Week Twenty-Nine: African Breads
Today’s bread actually comes to us from the Netherlands, via South Africa. As you may be aware, a certain percentage of the population of South Africa is of Dutch lineage; and if you’ve studied your history books, you know this is ultimately because of pepper. Yes, plain old black pepper.
See, back in the 1500s, Europeans had gotten their first tastes of those fascinating foods called “spices”, and they liked what they tasted. (Because, you know, spices are delicious.) Black pepper was a firm favorite, and people just couldn’t get enough. Literally. At that time, the Portuguese (allied with the Spanish and the Germans) had pretty much full control over the spice trade; but unfortunately, they weren’t very efficient. So while demand grew for spices, black pepper in particular, the supply remained scarce, and therefore the price went sky-high.
The Dutch, miffed about being cut out of the whole deal, decided to start their own spice-trading company, and the Dutch East India Company (a.k.a. the VOC) was formed. It ended up being so much more efficient (oh, and horribly violent) than the Portuguese system that they had basically full control of most spice-trade routes in Southeast Asia and Indonesia within 50 years.
In 1652, needing a decent half-way point, Jan van Riebeeck of the VOC settled an outpost in South Africa, which later became Cape Town. More and more Dutch eventually settled there, followed by the British, Germans, and French looking for their own piece of the action. Violence ensued.
Violence aside, all those people still needed to eat, and so an old sailor’s trick was adapted to living on dry land (some of it really dry): the biscuit. Etymologically speaking, “biscuit” means “twice-cooked”. You know, like biscotti or zwieback, both literally meaning “twice-cooked”. By removing all the moisture from a bread, it keeps for ages longer than it would under normal circumstances. And so, the European settlers began baking rusks as a way of preserving bread in the arid South African climate.
Throughout all the political and cultural strife that has notoriously plagued that country, the rusks have remained. But unlike the more familiar Holland rusks, or the British style of rusk, which are both plain and decidedly boring, South African rusks have nothing bland about them. They’re more akin to the Italian biscotti, though not quite as sweet. Much like biscotti, South African rusks are usually dipped in coffee or tea, specifically rooibos (or redbush) tea. Historically homemade, rusks are now produced by several companies (though there is one extremely popular brand in particular).
Essentially a twice-baked quick bread, these rusks are quite fast to whip up – but the drying time is what takes the most patience. Many recipes call for a 4 hour drying (re-baking) time, but I’ve seen times up to 8 hours. This, of course, also depends on how thick you make them, how much moisture was in the dough, and how humid your weather is. I found mine dried out well in about 4 hours of re-baking time (see note 1 below).
Though you can make these rusks plain, I like to add a little flavor to mine. Here, I’ve used rolled oats, sesame seeds, and poppy seeds, purely because I like those flavors, not for any real authenticity. Raisins are quite customary, so add those if you like.
These rusks turn out quite crunchy, with not a bit of toughness anywhere. They’re delightfully crisp, and are really just lovely with a cup of tea, as most South Africans already know. Despite the similarities to biscotti, they’re grainier and far less sweet, which may not sound impressive, but it greatly appeals to me. They’re like biscotti’s rustic country cousin, a little less refined, but just as incredibly tasty.
Not to mention, rusks are certainly better for you than the average cookie. If you’re in the habit of serving tea, or want to impress any coffee-drinking coworkers, give these a shot. They’re crunchy, endlessly variable, and rather addictive. Make a batch just to have on hand if you want; they’ll keep almost indefinitely. But fair warning – once you’ve made them, you may be asked to make them more often than your schedule will allow. In that case, maybe give a nod to more violent times, throw in a generous handful of black pepper, and insist you don’t know what happened.
South African Rusks
Adapted from the Tuningi Game Lodge, South Africa, via London Foodie In New York
Makes about 30 big rusks
1 stick unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly
12 ounces (about 2 1/2 cups) whole wheat flour
9 ounces (about 2 cups) unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 cup regular rolled oats (not quick-cooking)
1/4 cup sesame seeds
1 tablespoon poppy seeds
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 cup buttermilk
1 egg, lightly beaten
1. Preheat the oven to 350º F. Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper, or lightly oil it.
2. In a glass measuring cup, melt the butter. Set aside to cool slightly. While cooling, whisk together the flours, sugars, salt, baking powder, baking soda, oats, sesame seeds, and poppy seeds in a large bowl. Set aside.
3. To the butter, add the oil and egg, and stir until combined. Add the buttermilk, and stir to blend. Add the buttermilk mixture to the flour mixture, and mix just until all dry ingredients are moistened. Dough should be moderately stiff.
4. Turn mixture out onto the prepared baking sheet. Using floured hands, shape gently into one or two long, thin logs that are as long as the pan will allow. Try to give each log some height, as it may spread a little in the oven. Do not flatten or compress them.
5. Bake the logs at 350º F for 45 to 60 minutes, or until golden brown, and a skewer inserted in the center comes out clean. Let the logs cool on the sheet pan on a rack.
6. Turn the oven temperature down to 200º F. Cut each log crossways into pieces about 1/2 inch thick. Transfer each piece, cut side up, back on the baking sheet. You may need a second baking sheet for this step.
7. Bake rusks a second time at 200º F for at least 4 hours, or until thoroughly dried out and crisp, turning rusks over halfway through baking. Let rusks cool on baking sheets when done. Properly dried, rusks will keep indefinitely at room temperature.
1. I baked my rusks for about 4 hours, then simply turned the oven off and let them sit while I was busy with other things. However, I had let the baked and uncut log sit overnight before re-baking, which likely dried it out a bit. If you’re re-baking them immediately after making, or if your weather is very humid, it may take longer to dry properly.
2. You can use any proportion of wheat to white flour you like; the one given worked well for me.
3. Feel free to use any seasonings you like: aniseed and muesli (or granola) are very traditional, but switch it up however you like. Add other seeds or raisins, omit the oats, whatever you prefer.
4. I shaped my dough into one big log, which produced rather large rusks (about the size of those monster biscotti you often see in coffee shops). Next time, I would probably shape the dough into two thin logs in order to make more bite-sized rusks, better suited to snacking on, and faster to dry out.