Cookies and sesame seeds for story on baking with Tahini . Don Denton food photography

Baking With Tahini Recipes from Chef Heidi Fink

Sesame Butter is perfect for cookies, cakes and brownies

  • Nov. 5, 2018 2:05 p.m.

Story and Recipes by Chef Heidi Fink

Story courtesy of Boulevard Magazine, a Black Press Media publication

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I’ve recently become obsessed with tahini, that delicious raw sesame butter we might know as the magic ingredient in hummus.

It’s mostly familiar to us in the West as a savoury ingredient, but its creamy, rich, nutty and complex flavour makes tahini a perfect partner in variety of baking projects. Tahini has been used in desserts in the Middle East for a long time, and we are only just catching up.

The idea of baking tahini into desserts will come as no surprise to anyone who loves halvah, a delicious fudge-like treat available at any grocery store. Halvah is made from ground sesame or tahini mixed with honey and other flavourings (chocolate is a perennial favourite); it is absolutely delicious, and exemplifies everything that makes sesame great as a “sweet” ingredient. Sesame Chocolate Chip Cookies anyone?

With that in mind, I’ve been exploring the world of tahini-baking and I’m hooked. Not only does tahini provide the natural oils and starches that make all nut and seed butters superstars in the pastry shop, it also has a complex, delicate flavour: a mixture of sweet creaminess and slight bitterness, which makes it a standout in the world of baking.

I’ve found that I can replace it almost one-for-one in recipes requiring peanut butter; if I boost the tahini with toasted sesame oil, the “peanutty” flavour is quite marked — great news for those with peanut allergies who want something approximating a peanut flavour. Otherwise, I like to leave the toasted sesame oil out — I much prefer the delicate halvah-like flavour of cookies, cakes, brownies, etc. made with straight raw tahini.

Tahini has a grainier texture and higher starch content than other nut butters I have worked with, but only a few rounds of (delicious!) testing were necessary to exploit these qualities to their best advantage in baking. My favourite result was the Tahini Banana Cake (below), where both the oils and starches in the tahini helped create a wonderful texture in the cake crumb (not to mention an amazing flavour). Tahini is also a perfect match to the richness of chocolate brownies — I used it below in a decadent, two-tone swirl brownie recipe.

I had a lot of fun exploring flavours and textures while baking my way through four jars of tahini. Some natural sweet pairings with sesame tahini that I discovered: chocolate (of course); cardamom and other warm spices; pistachio and almond; honey; dates; banana; citrus; and, of course, roasted sesame seeds. Tahini matches beautifully with many baking favourites and has a wonderful effect on the texture and flavour of numerous treats. I hope you are inspired to try one of the recipes below, or to create or adapt one of your own.

Sprinkling seeds onto chai-spiced Tahini shortbread. Don Denton photography

CHAI-SPICED TAHINI SHORTBREAD

Makes 2 dozen shortbread cookies

A refined, adult cookie. Crisp, buttery and sandy, like a traditional French sablé cookie, with the beautiful aroma of chai spices. This shortbread is perfect for dipping in a cup of tea. The flavour of these cookies improve after a day or two. This recipe doubles easily.

140 g (10 Tbsp) soft butter

6.5 ml (1-1/4 tsp) ground cardamom

4 ml (3/4 tsp) ground Ceylon Cinnamon (OR ½ tsp regular cinnamon)

2.5 ml (1/2 tsp) ground ginger

70 g (1/3 cup) granulated sugar

70 g (1/3 cup) packed light brown sugar

2.5 ml (1/2 tsp) vanilla extract

65 g (1/4 cup) tahini, stirred before measuring

1.5 ml (1/4 tsp) salt

185 g (1-1/3 cup) all-purpose flour

Optional — approx. 60 ml (1/4 cup) sesame seed for garnish

In a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream butter with spices on medium speed until well blended. Add both sugars and mix again on medium speed until light and fluffy. Add the vanilla, tahini and salt; beat again until well mixed and fluffy. On low speed, stir in the flour until combined.

Roll the dough into a round log, about 5 cm (2 inches) in diameter and 30 cm (12 inches) long. Wrap tightly in plastic wrap. Refrigerate until firm, about 1 hour. (If you want the final cookies to be perfectly round, you can make the log a bit narrower and stuff it — after it is wrapped in plastic wrap — into the centre of the cardboard tube from an empty roll of paper towel. The cookies end up being quite a bit smaller, though, and more prone to drying out in the oven.)

Preheat oven to 325 F / 160 C. Lightly butter two cookie sheets.

Remove cookie dough from fridge and unwrap. Cut log into slices 1/2 cm (1/4 inch) thick. Roll cookies in toasted sesame seeds, if desired. Place cookies on the prepared cookie sheet, leaving at least 2 cm (3/4 inch) of space in between each cookie.

Bake cookies, one sheet at a time, for 7 to 10 minutes, until very lightly golden on the edges and cooked through the middle. Set on cookie sheet for one minute before transferring to a cooling rack. Once completely cool, store shortbread in a cookie tin for up to 8 days.

Eating Banana-Tahini-Date Snacking Cake with Sesame Streusel. Don Denton photography

BANANA-TAHINI-DATE SNACKING CAKE WITH SESAME STREUSEL

Makes one 25-cm / 10-inch round cake

The combination of bananas, sesame and dates is a match made in cake heaven. Both the natural oils and starches in the tahini enhance the texture and taste of this snacking cake. Feel free to add additional flavourings; good options include orange zest or ground cardamom. Do not skip the awesome sesame streusel on top!

Sesame Streusel:

14 g (1 Tbsp) soft butter

9 g (1 Tbsp) flour

25 g (2 Tbsp) sugar

30 g (3 Tbsp) toasted sesame seeds

Cake:

100 g (7 Tbsp) soft butter

200 g (1 cup) granulated sugar

130 g (1/2 cup) tahini, stirred before measuring

2 eggs

5 ml (1 tsp) vanilla extract

2 ripe bananas, mashed well (approx. 1 cup mashed)

8 Medjool dates, or 10 Deglet Noor dates, pitted and chopped

210 g (1-1/2 cups) all-purpose flour

2.5 ml (1/2 tsp) salt

5 ml (1 tsp) baking powder

2.5 ml (1/2 tsp) baking soda

For the sesame streusel: Combine all ingredients in a small bowl and mix well with your fingers until completely combined and uniformly mixed. Set aside.

For the cake: Preheat oven to 350 F / 175 C. Butter the bottom and sides of a 25 cm (10 inch) round spring form pan. Cut a piece of parchment into a round that will fix exactly on the bottom; place this in the cake pan and butter it as well. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, salt, baking powder and baking soda. Peel the bananas and break into pieces. Place these pieces in a small bowl and mash with a fork until smooth as possible. Make sure to have your dates already pitted and chopped before starting to mix the cake batter.

In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter and sugar on medium speed until light and fluffy. Add the tahini and blend again until light and fluffy. Add vanilla and eggs; beat mixture again until creamy and light.

With the mixer on low speed, mix in one third of the flour mixture. Stop the mixer to scrape down the sides of the bowl. With the mixer on low again, add one half the bananas. Stop and scrape down the sides. Do not over-beat. Repeat these steps three more times, until all the flour mixture and the bananas are used up. Add the chopped dates with the last addition of flour.

Scrape cake batter with a rubber spatula into prepared pan. Spread evenly and smooth the top. Sprinkle the sesame streusel evenly over the top. Place in the centre of the preheated oven and bake 35 to 45 minutes, until tester inserted in centre comes out with only a few moist crumbs clinging to it.

Remove to a cooling rack. Cool at least one hour before removing from the pan and cutting. This cake lasts about five days kept wrapped or in a cake tin.

Checking out the chocolate in a freshly baked Salted Tahini Chocolate Cookie. Don Denton photography

SALTED TAHINI CHOCOLATE COOKIES

Makes 3 dozen cookies.

Like an upscale peanut butter cookie, but with a refined halvah-like flavour. For a more intense sesame taste, add 5 ml

(1 tsp) toasted sesame oil to the batter and sprinkle the tops with toasted sesame seeds. With the sesame flavour intensified, these taste almost exactly like peanut butter cookies.

114 g (1/2 cup) soft butter

100 g (1/2 cup) granulated sugar

150 g (3/4 cup) packed brown sugar

15 ml (1 Tbsp) liquid honey

1 egg

195 g (3/4 cup) tahini, stirred before measuring

5 ml (1 tsp) vanilla extract

210 g (1-1/2 cups) all-purpose flour

5 ml (1 tsp) salt

2.5 ml (1/2 tsp) baking soda

200 g (1-1/2 cups) good quality milk chocolate, chopped

Flaked or Kosher salt, for topping

Preheat oven to 350 F / 175 C. Lightly butter three cookie sheets. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, salt, and baking soda.

In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter and both sugars on medium speed until light and fluffy. Add honey, egg, tahini and vanilla, and blend again until light and fluffy. Stop to scrape down the sides of the bowl, as necessary.

With the mixer on low speed, add the flour mixture and chopped chocolate. Mix until everything is combined and forms a dough.

Use a 1-ounce scoop (30 ml / 2 Tbsp) to scoop round balls onto the prepared cookie sheets, spacing the dough balls at least 5 cm (2 inches) apart. Press the dough balls lightly with your fingers to flatten them a bit. Sprinkle each top with a tiny bit of flaky sea salt.

Place cookies, one sheet at a time, in the preheated oven and bake for 8 to 11 minutes, until light golden around the edges and just cooked through the middle; do not over-bake. Let cookies set on cookie sheet for 2 to 3 minute before using a spatula to transfer to a cooling rack. Once completely cool, store cookies in an airtight container for up to 6 days.

Taking a Tahini Swirl Brownie. Don Denton photography

TAHINI SWIRL BROWNIES

Makes 16 5-cm / 2-inch squares

With the flavour of chocolate-covered halvah and the chewy texture of the perfect brownie, these bars are to-die-for delicious! Adapted from a recipe by Milk Street Magazine.

57 g (1/4 cup) unsalted butter, plus more for greasing the pan

112 g (4 oz) bittersweet dark chocolate, chopped

15 g (3 Tbsp) natural cocoa powder

2 large eggs

225 g (1 cup plus 2 Tbsp) granulated sugar

5 ml (1 tsp) vanilla extract

2.5 ml (1/2 tsp) salt

195 g (3/4 cup) tahini, stirred before measuring

70 g (1/2 cup) all-purpose flour

1.5 ml (1/4 tsp) baking powder

Heat the oven to 350 F (175 C). Generously butter an 8-inch square baking pan; line with 2 strips of parchment, cut to fit with overhang (crossed, and with excess hanging over on all sides of the pan). Lightly butter the parchment as well.

Melt the butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Remove from heat and immediately add the chopped bittersweet chocolate and cocoa powder. Whisk until smooth.

In a small mixing bowl, whisk together the flour and the baking powder. Set aside.

In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the eggs, sugar, vanilla and salt until smooth. Add the tahini and whisk to combine. Now fold in the flour mixture, stirring until just incorporated (do not over-stir). Scrape half of this mixture into a separate bowl for later (for the swirl). Add the melted chocolate mixture to the remaining tahini mixture in the large bowl; stir until batter is well combined.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan; spread evenly.

With a spoon, drop the reserved tahini mixture over the top (imagine a grid, and add one dollop of tahini mixture to each square on that grid). With the tip of a skewer or paring knife, swirl the tahini dollops into the brownie batter, making sure to dig and flip chocolate batter up from the bottom to get a more thorough swirl. You can drag the tip of the skewer across the top of the brownies after swirling for a final flourish.

Place the pan on the middle rack of the preheated oven. Bake for 28-32 minutes, until the edges are set. Remove from the oven to a cooling rack. Cool in the pan for 30 minutes. Lift the parchment edges up carefully to transfer the brownies from the pan to the cooling rack. Cool for another 30 minutes (or longer, if you can). Cut into 5-cm (2-inch) squares. Enjoy!

Check here for more recipes and a list of cooking and baking classes taught by Chef Heidi Fink.

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