Who doesn’t love to dip ‘n Ouma in their morning cuppa? They’re like South Africa’s answer to tea and toast, and if they’ve been made by your actual Ouma then so much the better. My favourite is buttermilk: the ones with “bits” in them tend to leave a lot of debris in your coffee, and a last sip that’s full of raisins and soggy chunks – no thanks.
When Ouma became a little more modern and gave the rusks a makeover from the traditional shape into a biscotti shape (presumably because they bake faster and use less energy and blah blah blah) it was as appealing to me as when a sweet little old lady gets a makeover and turns into Joan Rivers. How very dare they? I decided that I needed to learn how to make rusks from scratch before I opened another box and found that the rusks were pierced or tattooed or contained botox instead of buttermilk.
Around the same time, I had been making lots of soup and I was trying to think of something to serve with a thick, smooth soup which is delicious and filling but fairly monotonous in texture. And as I stood there with a mug of soup in my hand (sipping from a mug allows you a free hand to hold your book open) I was inspired: savoury rusks for dunking in soup!
This recipe yields 20 big fat rusks, or 40 smaller (quicker-drying) rusks; I’ve found that they improve on standing, losing their brittle texture over the course of a week – keep them well-wrapped in foil to prevent them from sucking up too much moisture from the atmosphere because – prepare yourself for a large word – they are fairly hygroscopic. They will be tough enough to stand up to immersion in hot soup but still crisp enough that you could eat one as is.
Parmesan Black Pepper Rusks
250g softened butter or margarine, or half butter or marg and half olive oil (in case you forgot to buy butter, it happens)
1kg self-raising flour
~100g parmesan cheese, coarsely grated
~1 teaspoon salt
lots and lots of freshly ground black pepper
1 egg, beaten
2 tablespoons lemon juice
Preheat the oven to 160 degrees Celsius. Mix the milk and lemon juice and set aside.
Rub the butter into the flour until it resembles fine breadcrumbs. Do not be silly and make these when you are very tired and it’s late on a Monday evening, because this will result in you forgetting this all-important step and it is significantly more difficult to get the butter in at a later stage…
Add the cheese, salt and pepper to the flour mixture. Mix the egg into the milk mixture, then add the liquid to the dry ingredients. Using a wooden spoon, mix it all together to form a soft dough. If it is late on a Monday evening after all and you did forget that crucial rubbing-in step, you will now be staring at a bizarre grey lump of rough dough wondering why it’s so dry. You may even tentatively add more milk, thinking aha! the measuring jug is obviously faulty. When it dawns on you that the butter is still sitting on the counter, staring smugly back at you, hit it repeatedly with the wooden spoon if you think it will make you feel better. All is not lost – you can add it in then get in up to your elbows to work it into the sticky mass in the bowl to create a smooth dough. But save yourself all this trouble by avoiding rusk-baking on Mondays.
Divide the dough into 10 equal-sized balls; I find it easier to divide into two large piece, then divide each into 5 balls. Pack them neatly into the baking tins, in 2 rows of 5 per tin. They will look worryingly small and round but have faith.
Bake them for 50 minutes, then turn them out of the tins and break them apart. They will be nice and tall and rusk-y, and quite moist. If you are in a rush to get these done, you could slice each rusk in half to reduce the drying time.
Pack them in a single layer on drying racks on top of cookie sheets (to catch crumbs) and allow them to dry out in a very cool oven (whatever the lowest setting is) with the door cracked open to let the moist air out.
I’ve never timed this part; I always make these in the evening, and then switch the oven off when I retire for the night. I leave the oven door slightly open and let the rusks cool down overnight. I’d guess that 4 to 5 hours at the lowest oven temperature followed by a slow cooling period should work fine. I saw a tip online advising to use 2 bits of dowel rod to hold the oven door open – who are these people that always have bits of dowel rod handy? I just jammed a bundled-up dishcloth into the opening.
If you are concerned about the degree of dryness, take the fattest rusk out and break it open – if it’s not dry and crunchy all the way through, give them another hour or so of the lowest oven temperature before allowing to cool again.
Serve with mugs of hot steaming soup, and when you’re in the supermarket give the boxes of rusks a contemptuous look down your nose.
Dip that, Ouma.
PS: I recommend a bit of Herman Charles Bosman for reading with rusks; I’m slowly working my way through the Voorkamer Stories.