Cheryl Day’s Treasury of Southern Baking is a very special cookbook. The nearly 400 page hardback book published by Artisan is simply but beautifully styled by Haylie Waring and photographed by southern photographer, and baker in her own right, Angie Mosier. The book is encyclopedic in its information, but warm, friendly and accessible—just as you would imagine Cheryl Day to be.
When you open up the book and leaf through it, it is like looking at a dreamy southern kitchen that is curated by a modern minimalist with a southern soul. I say that because I have never been to a southern kitchen that wasn’t crammed full of tools, cookbooks, handwritten notes, flowers, pottery, glassware, etc. but, in my dreams, my southern kitchen looks just like the photos in the book. Clean, uncluttered and focused on the food.
The book itself is like (reading) a conversation with a friend. Cheryl Day lives in Savannah, Georgia, where she and her husband Griff opened the acclaimed Back in the Day Bakery in 2002. Back in the Day Bakery is an old-fashioned bakeshop that specializes in nostalgic baked goods such as southern biscuits and cinnamon buns.
The recipes run the gamut from her personal family recipes like her Grandmother Queen’s Famous Icebox Rolls, and old southern recipes like Cold-Oven Pound Cake to recipes gone viral like our mutual friend, Bill Smith’s Atlantic Beach Pie; and the southern hostess’ old standby, Crispy Cheese Crackers made with Rice Krispies. I grew up with many versions of these recipes and still make the cheese crackers, but I call them Cheese Straws.
The fact that a lot of the recipes are familiar is a good thing—at least to southern bakers. We want to see our favorites in any definitive book on southern baking. If they weren’t there, it might be a good cookbook, but it wouldn’t reflect our culture or feel authentic. This cookbook checks all the boxes. For me, it is an important collection of true southern baking—the old and the new.
Any cook or baker worth their salt or sugar loves to tinker, and Cheryl has updated recipes and added her own modern twist. I can’t wait to bake the Raspberry Chess Pie Bars—a chess pie in bar form [think lemon bars] but with all the flavor of your favorite chess pie. Next on my list are the Lemon Coriander Scones which get an update from the addition of coriander’s warm woodsy nuttiness and Meyer lemons.
There are so many great recipes that I know that I will be using this cookbook for many years to come. Because it covers baking A to Z, there is something for everyone, and different recipes will speak to different people.
Perhaps my favorite part of the book are the regional recipes that are often left out of modern cookbooks, but still made at home and passed down generation after generation. People think that everyone in the south eats the same food, but it is actually quite different region to region—even in the same state.
I was excited to see a recipe for “Little Layer Chocolate Cake,” which is similar to the “18-Layer Chocolate Cake” my friend Matt introduced me to a few years ago. His mother’s family is from Lumberton, NC, and it is the unofficial town cake. I had never heard of it until he mentioned it and we baked it together—and I grew up 140 miles away. Cheryl’s 12-layer version is very similar, individually-baked layers that are about ¼-inch thick and iced with a boiled chocolate icing that is still warm when it drapes the cake.
Benne Seed Wafers are another ole-timey regional recipe that are a staple in Lowcountry South Carolina and Georgia, and popularized commercially by Savannah’s Byrd Cookie Company. Byrd’s Benne Wafers were my Grandmother’s favorite cookie and the only baked good that she didn’t make herself. When I saw Cheryl’s recipe for Benne Seed Wafers, I knew that it had to be the first that I would bake.
I made the recipe and my discipline went out the door. I licked the spatula—something I never do—and tasting the raw batter brought back memories of the buttery, nutty toasted sesame seed cookies that I would share with my Grandmother.
If you love a cookie that is sweet but not too sweet, and a touch savory, this is the cookie for you. It is easy to make, stores and freezes well and is both a great afternoon pick-me-up and unexpectedly delicious paired with some stinky cheese and your favorite drink.
In the cookbook, Cheryl says, “you can bake like a southerner no matter where you live…” and this is certainly the case if you buy her new cookbook.
Benne Seed Wafers*
These cookies will be a bit chewy if you take them out when they are lightly brown or very crisp if you bake them a little longer and the color is uniformly brown. I like them both ways and suggest that you make a test batch to determine your preference once they are cooled.
Makes about 36 large cookies
1 cup Benne seeds or white sesame seeds
1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon fine sea salt
8 tablespoons (one stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup packed light brown sugar
1 large egg at room temperature
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Position the racks in the middle and lower third of the oven and preheat the oven to 350°F.
Line baking sheet(s) with parchment paper.
Spread the sesame seeds in a single layer on one of the prepared baking sheets and bake for about five minutes or until fragrant and lightly browned. Set aside to cool then transfer to a small bowl.
In a medium mixing bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda and salt, and set aside.
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter, brown sugar, egg and vanilla together on medium speed until super light and fluffy; 3 to 5 minutes.
Turn the speed down to low and add the dry ingredients. Beat until just combined, about a minute. Add the toasted seeds and mix until just combined, about a minute.
Remove the bowl from the mixer stand and finish mixing by hand to make sure no bits of flour butter hiding at the bottom of the bowl and the dough is thoroughly mixed.[Depending on the size of the cookies that you want to make] use either a tablespoon to form the cookies or a teaspoon to form the cookies. Cheryl recommends using a tablespoon. I prefer mini benne seed wafers, and use a teaspoon. The baking time will vary based on the size of your cookies and how dark you like them.
For golden brown cookies, Cheryl’s recipe says to bake 8 to 10 minutes for the larger size but I needed to bake them for about 14 minutes in my oven. The smaller crisper and darker cookies took 10 minutes to bake in my oven. You should bake for 8 minutes and look at the cookies. Bake longer according to your personal taste, but watch carefully during the baking time so they don’t burn.
The cookies can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to one week or in the freezer for up to one month. Recipe adapted from Cheryl Day.
*Adapted from Cheryl Day’s Treasury of Southern Baking by Cheryl Day (Artisan Books). Copyright © 2021. Photographs by Angie Mosier