By Eric Kim
In the early 2000s, when Tomoko Yagi and her husband went to the movies in New York City, Yagi couldn’t find anywhere she could hang out afterward with a nice cup of tea and dessert. Back in her hometown in Japan, she could go to the ubiquitous wagashi (Japanese dessert) cafes that served not-too-sweet confections, such as the fresh fruit and jelly-based anmitsu or the shaved ice treat kakigori, with a beautiful pot of green tea.
That’s why, in 2004, Yagi opened her Japanese teahouse, Cha-An, in Manhattan’s East Village. For the next couple of decades, the chill spot became a mecca for anyone who wanted to linger into the night, but not over a drink at a bar.
From the start, Yagi’s star menu item has been her black sesame crème brûlée. Deep, almost peanut buttery black sesame seeds underpin its nuanced layers: a dark custard base shielded under a thin, crackly sugar crust that shatters under the tap of a metal spoon, a sphere of black sesame ice cream sitting on top, a lacy cookie wheel wedged into it. All that complexity comes in a small but mighty package.
You don’t have to go to a Japanese teahouse in Manhattan to experience the wonders of black sesame, although it couldn’t hurt. Where white sesame tastes like nuts, rich with a single-noted mildness, “black sesame has a bitterness,” Yagi said through her interpreter. Sugar balances that intense, bittersweet bite, scaffolding flavors beyond just sweetness.
In Rice Krispies Treats, for instance, sugary marshmallows benefit from that foil. The occasional crunch of a black sesame seed, between bites of buttery marshmallow and crispy cereal, lets you appreciate the balancing act of black sesame and sugar, dark and light. Jars of the onyx-black seeds are readily available in most grocery stores across the United States and can be a secret weapon in your own dessert making.
It’s by no means a recent trend. Traditionally, black sesame seeds have been used in desserts throughout Asia for centuries, as in black sesame brittle candy and tang yuan in China or black sesame porridge, heugimja juk, in South Korea. These days, it also comes in other forms: chewy mochi cake, for instance, or buttery shortbread cookies.
“I don’t see black sesame as a trend,” said Hannah Bae of Noona’s Ice Cream in Brooklyn. Although her black sesame pint has been one of her most popular flavors since she started her business in 2016, she considers its allure timeless, simple but complex with an “underlying sort of hush, hush,” both in terms of its inky-coal color and how its bittersweetness can taste seductive, like chocolate. “In my eyes, it’s a classic.”
In the early days of her business, Bae toasted, then ground, the black sesame seeds herself, bringing out the seeds’ most mysterious qualities (and essential oils). But, like many other commercial bakers, she now uses jarred black sesame paste, a product that effortlessly delivers serious black sesame flavor.
In these Rice Krispies Treats, you fry black sesame seeds in nutty brown butter to roast them, then fortify their flavor with a drizzle of toasted sesame oil, which creates an aromatic whammy of bold, savory sesame taste. Toasted sesame oil, like vanilla extract, lends fragrance without bulk, and in this recipe, it also helps prevent them from sticking to the pan.
Stored in an airtight container, these savory-sweet treats stay soft and chewy for days. But if you’re feeling doubly nostalgic, you can tear a couple of squares into a bowl and pour over milk to enjoy as cereal. It’s the perfect ending to any day: sweet, but not too sweet.
Black sesame rice krispies treats
The combination of butter-fried black sesame seeds and toasted sesame oil creates an aromatic whammy of nutty sesame flavor in otherwise classic Rice Krispies Treats. To quickly and evenly distribute the cereal in the sticky melted marshmallows, it helps to use two utensils and stir the blend like you’re frying rice. Pressing the mixture into a 9-inch square baking pan turns out perfect squares, but the size and shape of your vessel is up to you. Another option is to spread out the mixture on a greased sheet pan into airy clusters. If you want to feel like a kid (or are one), you can put those clusters into a bowl and pour over milk to enjoy as cereal.
Yield: 16 servings
Total time: 30 minutes
2 teaspoons toasted sesame oil, plus more for greasing
6 tablespoons/85 grams unsalted butter
1/4 cup/38 grams black sesame seeds (see tip)
1 (12-ounce/340-gram) bag marshmallows
3/4 teaspoon coarse kosher salt or 1 teaspoon flaky kosher salt
6 cups/160 grams Rice Krispies cereal
1. Grease a 9-inch square baking pan with sesame oil.
2. In a large pot, melt the butter over medium-high and cook, stirring occasionally, until the milk solids at the bottom of the pan start to brown, 2 to 3 minutes. Reduce the heat to low and add the sesame seeds. Cook, stirring constantly, until the seeds smell toasty, 1 to 2 minutes.
3. Add the marshmallows and salt and stir until melted, about 5 minutes. Turn off the heat and stir in the 2 teaspoons sesame oil.
4. Add the cereal and quickly stir until evenly coated. Immediately press into the greased pan.
5. Let cool for at least 10 minutes before flipping out onto a cutting board and slicing into squares. The treats can be stored in an airtight container for up to 4 days at room temperature.
TIP: Black sesame seeds are sold raw or roasted. Both work here, but roasted ones will toast more quickly. The seeds taste bitter if they’re rancid, so be sure to check the expiration date and taste a few seeds before using.