Benne Wafers: A Sweet South Carolina Staple with West African Roots
The first time I visited Charleston, South Carolina and the surrounding coastal region known as the Low Country, it was hot. Really, really hot. Thankfully, every little inn and shop had a gracious shaded porch, lazily spinning ceiling fans, and icy pitchers of sweet tea to help Northern tourists like me avoid succumbing to heat stroke. Alongside so many sweating pitchers of iced-tea and lemonade often stood a plate piled with thin, humble-looking little cookies—the kind that don’t usually tempt me, since they aren’t brimming with chocolate chunks or peanut butter gobs, or caramel. Not interested, at first, I passed on the first few plates of the drab little cookies, but they had an unusual name, and I kept seeing them all over town. So, ultimately, intrigued, I had to try them. I discovered that they were delightful: crispy, light, buttery, and caramelized, with a satisfying little chew owing to their star ingredient, sesame seeds. Over the remainder of my visit, I downed more of these little cookies than was probably called for, and I decided to find out a bit more about them and their unfamiliar name, benne wafers.
It turns out benne wafers tell an interesting story which starts long ago, and far away:
Benne (pronounced “benny”) is the Gullah word used by residents of the Low Country to refer to sesame seeds. After the Civil War, the Low Country became a destination for ex-slaves and their descendents, the community of people that became known as the Gullah. The Gullah (or, sometimes, Geechee) are descendents of West Africans brought to the Carolinas as slaves. Some scholars say that the term Gullah derives from Angola, the likely origin of many of the original Gullah. Others believe it refers to Gola, an ethnic group that lives on the border between modern day Liberia and Sierra Leone.
Gullah culture was born out of the various influences of the many West African, Native American, Caribbean, and European cultures who left their marks on the region. Due to the Gullah community’s relative isolation from surrounding areas and its strong efforts towards preserving its heritage, Gullah culture has remained distinct through generations.
Descendents of the Gullah still make up a large portion of the area’s population and retain many aspects of their ethnic identity and their unique culture, including their Creole language, music, crafts, and storytelling, as well as their farming and fishing techniques, and delicious cooking. Gullah cuisine includes many ingredients thought to have been brought from West Africa to the Southern United States: rice, peanuts, sesame seeds, peas, okra, yams, sorghum, and watermelon.
Like most foods we enjoy here in the United States, many Low Country recipes are versions of something that originally came from somewhere else. Although Low Country cooking is considered regional American cooking, its roots are deep in West Africa. Many Gullah specialties, benne wafers included, have become staples of Low Country cuisine, eaten by all, and enjoyed across the American South.
Often eaten for good luck, benne wafers are delicate, buttery, and not too sweet. I find them to be really nice alongside a tall, frosty glass of unsweetened iced tea. These little guys go down a bit too easily. Watch out, or you’ll eat the whole batch before they even cool.
Benne Seed Wafers
I’ve encountered quite a few recipes for benne wafers, many of which vary dramatically from one another. The following recipe is based on a number of different recipes I encountered online and in books, but it is mostly an adaptation of one from the blog Simply Recipes.
1 cup sesame seeds
3/4 cup dark brown sugar, packed
½ cup room temperature butter
½ cup flour
¼ tsp salt, heaping
1/8 tsp baking powder
½ tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp lemon juice
1. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.
2. Place the sesame seeds in a single layer on a baking sheet, and toast in the oven until they are golden brown. This process will take only a few minutes. Make sure you stay close by and keep your eye on the seeds as they brown, or you’ll burn them the moment you turn your back. Once toasted, allow them to cool completely.
3. In a small bowl, whisk together the flour, salt, and baking powder, and set aside.
4. In a large bowl, beat butter and brown sugar with an electric mixer until light and fluffy.
5. Add the egg, and beat to incorporate.
6. Add the lemon juice and vanilla and beat just to combine.
7. Add the flour mixture, beating on low just until the flour is incorporated.
8. Using a spatula, fold in the sesame seeds, being careful not to over mix.
9. Allow the mixture to cool in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes.
10. Scoop 1 teaspoon of the mixture at a time onto a parchment or silpat lined baking sheet, leaving about 2 inches between cookies to allow them to spread. (Don’t worry, they will spread evenly, becoming nice circles, even if your scoops are a bit less than round).
11. Bake the cookies for 15 minutes, until they are uniformly golden brown.
12. Allow them to cool on the baking sheet for a few minutes, before transferring them to a cooling rack.
13. Pack them in a tin as soon as they are cool—sitting out in humid air will make them a bit chewy and not as crisp.