I didn’t know that bene means sesame in Gambia and Senegal. It’s spelled benne in the southeastern area of the US, and it’s pronounced ‘bennie.’ I learned those facts and several others from The Food, Folklore, and Art of Lowcountry Cooking by Joseph Dabney. I received a review copy of this book which describes the culinary, agricultural, hunting and gathering, and social traditions of the southeastern coastal plain region from South Carolina’s northern coast to Darien, Georgia also known as the Lowcountry. In addition to historical information, the book includes recipes for classic dishes like boiled peanuts and peanut soup, country captain with chicken and shrimp, Vidalia onion and tomato pie, and a few different versions of grits. In the benne seed chapter, it's explained that the seeds were brought to the US by African slaves during the colonial period and are now a legacy Lowcountry plant. Over time, the seeds came to be used in candies, cakes, cookies, breads, salads, and seafood dishes. The cookie recipe shown here is from Clementa “Ment” Florio from Charleston, and it was also featured in Southern Living magazine in 2005. The cookies are made from little, teaspoon-sized balls of dough packed with toasted sesame seeds. Because they’re so small, the recipe makes a lot of cookies, but their small size also makes them very snack-worthy.
To start, a half cup of sesame seeds were toasted in a dry skillet. Then, softened butter was mixed until creamy, and sugar was slowly added. The toasted sesame seeds, an egg, and vanilla were incorporated. In a separate bowl, flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt were sifted together and then stirred into the butter mixture. The dough was chilled for an hour before being rolled into half-inch wide balls and placed on a baking sheet. The dough balls were flattened with a floured, flat-bottomed glass before baking for about ten minutes.
These simple butter cookies are light in texture with some crunch from the sesame seeds, and their innocent, little size makes you want to grab one after another. It’s nice to learn a bit about the history of a place while enjoying a time-honored recipe. In fact, I look forward to more of this style of learning with Carolina gold rice and a seafood stew.