I didn’t set out to make a cookie appropriate for the Olympics; I just wanted to get rid of an entire unopened jar of Chinese toasted sesame paste. Serendipitously, though, these actually would be a suitable addition to a Beijing Games-watching party. Full of toasty sesame flavor and not overly sweet, a couple of these soft gems and some fruit would fit nicely into an Asian-themed dinner.
I can’t even remember why we bought the sesame paste in the first place. We can’t have had a specific recipe in mind, or I would have opened it before now. I think it was just one of those impulse purchases at the Asian grocery, an “Ooo, that looks neat. Let’s get some” snatch off a store shelf, followed by an interminable limbo on the cupboard shelf. I should have used it ages ago for cold sesame noodles, a traditional application for sesame paste, but I’m so used to making noodles with peanut sauce instead that it didn’t come to mind until I was looking for my next elimination candidate.
In the middle of the “D’oh!” headslapping over noodle applications, it occurred to me that the reverse could also apply: where normally I would use peanut butter, this dark, rich sesame emulsion should work equally well. Having successfully used alternate nut butters in basic peanut butter cookies before (cashew-macadamia is particularly elegant), I pulled out my go-to recipe for extra-peanutty cookies from the Cook’s Illustrated crew, and threw in the half-tub of sesame seeds that has lived on my island for the last three months.
An east-west fusion of a Chinese specialty ingredient and a quintessentially American treat, these have a delicate crunch from the seeds and a deep, almost smoky sesame flavor. The only demerit is their less-than-beauteous color. They’re a dull terra-cotta, nowhere near as interesting in hue as a Qin Dynasty clay warrior, but I’m confident that they’re much tastier and less likely to break either your teeth or international artifact appropriation laws. If you can get the presentation past the artistic merit judge, I think these are at least bronze-medal worthy.
If your closing ceremony party needs another entry, I just remembered that I had taken a previous jaunt into Chinese-inspired cookiedom with these Five-Spice Molasses Cookies, which are silver-medal worthy, Russian judge or no Russian judge.
Chinese Sesame Cookies
Makes approx. 7 dozen
1 1/3 cups sesame seeds
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
1 cup (7 oz) packed brown sugar
1 cup (7 oz) granulated sugar
1 8-oz jar (1 cup) Chinese toasted sesame paste
2 1/2 cups (12 1/2 oz) all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
2 large eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla paste
Preheat oven to 350 F, and line several baking sheets with parchment paper.
Spread the sesame seeds on a small sheet pan and toast in the oven, stirring periodically, until golden. Set aside to cool while preparing the cookie dough.
In a stand mixer, beat together the butter and sugars until fluffy and light. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and add the sesame paste, beating until fully incorporated. Scrape down again and beat in the eggs, one at a time, then the vanilla.
Whisk together the flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt, then mix gently into the butter mixture. Add the cooled sesame seeds to the dough and mix at low speed until just incorporated.
Scoop dough by the tablespoon onto the lined cookie sheets, spacing two inches apart. Using a fork, squish each ball down as you would with peanut butter cookies.
Bake until the cookies are puffed in the middle and browned on the edges, 11-12 minutes. Cool the cookies on the sheet until firm enough to lift to a cooling rack, where they should cool completely.
If you don’t have ready access to an Asian grocery and your regular market’s “ethnic” aisle doesn’t carry toasted sesame paste, you could turn these back into peanut butter cookies with the same amount of chunky peanut butter and a cup of lightly salted, roasted peanuts, ground into a fine gravel in the food processor. 1 1/2 cups of chocolate chips, should you be so inclined, would hardly go amiss.
If you do have access to an Asian grocery and want to get really exotic, you could try black sesame paste and seeds instead, which will give these an even smokier flavor and a color probably closer to volcanic ash than terra cotta.
Next time, just for an additional crunch and sparkle, I might add a sprinkle of raw sugar on top of the cookies before baking.