Sesame seeds are the seeds of a flowering plant that is grown all over the world. In fact, it is considered the oldest oilseed crop discovered by man (more than 5000 years ago).The sesame tree is actually quite short and rarely grows more than two metres in height, and the pods that contains the sesame seeds are only about three centimetres long. Every year in May and August, the pods split and release the seeds. There're many varieties of sesame seeds, with white sesame seeds being the most common kind, followed by black sesame seeds. The rarest and the most aromatic are golden sesame seeds, which grow mainly in India and, like all good things, are highly sought after by the Japanese.
Sesame seeds are very versatile and are especially popular in Asian cuisines. The Chinese and Japanese, above all, are very fond of these tiny seeds and employ them in countless ways. There's a Chinese sweet soup called sesame soup (芝麻糊) made of pureed black sesames; crispy fried dough covered with golden sesame seeds (煎堆); crispy chicken slathered with sesame seeds (not sesame chicken, by the way!). The Japanese love their sesame seeds no less: from their gorgeous, gorgeous (and pricey!) black sesame paste that you smear onto bread
By contrast - and correct me if I'm wrong - sesame seeds seem to have a peripheral place in Western food culture. True, there're a few (untoasted) sesame seeds on top of an McDonald's bun, which seem to be there for the look rather than the taste. There's tahini of course, but then it's more Middle Eastern... Oh, by the way, the magic phrase 'open sesame' may not have anything to do with sesames at all.
The sesame biscuit recipe below is one that I've adapted from Anita Chu's wonderful cookie book. It's a great compendium of all the cookies that you can (or cannot) think of. She also has a great blog too so be sure to check it out if you have a sweet tooth!
|Not exactly picture-perfect but tastes pretty good, dare I say!|
Since I'm trying to recreate a Chinese flavour in these biscuits, I'm using lard to replace half of the butter. Most traditional Chinese pastries are made with lard, and it has a meaty flavour which may be challenging to people who aren't raised on it. I remember when I travelled to Spain I was quite shocked by how their pastries tasted like Chinese ones - I guess they use lard over there too? Like Chinese people, Spaniards are big pork eaters, so it's not surprising that they would make good use of the fat too. If the very thought of using lard scares you to death, remember that lard actually contains less cholesterol than butter! By all means use only butter if you prefer.
150g (10 tbsp) butter or lard, or a combination of both
1/4 tsp salt
80g (1/2 cup minus 2 tbsp) sugar
200g (1 1/4 cups plus 2 tbsp) all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp baking soda
100g (2/3 cup) toasted sesame seeds - a mixture of black and white sesame seeds is best I think
1. In a medium bowl, mix together the flour and baking soda with a whisk well.
2. Melt the butter and lard in a microwave till melted, about two minutes.
|Doesn't the lard look like a scoop of ice cream? :P|
3. Add the sugar, salt and egg to the melted fats. Mix with a spatula till everything is combined and forms a golden goop.
|Doesn't the unmelted lard look like a poached egg?|
|It still looks golden because of the butter.|
5. Add all of the flour mixture to the melted butter/lard and stir with a spatula to form a dough. When you cannot see any more flour particles, add all the sesame seeds and stir till the seeds are evenly dispersed.
6. Now let the dough rest for at least 30 minutes if you can. The flour will continue to absorb the liquid and fats in the dough and firm up in the meantime.
7. When ready to bake, set two racks in the oven and preheat to 150C/300F. The oven temperature is low so that it will bake evenly and thoroughly without burning the sides.
8. Line two large baking sheets with parchment paper, and scoop heaped tablespoonfuls of dough onto the sheets, leaving ample space between each ball. I tried to squeeze everything onto one baking sheet and they didn't have enough room. You can do better than me!
9. Now to ensure that they're thin, you have to flatten the dough as thin as you can. Instead of doing it one by one, this is what I do: place another parchment paper on top of the balls, and then place the other baking sheet on top. Press down as hard as you can on the upper baking sheet to flatten out the balls.
|As you could see I should have spaced the balls further apart. Fail.|
11. Repeat the same process for the dough pieces on the other baking sheet. Bake in the preheated oven for 25-30 minutes until golden brown. Rotate the baking sheets top to bottom halfway through. The biscuits should feel firm and dry when you press in the centre (unlike cookies).