It's so thrilling to have a culinary coup. I'm quite certain it's happened to you too. You know how it goes--you eat something remarkable somewhere and simply can't get it out of your mind. You try and try to recreate it and then, as if by magic, you suddenly find the missing key and voila--you've mastered it.
Funnily enough, it's often the simplest things that make the biggest impression and are the hardest to replicate.
In this instance, it was the appetizer I ate on my birthday in April at Husk in Charleston that kept me up at night puzzling on just how did he do it? The "he" was chef Sean Brock who, it appears, was here in town last weekend. The "it" was the pimento cheese appetizer...well, not the pimento cheese (since I think mine is pretty close to his) but those dreamy benne crackers he served it with. I considered going down to Pasture and pouncing on him to get the scoop, but instead, decided to give it the ole' college try one last time.
I've made benne biscuits and benne bits many times from an array of recipes including those of my pal Harriett (an authentic Charlestonian) and from my beloved James Villas. Theirs' were certainly the best I tried, however, I just felt they needed a little extra something in order to transition from dear little rounds to proper crackers with a certain amount of heft needed to withstand the copious amounts of pimento cheese I intended to heap onto their crunchy backs.
What that little something turned out to be, I decided, after I read one last recipe by Edna Lewis, the grande dame of southern cooking, was a whole bunch more benne (sesame seeds) and the merest suggestion of some leavening. Miss Lewis called for lard in her "beni wafers" and I will admit to going to two places looking for it, and leaving in disgust when all I could find was not what any self-respecting Southerner would consider using--bursting with preservatives and chemicals--with nary a pig in site. Crisco would just have to do.
As I was getting cranked up, giving my benne a golden toasting, a good old low country harbinger stopped by my window to see how I was doing, so I thought perhaps I was on the right track.
He hung around to watch the whole process and when the crackers emerged from the oven, they perfectly captured what I had envisioned. The heron decided to celebrate by buzzing down to my pond and helping himself to a snack of my beloved 4-year-old goldfish, Goldie. I was distraught of course, but at least I could console myself with lashings of pimento cheese heaped atop sturdy benne crackers.. Oh yes, one thing chef Brock did do, was add shavings of country ham to his pimento cheese which, I gotta hand it to him, is a stupendous addition.
I'll be carrying my latest creation to the mountain-top to share with pimento-cheese-loving friends over the weekend. Methinks that heron had a lean and hungry look, and I just hope my frog, la Grande Grenouille, will still be here when I get home. If not, I've got plenty more benne seeds in the pantry in case I need to make an emergency batch of condolence crackers for myself.
1 cup benne seeds (sesame seeds)
3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
2/3 cup Crisco
2/3 cup milk, plus more to be added 1 tablespoon at a time until proper consistency is attained
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Put the sesame seeds on the baking sheet and toast them in the preheated oven. After 5 minutes stir them well to ensure even browning and continue cooking until they are evenly toasted, about 10 - 12 minutes. Do not let them burn! Remove them from the oven and allow them to cool completely.
Mix the flour, baking powder and salt into a large bowl. Cut the Crisco in with a pastry cutter, two knives or even your fingers until it is the texture of course meal. Stir in the cooled sesame seeds and the 2/3 cup of milk. Mix just until blended and add more milk,if necessary, 1 tablespoon at a time until the dough just holds together. Knead it quickly until it becomes a cohesive ball and roll it out as thinly as possible, to about the thickness of a quarter.
With a sharp knife, form long rectangular crackers and transfer them to an ungreased baking sheet.
Bake in the preheated oven for about 13 minutes, until the crackers are a deep golden brown. Remove them from the oven and cool on a rack. Keep them in an airtight container for up to a week. Serve with pimento cheese with country ham shavings mixed in.
--inspired by chef Sean Brock and Edna Lewis.