Rusks…because your dunking days are never done

(Photograph: Penny Haw.)

South Africans have been dunking rusks ever since the first creak of the wagon wheel but, as I found out researching this article for The Weekender, there have been some changes.

RUSKS have come a long way since the intrepid “Voortannies” of yore braved wildest Africa, trekked vast distances beneath the blazing sun and then, while the oxen rested, adjusted their doekies and rolled up their sleeves to vigorously mix, pummel and shape floury mounds of dough so that they could double-bake “beskuit” (that is the Afrikaans word for rusk) for their pioneering families.

Designed for longevity and to survive long, hot and bumpy journeys, they (the baked goods, that is, not the Voortannies) are still as hard, dry and indestructible as they ever were.

And certainly, rusks feature regularly in literature documenting the Anglo-Boer War. Invariably writers report therein that Boers “stocked up on rusks and ammunition”, which – given the rigid, imperishable nature of both items – suggests to me that the two were interchangeable. Surely you too can picture the scene?

“…Having run out of bullets, the small band of valiant Boers pelted the advancing platoon of British soldiers with a barrage of first grade rusks, which they grabbed urgently from their bulging saddle bags. The floury bombardment hailed down upon the red necks in a torrent of double-baked pain and sent them whimpering back to camp…”

(Photograph: Penny Haw.)

But, while the Great Trek and Boer War are long over, rusks remain. These days though, bakers have access to a greater variety of ingredients and rusks are available in stack upon stack of different shapes, sizes and flavours.

Take a look at the shelves of urban supermarkets, and the racks of farm stalls and tuisnywerheid (home industry) outlets countrywide. Fat, knotty jobs; short, distorted blobs; long, slim slabs; and small, elegant slices: they are all there in their crunchy, desiccated and unbreakable glory, waiting to be dunked in tea, coffee, milk, hot chocolate or whatever your preferred method for soaking, softening and rendering them edible might be.

There are whole-wheat, high fibre and white flour rusk varieties flavoured with tasty things like buttermilk, condensed milk, chocolate chips, muesli, raisins, almonds, peanuts, aniseeds, lemons, poppy seeds, coconut, marmalade, sultanas, coffee, blueberry, cappuccino, cherries and sunflower seeds. I was told recently that fruitcake mix helps create “the most divine rusks imaginable…particularly for winter, when there is nothing more delicious than a really rich tasting rusk dunked in your coffee in the morning”. And, as if that is not flavour variety enough, Woolworths recently introduced an “indulgent rusk” that is “handmade with caramelised white chocolate and roasted macadamia nuts”.

For sure, rusks have travelled a great distance since, as the story (courtesy of food manufacturer, Nola) goes, they were first baked for commercial purposes in the tiny Eastern Cape dorpie of Molteno in 1939.

It was the miserable era of the Great Depression. More than a third of all South Africans were living in abject poverty. So, continues the Nola tale, desperate to raise funds to help those with even less than their families, Molteno resident, Ouma Greyvensteyn and some of her friends attended a church meeting to discuss what they could do. At the gathering, the women were each given half-a-crown to get their entrepreneurial skills off the ground.

Ouma walked home deep in thought. Once there, she dug out an old family recipe and used the money to buy ingredients to bake rusks, which she successfully sold to others in the community. Hence the genesis of Ouma Rusks. The brand continues to lead the snack category, both in this country and in others, to this day.

You can feed your need to “dip ’n Ouma” from anywhere in the world by ordering them from the gourmet foods section of http://www.amazon.com. And in Britain, specialist South African shops have sprung up all over the place selling things like Mrs Balls, Marie Biscuits, Maltabella porridge, biltong and, of course, Ouma Rusks.

Expats confess that they regularly gather at these shops and proudly share national information like “how to eat rusks” with non-South Africans.

The advice goes as follows: “The accepted and correct way to eat a rusk is to dip it in a cup of tea or coffee. (Anyone who tells you otherwise, does not deserve to eat them.) This requires practice because if you leave the rusk in the beverage for too long, it gets soggy and could break off into the cup. To get it right, grip the rusk between finger and thumb, and dunk twice before lifting it out and taking a bite. Keep in mind that the extent of dunking required depends on the density of the rusk. Experiment and have a teaspoon handy to fish broken off bits of rusk out of the cup.”

This patriotic publicity about the rusk would no doubt please Ouma Greyvensteyn and the Voortannies who came before her. But, despite our claims of proprietary, similar twice-baked variations of the rusk occur in numerous other countries.

The Italians have cantucci, which have been around long before the Roman Empire crumbled. Non-Italians often refer to cantucci as “biscotti”. In fact, biscotti refer to all biscuits in Italian, while cantucci is a double-baked almond rusk-like biscuit. What’s more, while cantucci are just as firm and crunchy as the South African version, Italians insist that they are dipped and not dunked like rusks. The dipping, they maintain, is best done in cappuccino, dessert wine or grappa.

Germans have been crunching zwieback, which translates to “twice baked”, for centuries, while mandelbrot and kamishbrot are other Eastern European derivatives. In the Netherlands, beschuit – which, while also double-baked, is not as hard as the rusk – is eaten for breakfast with a variety of toppings like cheese, and sprinkles of chocolate (chocoladehagel) or fruit (vruchtenhagel).

In other countries, particularly in the United Kingdom, rusks are widely marketed as teething biscuits for babies. In this instance, instead of leaving a mushy mess at the bottom of coffee cups, the remnants of rusks result in a gooey gloop that coats chairs, couches, cars, pets, walls, floors and everything else touched by the teething tot. It is easier – and lot less disgusting – to stick to dunking rusks in coffee, just as the Voortannies would have preferred.

Buttermilk Rusks

1,25kg flour
2 teaspoons baking powder

2 teaspoons bicarbonate of soda

2 teaspoons cream of tartar

2 teaspoons of salt

250g butter

½ cup raisins (optional or add seeds, nuts or fruit mix)

2 eggs

1½ cups brown sugar

2 cups buttermilk

1 cup oil

Preheat the oven to 190ºC. Grease three loaf tins that measure about 20 cm x 10 cm.
Sift flour, baking powder, bicarbonate of soda, cream of tartar and salt together in a mixing bowl. Cut the butter into small cubes and rub into the flour. Add the raisins or whatever ingredients you wish to include. In a second bowl, mix together buttermilk, sugar, eggs and oil and beat until well combined. Stir liquid into dry ingredients and mix then knead to firm dough. Shape the dough into balls about the size of a golf ball and pack them tightly in one layer into the loaf tins. Bake for 45 minutes.
Turn out onto a rack and leave to cool for 30 minutes before breaking up into individual rusks. Dry in a low oven at 100ºC for four to five hours until the centre is completely dry. Store (forever) in an airtight container.

(Originally published in The Weekender.)

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About Administrator

Freelance writer based in Hout Bay near Cape Town in South Africa.
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10 Responses to Rusks…because your dunking days are never done

  1. ruskrecipes says:

    Hi Penny, I was delighted to find your article which I thoroughly enjoyed. A year ago or so I stared a rusk blog…for expats like me who need to service their addiction and can’t just pop in to Woolies. Sigh. I’d love to link to your article from my log, ruskrecipes.com. I’ll see of I can figure out how to do that!

    Sharon

    • pennyhaw says:

      Hi Sharon, nice to hear from you. Do you tweet? If so, I’d like to put you in touch with one of my favourite follows @grasscraig (Craig Morris from Pietermaritzburg) who has proposed a National Rusk Day!

  2. ruskrecipes says:

    Reblogged this on Rusk Recipes and commented:
    Here’s a great article on the history and social mores of Rusks.

  3. Mrs T Parsotam says:

    Hi Penny. I wonder if you could help me please. I want to make cofee flavoured rusks. Do I use the cofee essence and what quantity?

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  6. Peter Ucko says:

    Hi

    QUESTION: Looooong ago, some time between my teething on rusks and my courting young damsels with the promise of ‘rusks and tea’, there was a brand called TREK Rusks. Can you find old adverts etcetera of TREK rusks? Who made them?

    Thanks
    Peter
    PS: Comment. In a recipe you refer to ‘condense’ milk. It is Condensed Milk. Usually Sweetened. We often write it incorrectly because in speaking we lazily don’t enunciate the ‘d’. (Apology. It’s the Editor in me which pops up)

    • Thanks, Peter. Of course it is Condensed Milk. I will correct my error immediately. I appreciate you/the Editor in you pointing it out. Sorry to say, I don’t know anything about Trek rusks. I wouldn’t be surprised though, if it isn’t one of the many brands big companies like Bokomo bought up and eventually closed to build other labels like Ouma.

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