I consider the humble rusk (Afrikaans: beskuit) as one of the great South African contributions to the world of cuisine. Not haute cuisine, of course, but the mundane world of everyday eating pleasure. Most folk from every background in this diverse country enjoy the simple but hearty snack of rusks and a cuppa – tea, coffee or hot chocolate on a cold winter’s evening. I start the day with rusks and coffee, a ritual that has been eagerly shared with a succession of Thatchwick dogs, and now taken with Kaela and Flash.
A rusk is a hard, dry biscuit which is achieved by double baking. First the rusk dough is formed into shapes or cut into shapes and baked. The individual rusks are loosened from each other with enough space for the air to circulate between rusks and returned on baking trays to a low oven to be dried out for a couple of hours. Versions of rusks can be found in the baking repertoire of several countries. Ours are traced back to pioneering days when provisions had to keep without proper refrigeration or storage for long periods of time. My rusk baking took on new dimensions when Ruth gave me these rusk pans with a contraption to make neat indentations into the wet dough.
In South Africa rusks and coffee have found their place onto the menus of some upmarket coffee shops specialising in local fare, like Karoo Café on Lynnwood Road. Commercially baked rusks appear on supermarket shelves and are an essential item at small home industries. I disdain buying rusks as the supermarket goods are just not good enough. Home industry offerings are excellent but pricey. Beside to whip up a batch of dough, more or less according to my favourite recipe, takes a flat 20 minutes. I say ‘more or less’ as I am not a stickler for exact amounts and improvise my rusks with abandon. My recipe calls for raisins and I add cranberries; sunflower seeds and I add pumpkin seeds and chopped pecan nuts if I have any; All Bran Flakes or muesli, whatever is in the cupboard. An addition that I never miss is a cup of coconut and treacle sugar in place of standard refined white. If the mixture seems a bit stiff due to the unconventional ingredients, I just add a little more cream or buttermilk.
Jethro loves Granny’s rusks and I suspect his parents do too. A dozen or so bagged in clear cellophane and tied with a ribbon makes a thank you or birthday gift or a comfort package. Kaela is a special fan. When I take out the bowls and baking trays, she takes up her place of vigilance on the kitchen floor and stays put watching the oven until the first phase of baking is over.