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Monday, April 4, 2011

Benne Seed Cookies and a Review of Quick-Fix Southern

Benne Seed Cookies from Rebecca Lang's "Quick Fix Southern"
I always like to look through a cookbook before reading the author blurb when it's by someone I don't know. I think of it sort of like a mystery. Can I figure out the background and influences of the author from the recipes and other bits of information?

In this case, as I leafed through Quick-Fix Southern by Rebecca Lang I spotted quite a lot of fusion dishes. These were Southern dishes but certainly far from traditional fare. After all, Butter Bean and Bacon Hummus? Mama would have had a field day with the thought of Hummus in her kitchen. Butter beans and bacon, no problem but hummus? Then we had things like grits with roasted tomatoes and Parmesan cheese. Sure, cheese grits are classic Southern fare, but roasted tomatoes and Parmesan? Sprinkled here and there were fairly unadulterated versions of classic dishes like fried green tomatoes and blackberry cobblers. I began to form a picture of the author. This was someone who knew quite a bit about Southern Cuisine but was trained at a culinary school where "fusion" was the name of the game. Otherwise, I doubt we'd see Shrimp and Roasted Red Pepper Quesadillas (something more befitting a Mariscos restaurant here in the land just above the Sea of Cortez than my hometown of Newberry, South Carolina.)

Sure enough, Rebecca Lang has stellar southern cooking kitchen cred. She is a contributing editor for Southern Living magazine and worked with Nathalie Dupree, one of the queens of modern Southern Cuisine. But she also studied at Johnson and Wales University's renowned culinary program and now teaches classes around the United States in cooking. It was easy to see how those great comfort dishes could become something totally new in her hands but without becoming even more time consuming than the original recipes.

I've enjoyed looking through this book. The typeface makes for easy reading of both text and ingredients. That's been a recent criticism of other books just out. I like the addition of an author's note for each recipe explaining how her updated version fits into the southern culinary tradition. Also included are cooking tips and how-to with each recipe that help the novice cook (and sometimes experienced cook) with techniques or shortcuts. In fact, in the recipe I tested for this review she mentions one of my top 10 baking tips - using parchment paper for measuring dry ingredients so it can be used as a funnel when placing them in the mixer. Another one she mentions was learned at Mama's side during those huge holiday meals: clean as you cook.

The book, like most newer cookbooks, shies away from categorizing recipes. Rather it is arranged on a series of themes such as Tailgates and Gatherings, Busy Weeknight Suppers, Girls' Night In, and drink recipes gathered under the title Sippin' on the Screened Porch. In all there are 115 recipes in the book along with a great deal of information on cooking techniques and helpful resources. She even provides two quick recipes for Southern All-Purpose Flour and Southern Self Rising Flour. This takes into account the fact that the two major flour manufacturers in the South, Martha White and White Lily produce a flour that is lower in protein content than most national brands. Thus baked goods have a more delicate flavor and cakes are lighter and airier without the use of cake flour.

My biggest complaint with the book would be the selection of sweets and desserts. While the ones included look interesting, the Southern table probably is best known for scrumptious desserts and sweets. I think this section of the book could have been fleshed out a little more. Unfortunately, what is in the sweets section reads too much like a dessert menu at a tourist restaurant in a hotel and not nearly enough like the finish to a great Sunday dinner in a southern home.

I've really enjoyed looking through Quick-Fix Southern by Recbecca Lang and I'm sure I'll be visiting many of the recipes in the future for suppers and parties. Ms. Lang has created a work that can be embraced by both traditionalists like myself and those looking for a newer, lighter and quicker take on southern cuisine. I think she might have a little bit of a hit on her hands. She's certainly helped to redefine what it means to "cook southern."

For our recipe test, I've chosen Benne Seed Sugar Cookies. Benne Seed Cookies are a tradition in Charleston, South Carolina and you'll find little tins of the cookies in most of the tourist shops. The traditional recipes are a little different - ranging from butter cookie types to very thin wafers that somewhat resemble Pizzelle or lace cookies. The grandmother of all Benne Seed Cookie recipes is found in Charleston Receipts published in the 1950's by the Junior League of Charleston, SC. Lang's version resembles the type of cookies most tourists will find familiar - a good thing when you're producing a cookbook that will be picked up by people who visit these areas but aren't familiar with the traditional variants.

Toasted Benne Seeds (Sesame Seeds)
This is a very crisp cookie and the benne seed gives it just a touch of nuttiness similar to the tourist type benne cookies found in gift shops in Charleston. While I like this cookie, I really think it could be improved upon by reaching back to some of the techniques mentioned in earlier recipes. I'll probably play with this recipe some and see if I can bring out the nutty flavor of the benne seeds more and create a cookie with a little more flavor depth. I'm envisioning using brown butter and perhaps brown sugar to enhance the nutty tones. I also think this could benefit from a little hit of salt to perk up the flavors. However, this is a great basic recipe and since the point of Lang's book is quick and easy dishes with a minimum of ingredients and techniques, this certainly fits the bill. You won't be disappointed with this benne cookie recipe and you'll certainly be able to churn out a batch if you find yourself in need of a classic southern cookie in a pinch!

Recipe: Benne Seed Sugar Cookies

Summary: Crisp sugar cookies combine with the nutty flavor of toasted sesame seeds for a real southern classic.

Ingredients

  • 1/4 cup sesame seeds
  • 1/2 cup sugar, plus more for processing
  • 1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 350° and line two baking sheets with parchment paper.
  2. In a small skillet or saute pan, toast the sesame seeds over medium-low heat, shaking pan constantly until they are light brown and fragrant. Remove from heat and set aside.
  3. In bowl of electric mixer fitted with paddle attachment, combine sugar and butter and beat together until light and fluffy. Add flour and vanilla extract and mix until combined. Stir in sesame seeds and mix until distributed throughout dough. Dough will be crumbly, if too crumbly to work with, add 1-2 tablespoons of water until dough will hold its shape when rolled in hands.
  4. Scoop dough by tablespoons and roll gently in hands to form a ball. Place 1-1/2 inches apart on baking sheets. Dip a small glass or prep bowl in sugar and lightly press down on dough balls until slightly flattened. Bake at 350° for 12-15 minutes or just until edges are beginning to brown. Remove to wire rack to cool completely.

Quick Notes

I found that I needed to add about 2 tablespoons of water to the dough in order to be able to get it to hold its shape when scooped and flattened.

Total time: 25 min
Number of servings (yield): 20 cookies
Meal type: snack
Culinary tradition: USA (Southern)

Copyright © Buck Bannister and Sugar Pies.
Recipe by Rebecca Lang.

FTC Disclaimer: Andrews McNeel Publishing provided a free review copy of Quick Fix Southern.
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