South African rusks recipe has to be the single biggest search term that brings new visitors to my blog. It seems that there are an awful lot of ex-pat South Africans desperate for a good rusk to dip in their rooibos tea, stranded in foreign lands where the only option is to bake your own. And not only ex-pats: my sister-in-law turned to Google when looking for a new rusk recipe and found the recipe she picked from the search results rather familiar – she’d ended up on my blog with the same recipe I’ve already shared with her the old-fashioned paper and pen way!
I discovered this recipe many years ago in an old South African cookbook, back when our son was a baby and we were living over here for four months. We went back to London for another two years before moving out to SA for good and this rusk recipe kept us connected with that fine old tradition of dunking rusks in tea and getting crumbs all over the sofa.
Occasionally I have lapses in concentration and the rusk tin stays empty for a while, but mostly I keep it filled. However I have played with the recipe over the years, using different combinations of flours. One thing I have never adjusted, but perhaps should, is its requirement for two teaspoons each of baking powder, bicarb (baking soda) and cream of tartar. One commenter pointed out that baking powder is essentially a mixture of cream of tartar and bicarb... so maybe the original recipe writer was just hedging her bets?!
My latest experiment has been to substitute half of the vegetable oil with coconut oil. Reading up about healthy and unhealthy fats, omega 3s versus omega 6s, has made me less happy with the regular sunflower oil that I used to use without question, so I’m trying to find alternatives from among the unprocessed ‘good’ fats: coconut oil, extra virgin olive oil, butter(!). Mind you the whole field of dietary fats is so controversial at the moment that everyone just has to make their own decisions... and luckily these rusks work just as well either way. I didn’t notice any difference in flavour or consistency from the coconut oil, except perhaps they have stayed crunchy for longer, but that could be my imagination!
So here is the latest incarnation of my favourite rusk recipe, or go back to my original version if you prefer.
South African Buttermilk Rusks - The Revised Recipe
1.240kg / 2lb12oz flour (800g wholewheat, 200g rye, and 240g plain white flour)
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons bicarbonate of soda (baking soda)
2 teaspoons cream of tartar
2 teaspoons salt
250g / 9oz butter
½ cup raisins (optional)
½ cup seeds (sunflower, pumpkin, sesame) and/or nuts
250g / 9oz dark soft brown sugar (molasses sugar)
2 cups buttermilk
1 cup oil (sunflower, or coconut oil warmed to liquid state, or half and half)
Preheat the oven to 190C/380F
Grease three loaf tins of base measurement 20cmx10cm / 8”x 4” approx or any combination of deep baking dish that adds up to about the same.
In a large mixing bowl sift together the flour, baking powder, bicarbonate of soda, cream of tartar and salt. Cut the butter into small cubes and rub into the flour. Add the raisins if you are using them. You can experiment with various nuts and seeds as well, though the rusks are equally good plain.
In another bowl mix together the buttermilk, sugar, eggs and oil and beat until well combined. Stir liquid into dry ingredients and mix well. Knead to a firm but soft dough.
Form the dough into balls about the size of a ping-pong/golf ball and pack them tightly in one layer into the loaf tins. I usually get six rows of three into each of my tins. Bake for 45 minutes until well risen and firm.
Turn the loaves of rusks out onto a rack and leave to cool for 30 minutes before breaking up into individual rusks along the joins of the balls. Watch out for family members pinching the soft rusks. My kids and husband like them at this stage too!
Dry in a very low oven for 5 hours or more until the centre of each rusk is completely dry. I usually break one of the larger ones open to see - it's no hardship eating up the broken pieces, even if it isn't quite done! These can be kept for ages in an airtight container.
Note: If your family is divided as to the merits of nuts and raisins in their rusks, it is possible to keep both camps happy: just leave one half of the dough plain, and then knead the nuts, seeds and raisins of your choice into the second half before rolling them all into balls.
If you are looking for more South African recipes to try, here is a post from the days of the World Cup, where I collected together my top South African baking recipes.