Tip My Toque: Old Bay Seasoning

Here on the coast of South Carolina, it’s the time of year when the shrimp boats are blessed by local ministers. Blessings and prayers are made for a safe season and a bountiful catch. There are also many seafood festivals along the coastline for shrimp and blue crab. [Oyster season is traditionally over until next fall.]

Since it is seafood festival season, I was curious about the story behind Old Bay seasoning.

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Old Bay hails from the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland. It was created by Gustav Brunn, a German immigrant, in the early 1940s. It contains allspice, bay leaf, black pepper, cardamom, celery seed, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, mace, nutmeg, paprika, red pepper, and salt. (In recent years, a lower salt variety has been introduced to the product line.)

Old Bay was named for the Old Bay Line, a steamship that made regular trips between Baltimore and Norfolk in the early 20th century.

It’s trademark packaging is a mustard yellow canister or label, with 2 perpendicular royal blue bands on the left side. In the horizontal blue bar, OLD BAY is written in bold white capital letters. Seventy years later, the packaging has a unmistakable look and a vintage quality. Old Bay had consistent branding, long before everyone was talking about the importance of “branding”. And it continues today.

In the Chesapeake area, Old Bay is offered as a condiment in movie theaters, at delis, sandwich franchises, and many restaurants. In other areas, Old Bay is available at any establishment serving fish and shellfish.

While it was designed for seafood, other uses include seasoning popcorn, cooked eggs, potato chips, tater tots, french fries, corn on the cob, and salads.

What are….Tahini Benne Wafers?

I thought it would be interesting to try tahini in the Lowcountry classic, the benne wafer, in lieu of butter. I am BakingKookys, after all. Today I brought these Tahini Benne Wafers to a lunch meeting.

People tried the cookies. But I learned that not many people knew what tahini or a benne wafer was.

But that’s okay, because:

  • In Charleston, just about everybody is from somewhere else anymore, so I wouldn’t expect non-natives to know our foodways.
  • Food is something we all share, yet it’s full of mysteries. Food has a boundless vocabulary.

Food education is one of the reasons I started this blog.

I think it’s safe to say if you like nut flavors, you will like tahini.

Tahini is sesame seed paste. It’s much like creamy peanut butter, but imagine sesame seeds were used instead of peanuts. When you buy a jar or can of tahini,  its oil has separated from the drier, thicker paste. Before using it, you will want to stir it up to redistribute the oil with the paste.  [You’ve probably noticed your peanut butter develop a pool of oil on top if you haven’t used it for a few weeks, too.]

You can also make your own tahini with a bag of sesame seeds and food processor. Just pour them in, put on the lid and grind away. Store the liquid in a bowl. It does not have to be refrigerated and it never spoils.

If you wish to buy a jar or can of tahini at a local US supermarket, it is usually in the same aisle as other foreign specialty packaged foods. In the South, the Mexican, Chinese, Thai, Indian and Israeli packaged foods are shelved all on one row. Tahini is also available online at Amazon.

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And what are benne wafers? They are crunchy sesame seed cookies created in coastal South Carolina and Georgia. “Benne” is the Bantu word for the sesame seed; as you may have guessed, benne wafers are an African creation, like Charleston’s sweetgrass baskets.

For traditional Benne wafers, whole sesame seeds are toasted in the oven on a foiled cookie sheet. I toasted mine at 400ºF for less than a minute. Once they were cool, I poured them into a small bowl.

In a separate small bowl, mix the wet ingredients: half a stick (or 4 tablespoons) of unsalted butter; 1 beaten egg; 1 teaspoon lemon juice; and 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract. In a separate larger bowl, combine the dry ingredients: 1 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar, 1/4 teaspoon salt, 1/8 teaspoon baking powder, and 1/2 cup of bread flour.

Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients. Stir. Last, add the toasted sesame seeds. Stir until the seeds are evenly distributed. Then roll out two 6″ disks of dough between 2 sheets of wax paper. Ch them for 1/2-1 hour. Cut out circles (or another desired shape) and place on a cookie sheet. Bake at 325ºF for 15 minutes each. Allow to cool, then serve.

For my Tahini Benne Wafers, I replaced the butter with 4 tablespoons of tahini. The cookies had a very rich sesame flavor. Next time, I may attempt other shapes.

NOTE: The sesame seed is high in protein and many nutrients. Rather than indulging in an afternoon sugar fix that will only make you sleepy later, seeds, nuts, and nut spreads like tahini, provide lasting energy.

Tahini is also used in hummus along with crushed chickpeas (aka garbanzo beans), fresh minced garlic, and other herbs. Hummus is a dip served with toasted pita bread as an appetizer at Greek, Lebanese, and Middle Eastern-themed restaurants.