Benne Seed Wafers, Cookies, and Cake

The following post is based on a web page written by Dennis Adams (Information Services Coordinator, Retired) for the old Beaufort County Library website at various points between 1998 and 2007.  Created: 21 December 2017 – Grace Cordial 

Benne Seeds

South Carolina’s foodways have always been a stew pot of African, Native American and European culture. According to Pat Branning’s Shrimp, Collards & Grits cookbook,  enslaved Africans imported benne seeds to America, perhaps inadvertently, because the seeds were included in necklaces meant to attract good luck to the wearer. Charleston County Library’s Public Historian, Dr. Nic Butler, did a little investigating and determined that the precise origin of benne seeds in the lowcountry is somewhat uncertain. Debbi Covington explains in her Celebrate Everything! cookbook that although the name “benne” sounds exotic, the term is just another name applied to sesame seeds. Favored for their nutty taste and light crunchiness, benne seeds can be added to all sorts of recipes. By tradition here in lowcountry South Carolina, it is considered lucky to grow and eat benne seeds.

Wafers and cookies made from benne seeds are now a part of Kwanzaa (“first fruit” in Swahili), the African-American family festival that lasts from December 26 through January 1.

Harriott Simons Marshall’s “Benne Seed Cookies” recipe in Charleston Receipts, as tweaked by Paul W. Murphey of Richland Center, Wisconsin and web administrator Dennis Adams in 1999 is:


3/4 cup butter
1 1/2 cups brown sugar
2 eggs
1 1/2 cups flour
1/2 cup sesame seeds
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/4 teaspoon baking powder


Cream butter and sugar together (OPTIONAL: Add just a “jot” of sesame oil to the butter and sugar while creaming the mixture) and mix with other ingredients in the order given. Drop with a teaspoon onto a well-greased cookie pan, far enough apart to allow spreading while baking. Bake in a 325 degree F oven for 7-10 minutes. (Yield: 7 dozen.)

“Sister Emma’s Bene’ Cookies” attributed to by Helen H. Ladson appears in the Penn School & Sea Islands Heritage Cookbook:


1 c. brown sugar

1 c. bene’, toasted

1 egg

2 heaping Tbsp. flour

2 Tbsp. butter, melted

1 tsp. vanilla

1/2 tsp. baking powder

pinch of salt


Cream egg and sugar, add flour, butter and vanilla. Add bene’ last (be sure bene’ is cool.) Drop by teaspoons on greased floured sheet. Bake in moderate 375° oven for 8 to 10 minutes.

Cookbook author Pat Branning offers this recipe for “Benne Seed Cookies” in Shrimp, Collards & Grits:


1 cup Benne seeds

1 1/2 cup dark brown sugar, firmly packed

1 cup all-purpose flour

1/4 teaspoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 cup butter, melted

1 egg

1 teaspoon vanilla


Toast benne seeds on ungreased baking sheets until light brown, 10 – 12 minutes will bring out their flavor and give cookies a slightly crunchy texture. Heat oven to 375°. Mix all ingredients in a large bowl. Drop by 1/2 teaspoonfuls 1 1/2 inches apart onto greased baking sheets. Cool about 2 minutes before removing from baking sheets to a wire rack to cool completely.

Chef Debbi Covington ratchets up the potential for good luck and an eye-pleasing food presentation by baking a “Benne Seed Cake with Honey Frosting” using both hulled and unhulled sesame seeds in her New Year’s dessert:

INGREDIENTS for the cake:

1/3 cup benne (sesame) seeds

2 teaspoons black sesame seeds

1 (15.25-ounce) yellow cake mix

1 (3.4-ounce) package instant vanilla pudding

1 cup buttermilk

1/2 cup vegetable oil

1/4 cup honey

3 eggs

INGREDIENTS for the frosting:

1 stick butter, softened

1 (8-ounce) package cream cheese, softened

1/4 cup heavy cream

1/4 cup honey

1/2 cup powdered sugar

Toasted benne seeds and black sesame seeds, to garnish


Toast benne seeds in a preheated 350 degree oven for 3 to 5 minutes. Set aside to cool. In a mixing bowl, combine cake mix, instant pudding, buttermilk, oil, honey and eggs; mix with an electric mixer until all ingredients are combined. Stir in benne seeds and black sesame seeds. Pour into a greased and floured sheet cake pan. Bake in a preheated 350 degree oven for 35 to 40 minutes or until toothpick inserted in center of cake comes out clean. Cool cake in pan on a wire rack. In a medium bowl, with an electric mixer, cream butter, cream cheese, heavy cream and honey. Add powdered sugar and mix until smooth. Spread on cooled cake. Garnish with benne seeds and balck sesame seeds. Serves 12.

Covington says: “The difference between white and black sesame seeds are that the black seeds still have their hulls.”

The Beaufort Cookbook: A Treasury of Carolina Recipes includes a recipe for “Benne Candy”:


1 pound brown sugar
1 1/2 cups benne seed, parched
2 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup milk
1 teaspoon vanilla


Boil sugar with milk until it begins to thread. Remove from heat and beat in benne seed. Add vanilla and beat until creamy. Pour out into buttered pan and cut into small squares.


The Beaufort Cookbook: A Treasury of Carolina Recipes collected by Dee Hryharrow and Isabel M. Hoogenboom. Beaufort, SC: Beaufort Book Shop, 1965.

Benne Seeds in the Lowcountry” in the Charleston Time Machine blog by Nicholas Butler 24 April 2015. Accessed 21 December 2017

Celebrate Everything!: Delicious Menus for Festive Gatherings and Easy Entertaining by Debbi Covington. Hilton Head Island (S.C.) : Lydia Inglett Ltd., [2012].

Charleston Receipts collected by the Junior League of Charleston. Charleston, S.C. : Junior League of Charleston, 1950.

Penn School & Sea Islands Heritage Cookbook: A Collection of Recipes sponsored by the Penn Heritage Celebration Committee. [S.l.] : Fundcraft Publishing, Inc., c1978.

Shrimp, Collards & Grits: Recipes, Stories and Art from the Creeks and Gardens of the Lowcountry by Pat Branning. Hilton Head Island (S.C.) : Lydia Inglett Ltd., 2011.

Note: Current hours and branch locations are posted on the Beaufort County Library’s (SC) website.

Please contact the Beaufort District Collection at (843) 255-6468 or e-mail for additional information about local history and archives relating to the people, places, and themes of the history, culture, and natural environment of Beaufort County, Jasper County, and Hampton County, South Carolina.

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