Much is written about benne seeds in the book, "The Food, Folklore and Art of Lowcountry Cooking," by Joe Dabney.
"In the Lowcountry, they're called benne seeds (pronounced bennie). They have become one of the great legacy plants of the Carolina-Georgia coastal plain, having come over with the slaves from Africa during the colonial era. Benne means 'sesame' in Gambia and Senegal. They have long been rated as a Lowcountry food icon, nearing the status of the legendary she-crab soup."
Slave cooks were the first to reveal the benne seeds' enormous cuisine possibilities. Benne seeds became a great base for candies and cakes, eventually finding their way into cookies, wafers, brittles, breads, green salads and seafood dishes, such as oyster stew and benne-encrusted shrimp and chicken.
They are considered good luck and add a nutty and delicate crunch to all sorts of recipes.
Today, I share some recipes that use benne seeds.
BENNE SEED CAKE WITH HONEY FROSTING
For the cake:
1/3 cup benne (sesame) seeds
2 teaspoons black sesame seeds
1 (15.25-ounce) yellow cake mix
1 (3.4-ounce) package instant vanilla pudding
1 cup buttermilk
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/4 cup honey
For the frosting:
1 stick butter, softened
1 (8-ounce) package cream cheese, softened
1/4 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup honey
1/2 cup powdered sugar
Toasted benne seeds and black sesame seeds, to garnish
Toast benne seeds in a preheated 350 degree oven for 3 to 5 minutes. Set aside to cool. In a mixing bowl, combine cake mix, instant pudding, buttermilk, oil, honey and eggs; mix with an electric mixer until all ingredients are combined. Stir in benne seeds and black sesame seeds. Pour into a greased and floured sheet cake pan. Bake in a preheated 350 degree oven for 35 to 40 minutes or until toothpick inserted in center of cake comes out clean.
Cool cake in pan on a wire rack. In a medium bowl, with an electric mixer, cram butter, cream cheese, heavy cream and honey. Add powdered sugar and mix until smooth. Spread on cooled cake. Garnish with benne seeds and black sesame seeds.
NOTE: The difference between white and black sesame seeds are that the black seeds still have their hulls. The combination of white and black seeds used together adds a dramatic accent to the New Year's dessert.
Source: "Celebrate Everything!," by Debbie Covington (2012)
BENNE SEED BISCUITS
1 cup benne seeds
3 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
2/3 cup shortening
1 cup milk
Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Place benne seeds in oven using a shallow pan. After about 5 minutes, check on the seeds' color. If they haven't reached the desired golden color and toasted smell, remove pan, shake up the seeds and return pan to oven for an additional 1 or 2 minutes, being careful not to overcook.
Using a large bowl, sift the flour, baking powder and salt. Add the shortening and use your fingertips or a pastry mixer to work the dough to the consistency of cornmeal.
Add the milk and benne seeds to the dough and mix well. Place the dough on floured surface and knead for a few minutes. Roll the dough to about 1/8-inch thickness.
Use a small biscuit cutter to cut the dough and transfer to an ungreased baking sheet. Place in the oven and bake at 400 degrees for around 12 to 13 minutes until lightly brown.
Serve immediately or store cooled biscuits in an airtight container for later serving by reheating.
Source: "The Food, Folklore, and the Art of Lowcountry Cooking," by Joseph Dabney (2010)
BENNE SEED COOKIES
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup benne seeds, toasted
1 heaping tablespoon flour
2 tablespoons margarine or butter
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
pinch of salt
Cream egg and sugar. Add flour, baking powder, margarine vanilla. Add benne seed last.(Be sure seed is cool before adding to mixture.) Drop by teaspoon onto greased and floured cookie sheeet. BAke in 375 oven for 8 to 10 minutes. Makes about 3 dozen.
Source: Mrs. Althea F. Metz, "Treasured Recipes, Avery Institute of Afro-American History and Culture" (Charleston)
1 cup butter
1/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon almond extract
2 cups flour
Toasted sesame seed
Blend butter and sugar. Add almond extract. Add flour, mix well. Shape dough into balls and roll in sesame seed. Place on ungreased baking sheet and flatten slightly. Indent center and fill with 1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon jam.
Bake 12 to 14 minutes. These cookies freeze well.
Source: F. Vadersen, "Treasured Recipes, Avery Institute of Afro-American History and Culture" (Charleston)
Columnist Ervena Faulkner is a Port Royal resident and a retired educator who has always had an interest in food and nutrition. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.