Friday, 10 February 2012

Rusk: A Migratory Concoction

I'm sure that at some point in your life you've heard some variation of the adage "if it ain't broke, don't fix it." While I understand it's premise, is it not true that if something isn't broken, it must be to a large extent "perfect"? For those of you who may be familiar by this point with my writing style (at least in blog form) and my approach to the recipes presented throughout this blog, rarely do I truly replicate a recipe. More often than not, I find myself spending quite some time pouring through a variety of recipes in search of the common ingredients, averaging their quantities and then doing something different to make the recipe more my own. Now, this is not to say I'm seeking the perfect recipe of any given dish but rather I find myself looking for my voice among the voices of recipes past, present and future. Indeed, I am convinced there is no such thing as an "original" recipe, or at least the recipes of today have undergone an evolution by way of new ingredients, techniques and inspirations. On another end of the spectrum, many of the variations to recipes presented here are present because of convenience (followed by trial and error) more so than intent. One such recipe that falls in this category is one that I have cherished for a few years now: South African rusk.

a full batch of my host mom's beskuit (November 2008)
A truly migratory food, rusk is in itself the category of dried, typically twice-baked goods. As I've tried to quickly explain what rusk is to others, I found myself saying it's similar to Italy's biscotti (as opposed to saying biscotti is a type of rusk). Made by such companies as der Meulen, rusk has undoubtedly become an international delight which has taken regional and national forms. Due to its low water content (due to the baking process), rusk keeps extremely well, if they can even last that long at the hands of inquisitive or hungry passersby. Of the various forms that rusk can take, my favourite is beskuit which is Afrikaans for "rusks" but which more specifically (and typically) refers to a rusk made with a high fibrous ingredient (commonly All-Bran wheat flakes and/or muesli). It's rather difficult for me to imagine, but the first time I had South African rusks was nearly three and a half years ago when I lived with my Stellenbosch host family. It was there, too, that I first had a fresh carrot salad, a recipe so simple and delicious that it's perhaps the only recipe which I have duplicated the most and with little to no variation. When I first saw rusk being made, I remember watching my host mom weigh the ingredients with precision and pull together the batter with a complete confidence and ownership of the recipe itself. I also clearly remember every member of the family sneaking pieces of rusk as she was transferring them onto multiple trays for drying. No wonder the recipe she had yielded so much! I loved the rusks so much that I asked for a copy of the recipe before I left the country (and certainly there are a variety of beskuit recipes out there, e.g., here, here and here). Months later, though, the handwritten recipe I was given was nowhere to be found and so any chance of making them had been put to a halt. (The fact that the recipe calls for the rusks to dry in the oven for 12 hours also didn't help encourage me at the time to recreate them.) However, and especially with the big dinner with the dance department and their guests soon approaching, it was about time to finally ask for the recipe again (which was graciously sent to me) and attempt to make them. In about 10 hours (from the start of this post), I'll be heading out to Notre Dame for the weekend (a voyage that feels like such a long time coming); if I was to try and practice making rusk, it had to be much sooner rather than later.

I should preface the rest of this post by saying what I'm presenting here is a variation of the recipe I was sent, particularly because of the ingredients I didn't have available. I also converted the original metric units to standard American units and adjusted accordingly. I should note, too, the original recipe I was sent yields three times as much rusk as my version yielded. All of this being said, get your oven preheating at 350 °F and get 10.5 tbsp (1 stick + 2.5 tbsp) unsalted butter out of your fridge so it can be brought to room temperature. As I didn't have any buttermilk, I made my own substitution. To 1 + 1/3 c milk, stir in a glass/bowl 1 + 1/3 tbsp white vinegar and let that sit for at least five minutes (by the time you use it, five minutes will easily have passed).

Looking at the list of the sent ingredients, maizena was an unfamiliar one to me; it's nothing more than corn starch. Also on the list was baking soda, another ingredient I didn't have but which is part of the ingredients list (along with cream of tartar) in making your own baking powder substitution. With the ratio of additional dry ingredients for the original recipe equal to the ratio of the ingredients used to make the substitution, I added to 3 + 1/3 c all-purpose flour in a large mixing bowl 1 + 1/3 tbsp baking powder. To this, I added 1/2 c + 1 tbsp brown sugar and 1 tsp salt. Thoroughly mix the ingredients together breaking up any clumps (use your hands for best results).

Still using your hands, incorporate your unsalted butter into the dry mix, breaking up any clumps. In contrast to the biscotti I made last spring, do not melt your butter as the rusk will end up with a completely different texture. This step is probably the most important again because of textural reasons; you're aiming for something like wet sand that can hold its shape when compressed but that also crumbles easily. (I imagine this is a relatively difficult task when working with three times the amount of the original recipe...)

To this lot, stir in 1 + 3/4 c bran flakes making sure to incorporate them throughout the dry mix.

Now back to the buttermilk substitute... Add 1 whole egg and 1/4 c vegetable [(or canola but not extra virgin olive] oil, and whisk everything very well together. Using a strong spatula, thoroughly combine the ingredients, making sure to scrape down the side and bottom of the bowl. You want the batter to look completely moist, i.e., none of the dry mix should remain visible!

Butter a 13" x 9" baking dish and spoon the finished batter into it. Level it off and get this in the oven for about 30-35 minutes or until golden brown. Your kitchen should smell extraordinary at that point.

As the rusk cool down slightly, reduce the heat of the oven to about 215 °F. Cut into the rusk (it's okay if it's still warm at this point) into your more or less desired shape. At this point, you'll note the interior is still rather moist and while you could technically eat this batch as it is (and more often than not others around you, including yourself, may sneak a taste... or three) the rusk are far from finished. Transfer half of this batch onto another baking dish, and then back into the oven. (Good thing I didn't make the entire recipe, as the oven in my apartment is not nearly big enough.) You want to be able to provide enough circulation and room for the heat to get to and evenly dry out each piece. On this low setting, let the heat of the oven do its magic and dry out the rusk. I started making the batter around midnight and so I was able to easily go to sleep while they were drying (as opposed to being tempted to go in and eat all of the rusk before it even had a chance to dry). After about four hours, I reduced the oven heat down to warm and then went back to sleep, leaving the rusk in there for another 3 hours.

Though warm, but very much so easy to handle, the rusks were finally ready to enjoy. Dry and crumbly, subtly sweet but healthy-tasting, these beskuit have a flavour and personality all their own. This is certainly another recipe I'm looking forward to making again and again! For the entire album, click here.

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