Thursday, 20 January 2011

Robyn's health rusks

This recipe was given to me many years ago by my sister, Robyn.

In the UK, the word 'rusk' tends to conjure up images of an oversized tea biscuit given to teething babies. In South Africa, a rusk is an altogether different thing, enjoyed with (and dunked in) coffee.

During my teens, my extended family often went en masse on holiday to the Drakensburg mountains during the winter, and I have fond memories of rusks with coffee for breakfast on those freezing (no central heating in South Africa) mornings before heading off on a hike. If you really want to be decadent, you sweeten the coffee with condensed milk. Now that really takes me back!

Perhaps it would be best for non-South Africans to relate to these rusks more in the way they would relate to biscotti. In fact, the Afrikaans word for rusk is 'beskuit', so there is probably some shared heritage somewhere along the line.

Apparently the origin of the word 'biscuit/biscotti' (which, strictly speaking, is what 'beskuit' means, although it isn't quite that straightforward in practice) means 'twice baked'. That perfectly describes how rusks are prepared. I have to warn you of a few things:
  • First off, this particular recipe is very high in fibre and will have exactly the effect that you expect that would have on your digestive system - especially if you eat too many of them, which is all too easily done. In that sense, they could be considered 'health rusks'. Hence the name.
  • Second, the last part of the baking process might prick your conscience in terms of carbon footprint. So you might want to do something to compensate.
  • Thirdly, you are going to have to get your hands dirty, okay? This is not a recipe for a cook who goes "Eeewww!" In fact, it's probably a great recipe to make with your kids!
Oven temperature
160C and then 'low' (about 80-100C)

The ingredients in the original recipe are very much South African, and it references flour types that don't exist in the UK. So I will give the recipe in its original format and supply the UK substitutes in brackets.

8 cups nutty wheat (I used granary flour)
4 cups cake flour (plain flour)
2 cups sugar
1 cup bran (I struggled to find this so went with oat bran, but you might have more success)
4 tablespoons baking powder
500ml buttermilk (see note below)
250ml natural yoghurt
50ml cooking oil (I used canola)
500g margarine/butter (I always use butter)
1 teaspoon salt

  • Melt butter and sugar together
  • Add all dry ingredients and mix well. Forget your electric beater - you will just burn out the motor. And you would probably snap your wooden spoon. So just wash your hands really well, roll up your sleeves and do it the way your granny would.
  • Add buttermilk, yoghurt and oil and mix through thoroughly. This will be when it gets really messy, but I still recommend your hands.
  • Press into a greased oven pan (you know - the one that came with the oven in the first place?). This recipe is enough for two oven pans full.
  • Bake at 160C for about 45 minutes (adjust as appropriate for fan assisted ovens)
  • Remove from the oven (and reduce the temperature to about 80-100C)
  • Cut into slices about 2.5cmX10cm or so (use your own judgement - what size rusks do you want?) and turn out onto metal cooling racks
  • Dry in the oven for about 4-6 hours (or even overnight) until they are crisp right through. For this, I actually put the cooling racks straight into the oven. Avoid placing the rusks onto a solid base like a baking sheet. They need air from all sides. I actually prop the oven door slightly open during this process (this is where the carbon footprint bit comes in) by wedging an oven glove in one side.
  • Enjoy with coffee. Even in the politest society, it is entirely acceptable to dunk a rusk.
It is quite tricky getting hold of buttermilk in the UK these days. In some of the bigger towns, the major supermarkets seem to stock it. But in my small town, the only supermarket that does so is Waitrose. However, I discovered that Elmlea single is 85% buttermilk. And that can be found just about anywhere. So, if you can't get buttermilk, give that a whirl.


  1. With my cow's milk intolerance, I've had to find alternatives to all sorts of ingredients. I mix roughly equal parts of sheep or goat's yoghurt with sheep or goat's milk to make a sort of buttermilk (right texture and slightly sour) This works just fine for buttermilk fesh fruit pancakes, so if you're struggling to find buttermilk you may find doing this with cow's milk and yoghurt does the trick - not perfect, but better than not trying this recipe!

  2. @Catherine Great idea. I wonder if a blend of soya milk/yoghurt would also do the trick. It's worth a shot...

  3. In the US, a common substitute for buttermilk is a tablespoon of lemon juice or vinegar for one cup of milk, and let stand for 10 minutes. I have also used what we call sour cream (which is often thick) and enough milk to make it liquidy like a thick cream.

  4. @Virginia Sour cream may not be a bad idea, but I'm almost inclined to suggest plain yoghurt instead. I suspect it would be healthier...

  5. ok - so I made these with my goat's yoghurt and milk adaptation as above...and served one to a South African friend of my son's for his opinion....'not exactly as I remember them. but my Mum didn't use nutty flour'. (I've asked for his Mum's recipe obviously!) Served them to friends with home-made syrups and dulce con leche, and opinions mixed (tasty but too crunchy was the consensus) BUT I love them for my breakfast dunked in tea!

  6. @Catherine His Mom probably made buttermilk rusks with white flour. I have a variation on that theme coming up tomorrow!

    I can understand your friends finding them 'too crunchy'. They are somewhat outside of the cultural framework. However, the dunking is what makes them edible. Perhaps your friends would prefer them before the second baking.