'The true cook is the perfect blend, the only perfect blend, of artist and philosopher. He knows his worth: he holds in his palm the happiness of mankind, the welfare of generations yet unborn.'

Saturday, 20 October 2012

Thin and crispy sesame biscuits 香脆芝麻餅

In my earlier post on shortbread, I wrote about my predilection for crisp biscuits rather than soft cookies. The biscuits that I am sharing today are thin, shattery and loaded with nutty sesame seeds. Like the whipped cream cake that I made a few days ago, they are extremely easy to make and perfect for those who are sceptical about baking.

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 or eat with a spoon; the authentic dip for a pork cutlet (tonkatsu) involves grounding sesame seeds yourself right before mixing in the brown tonkatsu sauce; likewise a healthy sprinkling of sesame seeds on ramen is de rigueur. (Incidentally, sprinkling sesame seeds onto instant noodles makes them a lot more palatable...) Last but not least, there's the ubiquitous sesame oil which has made its way beyond Asia into kitchens worldwide.

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.

One sesame product that I've always enjoyed is sesame biscuits. As you bite into a piece, you feel a zillion sesame seeds explode in your mouth sending out waves of nutty aromas. As with all nuts, it is crucial that sesame seeds are roasted to release all their potent aromas. Since sesame seeds are so tiny, it's difficult to roast them evenly in the oven. The traditional Asian way is to toast them slowly on a dry pan until your room is filled with sesame fragrance and you could see some of the seeds bouncing on the pan.

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.

Fear not!

Thin and crispy sesame biscuits 香脆芝麻餅

150g (10 tbsp) butter or lard, or a combination of both
1/4 tsp salt
80g (1/2 cup minus 2 tbsp) sugar
1 egg
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.
4. Now your simple job is to mix these three bowls together.

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.

10. Peel off the parchment paper on top and reveal the flattened dough pieces.

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).

12. Remove from the oven and cool completely on the baking sheets. Store in an airtight container to keep them crispy.


  1. Thank you for this recipe. I was on the lookout for this recipe for a long time. I baked these cookies and they taste great. However, the color of the cookies stay doughish and not brown as shown in your picture. How do I get the brown color? Thanks, bakerP

    1. Did you use baking soda (rather than baking powder)? Using baking soda results in browner cookies, and if you used baking soda you should be able to get some good browning. Also, did you bake the cookies slowly and thoroughly? I'm guessing that you may not have bake them long enough - they should be cooked through. See if this helps!

  2. I baked this a while ago & it was really good! Thank you so much for sharing your recipe!