Fort Sumter & Benne Wafers


When last week’s First on the First post went live, I couldn’t believe it was January. There was so much about December that I never got to share with you, like which new cookies I tried ( Coconut Lime Sugar Cookies from Poet in the Pantry were my favorite!) or my trip to Charleston.


I love any good city on the water,


particularly one with a rich history, and Charleston was no exception. One morning we took a ferry ride into Charleston Harbor to visit Fort Sumter.


The island fortification was built following the War of 1812 and, though never completed, manned during the Spanish-American War, World War I, and World War II. However, it is most famous as the site of the first shots of the Civil War.


Less than one week after South Carolina declared secession from the Union in December 1860,  U.S. Major Robert Anderson occupied the unfinished fort


and continued to do so despite repeated calls for evacuation from the government of South Carolina. The standoff continued and by April it was clear that Anderson and his soldiers were running out of food and supplies. When President Lincoln announced plans to resupply the fort, it was bombarded by the Confederacy.


After a 34-hour exchange beginning on April 12, 1861, Anderson and his soldiers surrendered Fort Sumter. Union forces would attempt to regain the Fort for four years, succeeding only when Confederate troops abandoned it prior to the capture of Charleston in February 1865. 


In addition to its history, Fort Sumter also offers visitors exquisite examples of why this area of the United States is called the Lowcountry.


And no sweet treat is more quintessentially Lowcountry or South Carolinian than the Benne Wafer. A favorite in Charleston for more than a century, these cookies owe their origin to West African slaves who introduced sesame seeds (or “benne” seeds) to America. Legend has it that sesame seeds brought good luck and, since this is the first Suitcases & Sweets recipe of a new year, I hope these cookies do the same for you!


Click Here to Print This Recipe.

  • 3/4 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 1 1/2 cups brown sugar
  • 2 eggs, room temperature
  • 1 1/2 cups flour
  • 1/2 cup sesame seeds
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line cookie sheets with parchment paper.
  • In the bowl of a stand mixer, cream butter and sugar.
  • Add two eggs; mix well.
  • Blend in flour.
  • Stir in sesame seeds.
  • Add vanilla, baking powder, salt; mix until thoroughly combined.


  • Drop a teaspoon of batter onto prepared cookie sheet, far enough apart to allow spreading while baking.
  • Bake in a 325°F oven for approximately 10 minutes or until edges are golden brown.
  • Cool for 7-10 minutes on cookie sheets before removing to wire rack to cool completely.


Distance Traveled from Philadelphia to Charleston: 550 miles

This recipe reflects minor adaptations to a recipe from Charleston Gateway and yields 3.5 dozen cookies. 

A Visit to Belle Grove Plantation


Last weekend we drove south to Belle Grove Plantation in King George, Virginia. Established in 1670, the plantation was the birthplace of James Madison in 1751.

Today, it is the site of a fantastic bed and breakfast run by Michelle and Brett Darnell. Driving up the long, tree-lined driveway towards the plantation, you’re taken back in time to the splendor of the 1790s mansion. Michelle and Brett come out to greet each of their guests


and welcome them inside to their magnificent entryway, which is historically accurate with Colonial colors and furniture.


After signing the guest book, containing signatures from visitors from all over the world, Michelle and Brett take guests on a tour of the 8,000 square foot mansion. They recall the more than 200-year history as if they lived it, sharing details about each of the families that occupied the plantation (and some of the friendly ghosts that remain on-site!).

The entire mansion has been restored to its original splendor. Each of the four master suites is named for a family who once lived there and is decorated with furniture from that period, like the Conway Room (named for Madison’s mother and her family), decorated with furniture from the 1700s.


The sitting room in the Conway Suite even has a settee used on the Oscar Winning set of the movie Lincoln!


Yet despite its Colonial appearance, the home doesn’t lack any modern amenities. The room in which we stayed had a shower to rival any spa hotel.

The beauty of the interior of the mansion is rivaled only by the grounds, which span more than 600 acres.


Belle Grove sits on the banks of the Rappahannock River, and there are views of the historic waterway from every window and balcony.


Equally stunning are the architectural details of the house. From fireplaces


to the slate roof and outbuildings


to the weathered and worn doors and details that have yet to be restored,



there is beauty and intrigue at every turn.

My favorite was this curved door (one of two). Rarely in my travels have I seen something so unique,


and hearing that Union soldiers came through those very doors made it all the more exciting.

Somehow, Michelle and Brett make this 8,000 square foot mansion feel warm and cozy. They invite each guest to come together daily at 5pm for a social hour with delightful hors d’oeuvres and tea in one of the common areas of the house.


Guests at Belle Grove certainly don’t go hungry! Each morning, at a time of their choosing, guests congregate in the dining room for a two-course, gourmet breakfast.



At one time Michelle was a bistro chef and her cooking is inventive and impressive.  Each dish comes out on beautiful china and goes back to the kitchen licked clean.



At bedtime we found ourselves wondering about and salivating over what breakfast would be the next morning. That is, after we had our Modern Molasses Cookies at turn-down service.


Sound familiar? These cookies are made from my recipe that won a contest to be the official cookie of Belle Grove Plantation. Michelle and Brett leave a beautiful silver tray of them (with some yummy chocolate) on the beds each night as a special treat for guests.

Having spent the weekend at Belle Grove, I’ve even more honored to have my recipe be associated with the bed and breakfast. Our stay was truly a magical experience. I can’t wait to go back, both to experience more of the dozens of historical sights nearby (more on that soon) and the exquisite Southern hospitality offered by the Darnells. And, yes, to eat more Modern Molasses Cookies because — if I’m being 100% honest? — Michelle bakes them better than I do!

Click here for more about Modern Molasses Cookies and to print the recipe.


First on the First: Homemade Ricotta (Cookies)

When this dessert blogger got word that the First on the First challenge for November was homemade cheese, three cheeses came to mind: cream cheese, mascarpone, and ricotta. All are critical and delicious components of any baker’s repertoire, but one of them also happens to be remarkably easy to make — ricotta!


The ricotta recipe that follows requires only 4 ingredients. And the best part? It makes the perfect amount to bake ricotta cookies (recipe also below) and have a bit leftover to snack on while they’re baking!

photo 1-10

Homemade Ricotta
From Gourmet, April 2006


  • 2 quarts whole milk
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice


  • Line a large sieve with a layer of heavy-duty (fine-mesh)  cheesecloth and place it over a large bowl.
  • Slowly bring milk, cream,  and salt to a rolling boil in a 6-quart heavy pot over moderate heat, stirring  occasionally to prevent scorching.
  • Add lemon juice, then reduce heat to low and  simmer, stirring constantly, until the mixture curdles, about 2 minutes.
  • Pour the mixture into the  lined sieve and let it drain 1 hour. After discarding the liquid, chill the  ricotta, covered; it will keep in the refrigerator 2 days.


Ricotta Cookies
Click Here to Print This Recipe. 
Adapted from Giada De Laurentiis


For the Cookies:

  • 2 1/2 cups  flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 stick unsalted butter, softened
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 cups whole milk ricotta cheese
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 lemon, juiced and zested

For the Glaze (if desired):

  • 1 1/4 cups powdered sugar
  • 3 tablespoons milk


  • Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Line baking sheets with parchment paper; set aside.
  • In a medium bowl combine flour, baking powder, and salt. Set aside.
  • In the bowl of a stand mixer, beat butter and  sugar until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes.
  • Add the eggs, 1 at a time, beating until incorporated.
  • Add ricotta cheese, lemon juice, lemon zest, and vanilla. Beat to combine.
  • Stir in dry ingredients.


  • Drop 2 tablespoons of dough onto baking sheets.
  • Bake for 13-15 minutes, until slightly golden at the edges.
  • Remove from the oven and let cookies rest on the baking sheet for 20 minutes.
  • In the meantime, combine the powdered sugar and milk in a small bowl; stir until smooth.
  • Spoon about 1/2-teaspoon onto each cookie, use the back of the spoon to gently spread, and garnish with sprinkles, if desired.


See how other sweet and savory bloggers responded to the cheese challenge!

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