I’ve long admired black sesame seeds for the touch of mystery and glamor they add to everything from seared tuna to burger buns. But these days, I’m craving these tiny shards of onyx for their intense nuttiness and subtle sweetness.
In the Middle East and the Far East, sesame seeds are a huge component of the diet. I can’t imagine a childhood without tahini, the paste made from white sesame seeds that gives hummus its luscious velvety texture and delicate nutty undertone. The white seeds also are used to make halva, a sticky, chewy dessert that transforms on your tongue from a texture much like straw to a river of sesame sweetness.
Many cultures also cook with sesame oil, both in its toasted and untoasted forms. In India, where the first cultivated strand originated, we mix sesame seeds with jaggery (unfiltered cane sugar) to make a kind of brittle. But it’s the Far Eastern cultures that really embrace black sesame seeds. Chinese medicine suggests eating them for all manner of health benefits, even preventing premature greying!
Prized for their deep nutty flavour, the seeds find their way into desserts, too. Black sesame paste is used in fillings for mooncakes and is churned into ice creams. I like to think of the flavour as a lighter, more refined peanut butter.
Here I make a black sesame sugar for my monkey bread. Use leftover sugar as an alternative topping to your cinnamon-sugar toast, over oatmeal, or even on your popcorn!
BLACK SESAME-ORANGE MONKEY BREAD MUFFINS
This recipe does best when baked in a 6-cup jumbo muffin pan with parchment lotus cup liners. If you can’t find toasted sesame seeds, heat a medium skillet over medium. Add the sesame seeds and heat, shaking the pan often until the seeds are fragrant and ever so slightly smoking. Immediately remove from the heat and pour onto a large plate to cool.
Start to finish: 30 minutes
1/2 cup black sesame seeds, toasted
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup packed dark brown sugar
Two 16.3-ounce cans refrigerated original flaky biscuits
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
1/4 cup honey
Zest of a quarter of an orange
For the garnish:
Black sesame seeds, toasted
White sesame seeds, toasted
Heat the oven to 375 F.
Place the black sesame seeds into a spice grinder or small food processor. Add both sugars and a big pinch of salt. Process until finely and evenly ground. Pour the black sesame-sugar mixture into a gallon zip-close bag and set aside.
Pop open the cans of biscuits, then cut each biscuit into 6 even pieces (cut each round in half, then cut each of those halves into 3 pieces). Drop them into the plastic bag, seal and shake with zeal. Don’t worry if some of the pieces stick together and don’t get covered in the black sugar. These bits will go golden brown in the oven and make your monkey bread even prettier! Set aside.
In a small saucepan over medium-low, melt the butter. Stir in the honey and continue to stir vigorously until the honey dissolves into the butter. Remove the pan from the heat and add a pinch of salt and the orange zest.
Line the muffin pan with the lotus cups. Place 6 to 7 pieces of sugar-encrusted biscuit dough in each cup, pushing them together slightly. Pour 1 tablespoon of the honey-butter mixture over each cup, then sprinkle with black and white sesame seeds. Top with a pinch of salt, then bake for 15 to 17 minutes, or until golden brown. Allow to cool in the muffin pan for 5 minutes, then remove the cups to a rack to cool. Repeat with remaining mixture. Serve warm.
Food Network star Aarti Sequeira is the author of “Aarti Paarti: An American Kitchen with an Indian Soul.” She blogs at www.aartipaarti.com.