Of Pie Crusts and Roasted Shallots
Tartine's Panforte with Candied Quince

Benne Wafers

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I keep starting this post and deleting what I've written, because it just doesn't seem adequate. Or particularly verbal. But then I try to come up with something more...grown-up or legible, and fall short. Standards, you know? Sigh.

Do you want to see what I've deleted so far? Fine, here:

1. OMG.

2. Aaaaaah!

3. Best. Cookies. Ever.

4. Oh my goodness, you guys!

See what I mean? I think these cookies have possessed my brain or at least the parts of it that used to know how to write. But seriously, we need to talk about the cookies. Seriously. Pull up a chair!

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A few weeks ago, I was sent a copy of the Gourmet Cookie Book. You know, the one that features the "single best [cookie] recipe" from 1941 to 2009, according to the editors at Gourmet (sigh). It's a funny little book, with very stark pictures of the cookies on black, white or red backgrounds, arranged almost architecturally. The most recent hyper-baroque style of Gourmet is nowhere to be found. So it's not the most sensual cookie cookbook ever designed or photographed, but it is...efficient. After all, each recipe gets a photo, which is rather nice. And the starkness of the photography means you get to really get in there and see the texture of a toasty almond or a spray of powdered sugar. Also, the editors did all the heavy lifting in culling out the very best recipes over the years, which, you know, is a big plus.

The headnotes, if you're into food history, and into Gourmet, which I am on both counts (double sigh), are lovely little reads. You go to the page about Norwegian Butter Cookies, also known as Spritz, and find out they were the favorites of a former food editor's pioneer mother. Or you turn to the Curled Wafer page and find out that there were only four cookie recipes published in Gourmet during all of 1963 - and none of them were American. Or you can go to the recipe for Scotch Oat Crunchies and read that those buttery discs sandwiching jam were cooked up during the war, when the staff at the magazine, along with housewives the nation over, I suppose, tried to come up with ways to make oatmeal palatable. Huh.

(My quibble with the book is that I wished the recipes had more consistent information about how long the cookies keep and how they should be stored. After all, most of us will be using this book around the holiday season, when shipping and storage times are crucial bits of information when planning what to include in a cookie tin.)

When I first leafed through the book, I made a list of the cookies that I wanted to make:

1. Speculaas
2. Bizcochitos
3. Glazed Pain D'Epice Cookies
4. Cottage Cheese Cookies
5. Basler Brunsli

Now this didn't seem like a very long list. After all, I was expecting to dogear half the book. That's disappointing, I thought. But that's how it goes with cookbooks sometimes. And besides, wasn't I the person saying just the other day that if you find one good recipe in a cookbook, it's worth the price of the book? So I went and made some cookies. First, the Cottage Cheese Cookies, which are tender, cakey little things with agreeably crispy edges and a fine, plain flavor. Max popped one in his mouth and commandeered the entire tray for the rest of the week. Then I made the Speculaas, which were a dream to make - the softest, most aromatic dough just needed to be rolled out into a rectangle and cut into little squares or rectangles before being topped with slivered almonds and baked. The cookies were fabulous. Buttery, crunchy, full of Christmassy flavor, just like those great little Biscoff cookies you get on airplanes, only better. (These would be great crushed into a pie crust, too, by the way.) This time, I was the one who hoarded them.

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And then I started re-reading the book. I'd ignored some recipes on the first go-around, but now I couldn't them get out of my head. Like the Gianduia Brownies, which I'm thinking will be a hit at our Bavarian Christmas this year. Or the Walnut Acorn Cookies, just because they combine chopped walnuts and butter and melted chocolate to what looks like splendid effect. Or the Old-Fashioned Christmas Butter Cookies, which sound like such a snooze, but upon reading the headnote ("what you end up with are cookies that are incredibly crisp and so flaky they almost seem to float away") you realize you can't really live much more than a few hours longer without trying them.

People, I am up to my eyeballs in cookies this year. It's December 2nd and I've already made six, no, seven different ones. By any normal stretch of the imagination, one look at a cookie book should have me shrinking away in horror. And yet, I can't seem to keep away. They keep sucking me in, these Fig Cookies, Jan Hagels, and, oh, the mighty Benne Wafer.

Or, lo! The Mighty Benne Wafer!

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So, now we're back where we started, with me apparently struck dumb or incapable of putting into lyrical type just how good these cookies are.

SO. GOOD. Is that better? I'm sorry.

Let me tell you a little bit about them, maybe that will help. First of all, you need hardly anything to make them. An egg, a pat of butter, two spoons of flour - do you see where this is going? If you're the kind of person who stocks sesame seeds in her house, you can make these cookies...whenever you want! (Every day, you'll want to do them every day, believe me.) You cream some brown sugar and that little nugget of butter together, though creaming is not exactly what happens, since there's so little butter to the amount of sugar. Beat until they're combined and no longer lumpy and the sugar is fluffy and a little lighter than before. Then beat in the egg, some vanilla, the flour and half a cup of sesame seeds. And a little pinch of salt! That is it. What you're left with is what looks like the measliest amount of cookie batter ever. It should be loose and a little drippy, but only barely.

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You drop little rounds of the khaki-colored stuff onto a parchment-lined baking sheet and then, using a knife that you repeatedly dip in ice water, flatten them out a bit. Don't do what I did on the first round and make the dough drops too close - you'll end up with large rectangular Benne Wafers. These go into the oven for six minutes. Six! That's it. Any more and you'll have charred edges, any less and they'll still be a bit too chewy. I like to pull the parchment paper off the sheet pan directly onto the cooling rack. If you have just a little bit of patience, then, you'll be able to gently tug the cookies right off the paper. They set up into these caramelly, crispy wonders - pop one in your mouth and you'll wonder how you ever lived all these years without eating a single Benne Wafer before.

I was planning on including these in my cookie boxes for friends, but after I brought Max one to try and we stood there looking at each other, chewing dumbly in stupefaction, he begged me not to let them leave the house. "But, but, think of the Christmas spirit!" I protested weakly.

I think I'm making another batch.

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In the end, did I actually manage to tell you just how insanely good these cookies are? They are delicate and taste like caramel. They have this alluring crunch both from their crispy edges and the toasted sesame seeds. You can make them when you have barely anything in the house. And you could eat, I don't know, ten of them in mere seconds. (Even though there are currently fresh drifts of ankle-deep snow on my balcony, right at this very moment, I keep having visions of them stuck into a scoop of ice cream at a summer dinner party, too.) They are so good they've sort of instantly become my favorite cookie. Superlatives can be so annoying, I know. But I just can't help it. The might Benne Wafer is here to stay!

Benne Wafers
Makes about 4 dozen
Note: Some people reported having issues with the texture of their cookies; please remember that the butter you use must not be warm or room temperature, but cool to the touch and still quite firm before you begin to cream it with the sugar. Here's an article on butter in baking for your reading pleasure.)

1 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cool but not cold
1 cup light brown sugar
1 egg
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup sesame seeds

1. Preheat the oven to 350°F (175°C).

2. Cream together the butter and sugar until light and well-combined. Add the egg and beat until combined. Add the flour, salt, vanilla extract and sesame seeds. Mix until all the ingredients are combined.

3. Drop small spoons of dough onto a parchment-lined baking sheet. Flatten the wafers with a knife dipped in ice water.

4. Bake for 6 minutes. The cookies should be a golden brown with deeper golden edges. Pull the parchment paper off the sheet pan onto a cooling rack. After about 5 to 8  minutes, gently pull the cooled cookies off the parchment. Reuse the parchment for the next batch.

5. Cool completely and store in a tin for up to 2 weeks.

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