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Benne Wafers

December 19, 2010

I don’t know about you, but my favorite part of Christmas is, without a doubt, the cookies. Mind you, being Jewish means that stockings, Santa, tree cutting, mistletoe and Christmas morning wrapping paper mountains are all kind of lost on me. This is not to say my dad’s family didn’t give us a perfectly authentic, magical glimpse of Christmas every year – 10 foot pines; a bazillion ornaments; Bing Crosby; hams, pies; more presents than any kid, no matter how good, rightfully deserves; my aunt’s famous kielbasi (which, now that I think about it, may actually be my favorite thing about Christmas). I’ve mentioned how wonderful those Christmases were before – and wonderful they were – but something (my mother’s glare when we started writing our wish lists? The fact that we were told at birth the truth about Santa? The neighborhood kids’ incredulity at our lack of Christmas tree?) made us feel like this wasn’t our tradition. We were mere observers, the lucky few, perhaps, who reap all the benefits (kielbasi! pie! presents!) without the stress that perfecting tradition can bring.

So, upon marrying a Christmas celebrator, I decided to embrace some Christmas traditions. After all, I love me some cookies. It was only after I reconciled myself to Christmas that I was informed that Italians don’t do cookies at Christmastime. But what do you feed Santa when he comes down the chimney?! Nothing.

This year will be our second Christmas in Australia, and we’re finding it hard to get in the mood. Let me clarify.

You know how in the US (and Europe, for that matter), the Christmas spirit is so unavoidable, so ubiquitous that it becomes oppressive? Christmas music in the mall, panicked crowds in the mall, entire afternoons spent in the mall or trying to park to get into the mall? Reminders that only the best gifts mean you love your family? No interest until 2011!! Pre-order your hams!! Bake those cookies! Wrap those presents! Attend all those Christmas parties! Stock up on eggnog before the store runs out! Don’t miss out this holiday season!! In debt? That’s what credit cards are for!!!!

And then there’s the weather. New England in December is screaming Christmas – the frost, the cold, the delicious threat that you’ll wake up on the 25th to the season’s first real snow. School out. Snowmen made. Fires lit and chestnuts roasted. In Italy, the streets are lined with twinkling white lights; Christmas markets sell northern, wooden things and hot grog; and shops are open until midnight. Everyone’s grandmother started cooking weeks ago, right around the time ads for the cinepanettone started polluting the airwaves.

Here, in the land of the laid back, Christmas is just that. Unless you spotted that tasteful bit of (fake) holly near the entrance to the supermarket or the Christmas pudding for sale therein, you’d never guess we are less than a week from Christmas. I repeat: You wouldn’t even know it’s coming.

The Australians, of course, see it differently. Beach weather, summer vacation, mango season: these all mean Christmas is coming. They just don’t seem to get as worked up about it as they rest of us do. Sure, they make long car trips to relatives’ homes to stuff themselves silly. Only they stuff themselves with prawns, salads, cold ham and trifle.

This brings me back to cookies. I love all the different varieties of cookies at Christmastime. I love gingerbread men. I love speculaas. I love jam thumb prints. I love molasses lace cookies. I love melting moments. I love cookies. But, as far as I can tell – and maybe I just haven’t met the right people aka people under the age of 10 – baking and gifting endless varieties of cookies is not part of the Australian Christmas Tradition. So this year I’ve decided that if no one’s going to bake cookies for me, I’ll just have to bake cookies for myself everyone else.

I’ve decided to tell you about these Benne Wafers not because they’re my favorite holiday cookie. In fact, they’re abundance of sesame means I don’t even like them that much. I’m telling you about them because chances are you’re neck deep in wrapping paper and gift receipts and the recipes for those Christmas cookies that you absolutely must bring to your 8th Christmas party this week. You’re probably just reading this to avoid wrapping or stuffing or ordering or decking. And these cookies? Well, they’re really, ridiculously easy.

I decided to try them after a fellow (and far more established) food blogger described them as “Best. Cookies. Ever.” They were “delicate and taste like caramel”! I mean, how could I not?

My mother, Middle Eastern as she is, loved these thin, seedy, crispy, caramelized cookies, but the sesame – which makes up a large proportion of the ingredients and makes the cookies more than a little reminiscent of tahini – was a little too pronounced for my fussiness. To give aforementioned blogger credit (not that she needs it from me) they are delicate and do taste like caramel. Plus, they’re the perfect foil to this season’s shortbread, sugar cookies and glutton. Because a variety of cookies is what this season is all about. And without them? Christmas just wouldn’t be Christmas.


Makes about 3 dozen very thin, wafer-like cookies. Perfect for gifting! Recipe from Gourmet via The Wednesday Chef.

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

Preheat the oven to 350°F (175°C).

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.

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

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.

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


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