Rusks or in Afrikaans beskuit (dry biscuit) is a very traditional South African recipe. It is a dry biscuit or cake and there are many variations. The main and most popular version is buttermilk (direct translation of this version is karringmelk beskuit). I would say ‘as an honorary South African (I married one) that rusks are a popular breakfast food/snack and when you read through my recipe, you will begin to see why. They are really hard, so typically dunked into tea or coffee to soften, before eating. While rustic looking, they are strangely moreish. Today there are so many variations including healthy versions. I too have created one version, which you can find at the end of the post.
A brief history of rusks goes way back to the early pioneering days of South Africa. They have been dried since the 1690’s and was a way of preserving food, in this case, bread, especially when travelling and without any form of refrigeration. People continued to eat them during the Boer War. when many people would travel long distances and have no forms of food storage or preservation.
Rusks have since travelled outside SA (South Africa) and you can find a very similar creation in Italy called biscotti, although dare I say it that the Italian version looks more polished. Nevertheless, both are fantastic! It now seems that many countries have their own take on rusks!
Now, if you mention rusks to anyone from the UK or Ireland, then the South African version might be a hard sell. Why? Created under the brand Farleys, rusks are well known as baby food biscuits and if you don’t believe me, take a look here). Soft, nutritious biscuits mashed into milk to form a ‘pulp.’ Not very appetising right? Well, to babies, yes, but to adults and parents that had to endure it down their clothes, probably not. Well let me tell you…from here on in…South African rusks are so far from these!
I first discovered rusks, while on Safari in the Kruger National Park, South Africa about 5 years ago. Served with flasks of tea and coffee on game drives, we would enjoy one (or three in my case) and I was quickly addicted to them. Initially, I thought rock hard blocks, what are these? Then I was told they were to be ‘dunked’ in tea or coffee. As a child, I was always told not to do that, so I think these had an extra appeal. I do remember enjoying the taste of buttermilk and a hint of aniseed – just two of the flavours. I know they might sound weird choices to some, but stay with me on this one. There are other superb flavours, but I do remember one of the cooks (a short black lady with an apron on), seeing me wrap several up in napkins and walking off. She called me over and said I didn’t have to hide them, offering me more fresh ones, with a big grin! An embarrassing moment I thought, but I couldn’t get over the taste and texture and presumed I wouldn’t find them in the UK and wanted to savour everyone. Little did I know that they are staple to many South Africans.
With so many South Africans living in the UK, you should have no problem finding rusks in any good South African shop. I have found them across London with the very popular brand (also sold within South Africa) called Ouma (translated from Afrikaans means grandma). These date back to the 1930’s and from a family recipe created in the town of Molteno in the Eastern cape under different guises. Today they are successfully sold under the brand ‘Ouma rusks’ and sold countrywide.
So what makes a rusk a good rusk? While I am no expert in the baking of them, I certainly know what one should taste like. It needs to be hard, but not like a brick, as you won’t get your teeth through them. The dough should be stiff, but not overworked, so you’ll need muscles and a very BIG bowl. Oh and patience. They do take a long time to reach the eating stage, so my suggestion is to bake them in advance and store well. Like the Italian biscotti once they’ve cooked, they need a second bake. Rusks need 6-8 hours ‘drying time’ which is why they are put back into the oven after the initial cooling and cutting stage and put on a rack in the oven at 50C (best to do this overnight), with the oven door just ajar, as it allows any moisture to escape. You definitely don’t want a soggy rusk!
Seriously, they are worth a little fuss and like all baking, very rewarding, looking at the finished product. I would suggest baking a large batch, so that your electricity or gas bill does not hit the proverbial roof. In fact, for this reason, many South Africans do not personally make them. Instead opting to buy from supermarket, or visiting a home industries shop, where the local community sell their ‘home-made’ products. We know a lovely couple in Port Alfred, Eaastern cape that make them and have all the pans and drying ovens. I love being able to put in my orders and get a whole variety. Sadly we will not be in South Africa for some time and this has inspired me to have a go!
Here are three recipes to get you going:
Traditional buttermilk rusks (karringmelk beskuit)
Health rusks (bran flakes and sultanas)
Super healthy rusks (seed mix and ground almonds) – dairy free, wheat and gluten free, low calorie and low GI
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