Introduced to South Carolina by African slaves in the late 17th century, the benne plant (landrace sesame) was extensively grown in slave patch gardens and was an important part of the slave diet. Local growth of benne seed in the 20th century was restricted to Southern hunting plantations, where it was used as a seed crop for birds. The plant made a comeback in 2003 with the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation’s revival of the planting of Lowcountry rice plantations and seeds were available for planting thoughout the South in 2009.
Anson Mills grows and sells Sea Island benne seeds and makes and sells heirloom bennecake flour. According to the Anson Mills website, “Bennecake ... is powerful, its flavor reminiscent of toasted peanuts, but intertwined with a wildflower tang, and a sensation of verdancy and vigor.”
The benne plant is an annual, growing up to 6 feet. Flowers are white or yellow with sesame fruit that naturally splits open to release the small seeds. The plants are drought-resistant and easy to grow.
From Slow Food USA, Ark of Taste website: “Benne oil can be extracted from the seeds by boiling the seeds at a low temperature and then decanted or by a more modern approach of pressure from an iron screw press. The initial pressing tends to be cloudy, with some fruit matter suspended in the oil. It is usual to let the pressing settle and then decant the clear light gold oil. Table model screw presses are relatively inexpensive and growing benne plants is relatively easy, so home production of benne oil might be easily undertaken.”
At the height of its popularity in the late 1800s, benne oil was preferred in frying and as a salad dressing as the oil extracted from the seeds is lighter and more aromatic than the Oriental versions. Sesame has one of the highest oil contents of any seed.
Benne seeds are used in sweet and savory dishes, most familiar is main ingredient of benne wafers.
Sweet Benne Wafers
makes about 120 cookies
1/2 cup sesame seeds
1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
3/4 cup tightly packed light brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cold
1 large egg
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper.
In a cast-iron skillet, toast the sesame seeds over medium-high heat, stirring frequently with a wooden spoon, until they are the color of unpopped popcorn, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat and stir for one more minute.
Sift the flour twice with the sugar, salt and baking soda. Cut the butter into the dry ingredients with your fingertips or a pastry blender until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs.
Using an electric mixer, beat the egg on medium until it stiffens, about 2 minutes. Add the flour mixture in three parts, beating until the mixture is smooth and lustrous, about 2 minutes. Add the toasted sesame seeds and vanilla and beat on low speed until seeds are incorporated. Transfer the mixture to a pastry bag with a small tip or a plastic bag with a tiny piece cut from the corner.
Working in batches of 30, pipe the batter in very small 1/4 teaspoon-size drops about 2 inches apart on the cookie sheet. Bake until cookies turn chestnut-brown and lacy, 4 to 6 minutes. Transfer cookie sheet to a rack and cool until the cookies stiffen, about 10 minutes, then transfer cookies to a plate or open container to dry more.
If first batch isn’t crispy after 15 minutes (they should still be slightly chewy), pipe subsequent batches with slightly more batter and bake slightly longer to stiffen them. Cookies will keep in a sealed container at room temperature for about 4 days.
The Lee Bros. Charleston Kitchen, Matt and Ted Lee
Savory Benne Wafers
makes 150 quarter-sized cookies
2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon cayenne
2 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into small pieces, cold
1/4 cup ice water
2 tablespoons untoasted sesame seeds
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.
In a food processor, pulse the flour with the salt, cayenne and 1 tablespoon of toasted sesame seeds several times until the seeds are pulverized as fine as the flour. Add the cold butter and continue to pulse until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs, with pea-sizes pieces throughout.
Add half of the ice water and pulse a couple of times. Add the remaining 1 tablespoon of toasted sesame seeds and remaining ice water and continue processing in pulses of about 3-seconds duration, just until the mixture comes together in a ball.
Dust a cutting board with flour. Using your hands, flatten the dough on the board and shape it into a patty about 1 1/2 inches thick. Dust the top of the dough with flour then cut the patty into four small wedges.
With a rolling pin, roll each wedge to a uniform 1/16 inch thick. With a quarter-sized cookie cutter (or a shot glass turned upside down), cut the dough into wafers and transfer to baking sheets. When all of the wafers are on the sheets, sprinkle the wafers with the untoasted sesame seeds.
Bake until gently browned, 12 to 15 minutes. Remove and let cool completely. Transfer wafers to an air-tight container and store at room temperature for several days.
The Lee Bros. Charleston Kitchen, Matt and Ted Lee