“Open sesame,” was the phrase that the miscreants used to open their cave filled with treasure in the story, “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves”. Popeye said, “Open sez me,” in a cartoon version of the story. It is not entirely clear whether the phrase relates to the spice, sesame, or whether it is a mistranslation of an Arabic phrase. What is certain is that sesame has been used in cuisines throughout the world and throughout history. Some say it is the first spice discovered, and it has been identified in ancient Egyptian tombs.
Say “benne wafers” and you immediately think of Charleston, South Carolina, where they have been part of the local cuisine for hundreds of years. The first time I ever ate one was many years ago in a charming restaurant on Church Street in the middle of that city. In fact, I think that may have been the very best benne wafer I have ever had. It was a crispy little cracker, not unlike lavash, filled with toasted black and brown sesame seeds. The traditional story of how these tasty bites got their name is that the word “benne” is West African for sesame seeds that the black soon-to-be-slaves brought with them, perhaps even sewn into their clothes and subsequently used in their cooking. The sesame-rich foods found their way to the plantation house and soon became embedded in South Carolina cuisine. There are two versions of benne wafers: one that is sweet and one that is savory. I prefer the savory version. Whatever the real story of benne wafers, there is no doubt that the modern versions are delicious.
During a recent visit to Los Angeles, Susan and I paid a visit with Carol to the Surfas kitchen store in Culver City. There I found a bag of black sesame seeds which reminded me of those long-ago benne wafers in Charleston. Brown sesame seeds are, of course, ubiquitous, but black seeds are not as common, so my find seemed like the perfect chance to try my hand. The recipe is actually a version of a pie crust dough, so it is important to keep your ingredients chilled and not over mix the dough to make sure it is crisp and flaky when baked.
- ¼ cup mixed brown and black sesame seeds
- 1 cup flour
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- cayenne pepper, to taste
- 3 tablespoons chilled, unsalted butter
- 1 egg yolk
- 4 tablespoons ice water
- In a dry skillet over low heat, toast the sesame seeds for 15 minutes, stirring frequently, until lightly toasted and fragrant. Be very careful not to burn the seeds. Cool and set aside.
- In a medium bowl, mix the flour, salt, and cayenne. Work in the butter with your fingers or a pastry blender until the mixture resembles corn meal.
- Add the cooled sesame seeds, egg yolk and ice water to make a dough. It should be soft, but not sticky.
- Form the dough into a ball, wrap with plastic wrap, and chill in the refrigerator for 30 minutes.
- On a floured work surface, roll out the dough into a 12-inch circle. With a biscuit cutter, cut into 2-inch rounds.
- Place the rounds on an ungreased cookie sheet and bake in a preheated oven at 350°F for 15 minutes or until lightly browned. Cool on a rack. Makes about 2 dozen wafers.
Brown and black sesame seeds
Toasted sesame seeds (benne)
Baked benne wafers cooling on a rack
Recently I have written about noodles and pasta and some of my travails in turning out good products. Part of the stimulus for my effort has been watching an outstanding video cooking course by Chef Bill Briwa of the Greystone campus of the Culinary Institute of America and produced by The Great Courses. Chef Briwa made pasta-making look so easy, especially after my history of struggle over the years.
Actually, I found the basics of pasta and noodle making to be fairly straightforward. (How complicated can anything be with the ingredients limited to flour, eggs, and water?) At the same time, refinements come only with practice and attention to detail.
Here is my effort at a close relative of pasta/noodle: spaetzle. The word is German, and translates to either “little sparrows” or “little darlings”. Personally I prefer the “little darlings” translation because I would rather not have birds floating around in the sauce, and the little noodlets do look cute, snuggling in the brown butter. Spaetzle are basically made from a soft noodle dough that you force through holes into boiling water where they immediately cook and float to the top. You can use a cookie press with a spaetzle attachment, but those holes are too small. You can use a colander with large holes, but there is a lot of effort with a spoon in pushing the dough through the openings. The last time I visited Los Angeles, I found a spaetzle maker at the Surfas kitchen supply store in Culver City. As an aside, I would highly recommend a visit when you are in Los Angeles. They have more kitchen gadgets than you can imagine along with a small sandwich and pastry shop.
Back to the spaetzle, the device I bought at Surfas makes spaetzle-making a breeze. You load the dough into the little box on top, move the box back and forth across the pierced plate, and the dough automatically feeds until you need to load it again. The spaetzle drop into the boiling water, and you scoop them out into waiting melted butter at the same time you reload the box.
I served the spaetzle in brown butter sauce with croutons, along with braised pork chops, apples, and onions. Pretty German – and pretty monochromatic. You might want to add a green vegetable to brighten up the plate.
Use a colander or a special spaetzle device
Spaetzle and croutons in brown butter
Spaetzle served with braised pork chops, apples and onions
Spaetzle in Brown Butter with Croutons
- 4 tablespoons butter
- 1 cup croutons
- 3 eggs
- ½ cup water
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 1¾ cups all-purpose flour
- 6 quarts salted water for boiling the spaetzle
- salt and pepper to taste
- In a saucepan over medium heat, melt the butter and cook, stirring frequently, until it has browned, being careful not to let it burn. Remove from the heat, stir in the croutons, and have it next to the cooking water for the spaetzle so that you can transfer the pasta immediately into the butter.
- In a medium mixing bowl, combine the eggs, water, salt and flour. Cover with plastic wrap and let rest for 30 minutes.
- In a large pot, bring salted water to a boil. Place the spaetzle maker over the boiling water. Load the metal box with dough, and using a back-and-forth sliding motion, pass the dough through the holes in pierced plate.
- The noodles should drop into the boiling water and sink to the bottom. After they float to the surface, let them cook for a minute or so, and the lift them out of the boiling water using a slotted spoon or a spider. Transfer to the melted brown butter, stirring them so that they are completely coated with butter.
- Repeat the process until all of the dough has been used up.
- Correct the seasoning of the buttered noodles with salt and pepper. Serve immediately, or you can chill them and reheat them later if yo wish.
Braised Pork Chops, Apples, and Onions
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 boneless, 1 inch-thick pork chops
- 1 cup chicken stock
- 2 cloves garlic
- 2 stems fresh rosemary
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 apple, peeled, cored, and sliced into ½ inch rings
- 1 onion, sliced thinly (Use a mandolin if you have one.)
- ¼ cup Calvados
- salt and pepper
- Heat the olive oil in an oven-proof pan with tight-fitting lid, big enough to hold the pork chops and other ingredients. Brown the pork chops on both sides. Add the chicken stock, garlic, rosemary, and bay leaf. Cover and place in the middle of oven preheated to 220° F.
- Braise for one hour, turning the pork chops from time to time, and adding water if necessary.
- Add the apple rings and onions, and continue to cook for another 45 minutes.
- Transfer the pork chops, apples, and onions to a plate, cover with aluminum foil and keep warm in the oven.
- Strain the cooking liquid, and return to the pan. Boil the liquid over high heat until it is reduced to about one-half and is slightly thickened. Stir in the Calvados.
- Serve the pork chops, apples, and onions, topped with the sauce and with the spaetzle on the side.