Black Sesame Tea Cookies: How to say goodbye

For my grandmother

My mom once told me that in your 40s and 50s, you attend more funerals than weddings in a year.  I’ve been invited to three weddings this year, which doesn’t bode well for the funeral count.  But death is a part of life, and even as we grow accustomed to the idea of someone leaving the earth, the passing of a loved one is always accompanied by complex and contradicting emotions.

My grandmother, at the age of 95, passed away last summer. I deeply ached in places previously unknown and unfelt. I found myself asking lots of those crazy internal questions: if I had done enough for her, loved her enough, or been there enough for her.  I felt off balance for much of the rest of the summer and well into the holiday season.  There were so many triggers for me – seeing my cousins in Korea at her funeral, honoring her, while I lay on a sofa recovering from an ACL replacement, unable to fly to Korea to be there.  I saw my father in photographs of the funeral, wearing a white, short-sleeved dress shirt and was confused why he was dressed as such, and then remembered that this all happened during one of the craziest heatwaves in Korea. I remembered the small earrings I wear daily were a wedding gift from her, when she took me shopping and wanted me to buy something bigger and grander, and I chose smaller and simpler despite her protests.  I can still hear her lament that I chose something so understated. I noticed on the holiday card list her name and address in Korea, and realized that I didn’t need to send a card this year. I wrote her address by hand even though I didn’t need to send a card, simply to feel the weight of her presence in another place.

My relationship with my grandmother wasn’t a complicated one – simply because she adored me.  It was our relationship with other people that made it a little more complicated. Her adoration and love of me was palpable, almost embarrassing because it wasn’t a secret from anyone.  All my cousins, my family, my brothers all knew I was number one in her heart, and I will tell you there is something ultimately potent and heady to be loved as hard as she loved me.  I often jokingly talked back at her, ribbing her in these little ways, making fun of her hilarious idiosyncrasies, like her supreme dislike of pork while I insisted on eating it. I loved seeing her face, indignant at my pricks, and then relax and smile when she realized that I was making fun of her. I am fortunate that while both of my daughters were young I lived a mere 30 minutes from her in Seoul, and she wouldn’t hesitate to get into a cab to come and visit the girls and me, bringing something yummy to eat or fun to play with for my girls. In my grandmother’s eyes I was always special, unique, precious, valuable, and more than enough for her. I did nothing outstanding to experience this kind of unconditional love, and I know that I lived 47 years of my life being completely adored.

I am blessed to have learned cooking from her, to taste the food of her hands, to associate tastes, flavors, and textures to food that she made for me.  She lives on in so much of who I am as a woman who tries to cook well for her loved ones.  She modeled hospitality, beauty of presentation, and meticulousness of execution – all to a level I cannot match, but aspire to.  She always wanted me to do less, to protect my body from the harsh labor of constant cooking, all the while pushing me to learn and keep her dishes and her flavors alive. With her spirit in another place, I remember her more when I cook, feed others, taste something.  She was always so sure of her expertise, her technique, and what she was making – and I hope to be able to reach her level one day.

These black sesame tea cookies make me think of her. She used to bring me Korean black sesame cookies, pointing out it was something my mom loved, despite their ability to leave you with crazy black specks in your smile. Sharing something delicious with my grandmother may be the moments I miss the most in the second half of my life.

These are not an overly sweet cookie, but rather a mildly sweet, very nutty cookie, but so good with a cup of tea or coffee.

Black Sesame Tea Cookies
Makes 36-40 cookies

1 cup unsalted butter softened
1/2 cup powdered sugar
2 cups all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup black sesame seeds, measured first then ground in a food processor
1 cup (approximately) powdered sugar (for rolling – NOT FOR THE COOKIE DOUGH)

In the bowl of a stand mixer, cream the butter and ½ cup of powdered sugar. Add the flour and salt and mixed until combined. Last, mix in chopped ground black sesame seeds until just mixed. Roll the dough into 1″ balls. Cover and chill the dough balls for at least 2 hours, up to 36 hours.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Place dough balls on a non-stick baking sheet. These cookies will not rise or flatten, so they can be placed relatively close together. Bake for about 10 minutes. Don’t allow the balls to brown. This will ensure the cookies are buttery soft.

 As soon as you are able to touch the still-warm cookies, carefully roll the cookie balls in powdered sugar. Allow the cookies to cool completely on a rack and then roll them again in powdered sugar.

Can be stored 3 days in an airtight container.

Printable Recipe

These cookies are perfect piled up in a corner.

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