and stir often, for about 5 minutes or until well-toasted but not burned.
In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, soda, and salt. Set aside. Beat the butter in an electric mixer at medium speed until creamy. Gradually add sugar, beating well. Stir in sesame seeds, egg, and vanilla. Add flour mixture and stir just until combined. Cover and chill for 1 hour.
Heat oven to 325°F. Shape dough into small 1/2-inch balls and place on a parchment lined baking sheet. Flatten with floured fingertips to 1/16-inch thickness. Bake 10-12 minutes or until golden brown. Transfer to racks to cool.