I managed a coffee shop, in college.
It was called Parnassus, and it sat in the basement of the University of Washington's School of Art. As coffee shops go, it was deeply barebones, a low-ceilinged, dark, subterranean thing. (Yes, I know; ironic, the name. I think it was meant to reference the Muses, not so much the mountain. Though the views from the low-slung windowless room didn't exactly scream inspiration.)
Still, it was always as heavy on traffic as it was light on frills. Parnassus was a gas 'n go, in disguise, a pitstop for the students and profs of the art school, and for anyone passing by and in the know and in need of caffeine, carbohydrates, and conversation. Really, a view would have been a distraction.
Managing the thing was a full-time job, which was mostly the point. It paid my rent, and part of my tuition, and my not-insignificant coffee tab, besides. Win-win. It was also a real education. Over and above the degreed kind.
I learned a lot on that job: how to do payroll; how to pull a ristretto; how firing people, even problematic people who've failed to show up for three shifts in as many weeks, completely, unstintingly sucks. How eating five bagels a day, between meals, even if they're free, and really really good, might not be the best long-term strategy. How the world works. By way of a cookie.
Bear with me.
Parnassus, back in the day, sold serious quantities of food. We made none of it. Our kitchen facilities were limited to a mop sink and an old, wheezy Coca-Cola cooler, in which we kept a few soda pops in order to fulfill our contractual obligations, then hijacked the remaining nine-tenths for random food items that required refrigeration. We bought everything.
Before the crack of dawn, every morning, half a dozen local bakeries would deliver towers of wholesale-sized pink boxes, jam-packed with baked goods. Dozens and dozens Danishes, and coffee cake squares, and quick breads, and that is only the iceberg tip. Our standing order for bagels, alone, was 20 dozen. They arrived in a garbage bag. I always felt like Santa Claus, hoisting that mammoth sack over my shoulder. Like Santa with a seriously huge, seriously hungry, bagel-loving reindeer team.
Bagels aside, most of our inventory was egregiously over-sized and generally excessive. This was, after all (and *ouch*), the early nineties, which were, looking back, just a slightly modified eighties. Rustic hadn't happened yet. Organic wasn't a thing. Bite-sized and tapas and tasting menus hadn't trended, since the supersized nineties were their pre-req. Overkill was the way of the world, and baked goods were its poster child.
Think double-chocolate cream cheese "muffins". Think bloatware croissants. Think the monster cookie trend. We enabled that trend at every turn. We took that trend to new heights. We were so on board with that trend, you could have re-named us Mount Monster Cookie.
We carried them all. Ginger Twinkle. Double chocolate. Chocolate chip. But best of all: the 5" chocolate chip monster cookie, dipped in still more chocolate, until half the frisbee cookie was encased in a thick 1/4" coat of the stuff. It weighed in at over half a pound. It made deep-fried Twinkies seem svelte. We sold some seven dozen, each week. And we're just talking the double-dipped sort.
You have the picture?
Enter the world's most anemic cookies.
Against this backdrop of gargantuan overwrought baroque, there were a few wallflowers. All of which came from the same woman whom we shall call, oh, Margaret. I don't remember her name, exactly, because she was as quiet as her cookies. She came by just every two weeks, with just two items, Mazurka Bars and Sesame Seed Cookies. I loved the Mazurkas because they were dense buttery bliss; went brilliantly with coffee; and kept forever, meaning we always had something to push under the sneeze guards when the day's forty-seven dozen pastries had sold, and famished art students were still appearing. The Sesame Seed Cookies, I didn't love. Didn't like. Didn't even understand.
I was baffled.
I was also overwhelmed. Hands more than full with my full class load and that management learning curve, I dutifully took in each bi-monthly box, dumped them in a jar, and moved on. For months, I meant to cancel the order, sure there must have been a mistake. Sure these pallid biscuits didn't belong. Sure we could move more bigger, better product.
Except, this: By the time I finally got around to getting my act together and revising our order, I'd noticed a few things. Like the Finance Professor who came, every day, for tea and two Sesame Seed Cookies. And her colleague, who picked up three, daily. And the art school administrator who did the same. And the surprising frequency with which all manner of undergrads and grad students and visiting professors and artist's models would grab a clutch of tiny white biscuits. Every day. (I say pick up as opposed to buy, because we always fed those models for free. Something to do with their knee-length bathrobes, and their nothing else, and the fact that we hardly wanted them fishing around in non-existent jeans for non-existent cash.)
And when I actually reviewed our order? Seemed we sold some six dozen, every two weeks.
How was this even possible?
I was shocked. And curious. Curious enough to actually try one of the much-maligned-by-me biscuits. See, they were so mild-mannered, so clearly inferior, it hadn't even occurred to me to try one. Read: I was so wise, so all-knowing, so superior, I'd made sweeping snap judgments, based on bupkis.
This would be where the life lessons come in.
Not dramatic ones, deus-ex-machina style. When I finally tried one of the plain jane seed-studded biscuits, I was ... satisfied. Not overcome. Not underwhelmed. Just, satisfied. Pleased. Pleased enough to greenlight our standing order. Pleased enough to reach in again, the next day. And the next. And so on.
And before I knew it (cue the character development), I realized I liked the Sesame Seed Cookies. Truly. Fully. A great deal. They filled a hole, real and wide, that no other baked good we stocked could approach. They were that small, just-sweet, crunchy something that were the perfect sidekick to coffee. Or to tea. Or to lunch. Or as lunch. All while leaving you smiling and happy. And without leaving you comatose. Which was much, much more than any flying saucer-sized cookie could claim.
The Sesame Seed Cookie Complex quickly ensued.
Because I was in college, and a history major, and an insufferable undergrad, broad sweeping theories were where it was at, and I spied meta-truths everywhere. But especially, in those ivory, oblong cookies. For months, I marvelled over how I'd been blindsided by the Sesame Seed Cookies' success. How I'd missed their essential merits. Their innate appeal. Their (not quite) obvious role. Basically, by the fact that others could see past their bland, pale packaging; through to their hushed goodness; and leap on that faith.
I'd been stoopid.
And I wasn't about to repeat my mistake.
The Sesame Seed Cookie Complex became (and remained) one of my enduring lodestars, and a regular gut-check. In my early working years, it was a reminder that my perspective was just that, and thus, laughably limited. It was, and is, a steady correction to my world view, a reminder that different doesn't equal wrong. That covers mislead. That with impressions, "first" rhymes with "worst". That this is the Universe making fun.
The Sesame Seed Cookie Complex sat (and sits) as a reliable burr in my mind, a constant nudge to not just look, but to see. So terribly much harder. To drop assumptions. To do the dirty, uncomfortable, essential work of digging in. Deep. It serves, to this day, as explanation of how some weird people eat capers. Plural. Voluntarily. And claim to like them. This one's still a little abstract for me. I and my complex are a work in progress.
So were the cookies that inspired it, for a terribly long time. For years, I scoured cookbooks for a facsimile of those cookies. I found some. I tried them all. None were the one. Some had olive oil, or red wine, or a surfeit of sugar, and the name benne wafer. Many were good cookies. Some very. But not a one was The Sesame Seed Cookie.
I grieved. And all but gave up.
And then, last year, as I paged through Leslie Mackie's second cookbook, I spotted a recipe for semolina sesame seed cookies. And stopped in my tracks. And read it like a spy thriller. It had the ring of truth, right on the page. The week wasn't out before I'd made a batch. Bingo.
Or close enough. I tweaked here and there, as is my weakness, removing the egg (which I've never found improves shortbread), adding seeds to the dough, streamlining the shape. Trivia, this. At heart, this was The Sesame Seed Cookie of my memory.** At very long last.
Key to this cookie is the pure butter base, plus Mackie's brilliant mix of ordinary flour and semolina, that slightly coarse, pale yellow grind of wheat often called for in fresh pasta recipes. The semolina is key. It adds this excellent, thrumming crunch, a finely-tuned sandy affair, that complements the sesame beautifully. The seeds, for their part, do that thing that they do, each snappy seed popping on contact with the tooth. Like caviar. Minus the fish. And minus the eggs. But the rest! (Never mind.)
This feast of texture, subtle, splendid, is set into the greater narrative of shortbread, that classic caramelized crisp-crumble that only butter-fraught flour can pull off. They eat like an expert soliloquoy on crunch, underscored by this quiet ripcurrent of flavor. They are just the thing with a cup of coffee, though—and I'm no tea drinker—I think they and tea are sort of like fate.
It is a profoundly minimalist cookie, pale, monotone, unabashedly anemic. To the eye. That superficial fool. I've no doubt they'll be the last on the cookie trays, passed over for the jam-filled and chocolate-covered, the powdered and sprinkled, the frosted and the flashy. This pleases me no end. Lucky devils, those Johnny-come-latelies. Because I know this is arguably the best cookie of the bunch. That it's liable to haunt a person for decades. And that, once sampled (however long that takes), The Sesame Seed Cookie stays with a person, for a very long time.
The (Prodigal) Sesame Seed Cookie
adapted from More From Macrina, by Leslie Mackie
yield: 30-36 1" cookies
I've tried these without the semolina, and they are not the same cookie; a faded version, like a photo left too long in the sun. Do find some. Semolina flour is inexpensive and available at most grocery stores (often from Bob's Red Mill), as well as King Arthur Flour. Sesame seeds are best bought in bulk, both for freshness and price. Check your nearest bulk aisle or, my favorite, your local Asian grocery. I pick up 5 pound bags (!) for $10 (!!!). (Take that, tiny $4 jars in the spice aisle.) Store sesame seeds (and excess semolina) in the freezer, where they will remain fresh for years, and can be used forthright, without defrosting.
I am deeply tempted to try these with black sesame seeds.
Mackie shapes each cookie into an "S", the traditional form. For the puck shape you see here, and the genius damp hand hack, I owe thanks to Prune and Gabrielle Hamilton, whose recipe this isn't, but whose technique this is.
8 Tbs. (1/2 cup; 4 oz.) salted butter
1/3 cup + 1 Tbs. granulated sugar
1/4 tsp. kosher salt
3/4 cup + 2 Tbs. unbleached, all-purpose flour
1/2 cup + 1 Tbs. semolina flour
1 1/4 cup sesame seeds, divided
Place two racks in the center of the oven, and preheat to 325 degrees. Line two rimmed baking sheets with parchment, and set aside.
In the bowl of a stand mixer, fitted with the paddle attachment, cream butter, sugar and salt until light and fluffy, 5 minutes. Scrape bowl, and sprinkle flour, semolina, and 1/4 cup sesame seeds (reserving remaining 1 cup for rolling) democratically, over the butter mixture. (Standard disclaimer: proper baking technique has you sift the two together, in advance, in a bowl. I am not proper. Proceed at your own risk.) Mix on low, just until combined, about 1 minute.
Get ready to roll: Scrape dough from sides and beater, and turn over (or knead) a few times in the bowl, to ensure a homogenous dough. Pour remaining 1 cup of sesame seeds into a second, wide, shallow bowl. Fill a third small bowl with cool water; you will use this to dampen your fingers. Fetch your two lined trays. Ready! I find the rolling most easily done if every stage is completed, before moving onto the next step. This saves you from the dreaded-sesame-seed fingers.
Roll tablespoons of dough into jawbreaker-sized balls. Repeat, until all dough has been rolled. Barely flatten each ball into a thick puck, roughly 1" wide and 1/2" tall. Repeat, until all balls are pucks, placing each puck cheek-to-jowl on one sheet. Now the dredge: Dampen one hand in the water bowl, flicking off any excess (dripping) water. Pick up a puck with the damp hand, handling it a bit to dampen most surfaces, then gently drop into the bowl of sesame seeds. (The goal here is to keep the damp hand from coming into contact with the seeds. A gentle "drop" from a 1/4" height will do the job nicely.) With the other, dry hand, sprinkle seeds over the top of the puck, then with the same dry hand, rotate puck once or twice, to coat well with seeds, pressing gently to embed. Remove seeded puck, place on the empty cookie sheet, and repeat, re-dampening hands after every 2-3 pucks, until all pucks are seeded. Cookies can be spaced snugly, in 1" intervals, as they spread very little during baking.
(This process takes 4 times as long to read as to do. Each cookie takes perhaps 15 seconds to dampen and dredge. But I offer the blow by blow, because details make the difference between a lightning fast assembly line, and exiting the process looking as if you've been tarred and feathered. Only buttered and seeded. The whole batch takes, perhaps, ten minutes.)
Bake in the preheated oven for 18-20 minutes, or until cookies are going gold, at the edges, rotating trays top to bottom, front to back, at the halfway point. Cool on baking sheet for 5 minutes, then remove to a wire rack, to cool.
Stored airtight, sesame seed cookies store beautifully for at least 3 weeks.
*I've just googled Parnassus, for kicks and, wow. First, it's still there. Second, I hardly recognize the place, what with it's white walls and shiny glass cases. Back in the day, the walls were a sort of sludge-slate-gray. No matter. I have fond memories of those subterranean years.
*I've always wondered about those Mazurkas and Sesame Seed Cookies, their origins, their fate. I never saw them anywhere else, and missed them mightily when I left. And then, when noodling around for this post, I found this amazing bit of investigative mazurka bar journalism, and grinned hard. Seems finding my long-lost Sesame Seed Cookies in Mackie's cookbook was no fluke at all, but the logical end of a long, winding tale of Seattle bakers and bakeries.