My cousin left her family’s farm in rural South Korea (motto: modern plumbing, schmodern plumbing) more than two decades ago to live with our family in Illinois. My mom likes to tell everybody the story about how my fresh-off-the-boat cousin couldn’t figure out how to open the car door and ended up stuck in our driveway for an hour before my dad finally found the poor woman and let her out. Eventually she moved to New York City, struggled as a manicurist, and married. She and her husband took over a Manhattan deli, turned it into a huge success, had two children, and moved out of Queens to an affluent suburb across the river in New Jersey.
Now my cousin owns a BMW. I’m dying to see her again because I want her to take me for a ride, giving me a chance to ask her if she needs help getting out of the car. Har. I’ll have my chance in a week. This Thursday I leave for a three-week road trip with stops in Indiana, West Virginia, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania.
In addition to the precious gift of my brilliant humor, I want to give my cousin something special. What do you buy a woman who can buy your butt then go dancing in Gucci shoes? I thought about this for a long time before I found the answer: homemade food. You make something that she can’t buy, doesn’t know she wants, and will end up loving. Two things Koreans can’t resist are sweets and seeds.
Koreans use sesame seeds in savory dishes all the time, but they also love the rich flavor in candy and store-bought deep-fried treats. Few people make sesame seed sweets at home, and I figured out why after I burned seven of ten fingers attempting to roll a layer of hot-syrup-soaked white sesame seeds on top of a layer of black sesame seeds into a log. Then I dented my favorite knife trying to slice it. Pretty though those spiral candies were, that was the last time I tried that. So I was thrilled to the tips of my healed fingers to find a baked cookie recipe from the American South called Charleston Benne Wafers. Benne is an African word for sesame seeds, which were imported and loved by the slaves. The original recipe yielded overly sweet wafers light on the seeds, so I doubled the seeds and created multiple variations from thin and crunchy to light and airy.
[Pictured: Shiso seeds]
Eventually I started experimenting with shiso seeds, seeds of the shiso plant (also known as the beefsteak, perilla, kaenip, or deulkkae plant), whose pungent herbal leaves are used in Asian cuisines. Shiso seeds have a fantastic nutty crunch with an elusive medicinal flavor like the shiso leaf. They go over with Korean tasters even better than the sesame seeds. One of these days I may experiment with black and white poppy seeds just in case I need to feed a group of Hungarians . . . or feel like failing a drug test.
These crisps are a cross between a delicate candy and a crisp cookie. They’re so delicious that even if you aren’t Korean, African, or from Charleston, I think you’ll love them. Adults may prefer the Airy variation’s thick lightness, and kids might prefer the Candy variation’s sweet crunch. My personal favorite? The slightly chewy master recipe made with shiso seeds wins every time. They also store well if kept airtight. I currently have test batches wrapped in two layers of plastic bags on a sunny deck under a black tarp to test how well they will hold up in my hot car during my meandering drive east. So far so good.
Sesame Seed Crisps or Shiso Seed Crisps
Adapted from The Fannie Farmer Cookbook
· 1/2 cup white sugar
· 1/2 cup light brown sugar
· 3 tablespoons flour
· 1/4 teaspoon salt
· 1 cup untoasted white sesame seeds
or shiso seeds
· 1 tablespoon butter
· 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
· 1 egg, lightly beaten
1) Preheat oven to 350F. Put the seeds in a heavy skillet or sauce pan over medium heat, stirring or shaking frequently as you prepare the other ingredients and the pans. Seeds are done when they darken a shade or two and smell nutty, 5 to 10 minutes depending on the heat.
2) In the meantime, spray or grease the sides of one 18×13 half sheet pan (or two smaller jelly roll or other edged pans). Line the bottom of the pan(s) with parchment paper or a fiberglass silicone mat, such as Matfer Exopat or Demarle Silpat. (I used Matfer because it’s cheaper and works just fine.) Apparently you can grease and flour the pan instead, but these stick like gum in girl hair, so hey, good luck with that. If you’re using parchment paper, a spritz of non-stick spray or a little oil under the parchment will help keep it from sliding around.
3) Mix the white sugar, brown sugar, flour, and salt in a medium bowl. Remove seeds from heat and stir in the butter until the butter has melted. Scrape the hot seeds into the bowl with the other ingredients and stir well. Stir in the vanilla and then the lightly beaten egg. If the batter seems too thick to spread thinly, stir in a little water.
4) Spread the batter evenly to the edges of the prepared half sheet pan or as thin as you’d like on the jelly roll pans. Bake until batter has browned around the edges, about 15 minutes on a half sheet pan. (Start checking much earlier if you used jelly roll pans.) Press a thin edge like a bench scraper (or knife or pizza cutter, if you aren’t using a mat, which is easily cut) into the hot crisps to score them, making squares or diamonds, etc. Let cool completely, then pull the crisps apart along the score lines.
Airy variation: For thicker crisps that puff up into a delicate double-layered texture with puffy edges, use 1 cup white sugar, omit the brown sugar, and replace the whole egg with 1 lightly beaten egg white. Bake until edges are lightly browned, about 20 minutes. This version is crisper and can be broken into shards rather than scored, if you’d like.
Black sesame seed variation: Black sesame seeds turn bitter when toasted, so I suggest using at least half toasted white sesame seeds and mixing the untoasted black sesame seeds with the white only after the butter has melted. So, for instance, you could use 1/2 cup white sesame seeds and 1/2 cup black sesame seeds for a mixed look, or 1 cup minus 2 tablespoons of white sesame seeds and 2 tablespoons black sesame seeds for a speckled look, etc.
Candy variation: For thin crunchy crisps that are sweeter and almost brittle-like, keep the sugar ratio as is if you like the taste of brown sugar (I do), or use 1 cup white sugar and omit the brown sugar. Omit the egg either way. Bake until edges are lightly browned, about 20 minutes. This version is crisper and can be broken into shards rather than scored, if you’d like.
[Pictured: Shiso seed Cookie variation]
Cookie variation: For a more attractive but time-consuming result, drop the batter of your choice by heaping teaspoonfuls onto the prepared pan, leaving at least 2 inches between the cookies. I find that I can fit eight cookies on a half sheet pan. If the batter mounds up, don’t worry, they flatten in the heat. Bake until lightly brown around the edges, about 10 minutes. Let the cookies cool a bit before removing them. They will stick to even a fiberglass silicone mat until they’ve solidified somewhat, at which point they will remove cleanly. It takes some practice to get the timing right. Cool completely on a rack. If you’re not using a mat and they’ve stuck, place the pan back in the oven to soften them. You do not have to let the pan cool before starting another batch, but they will bake faster if you do so.