Sunday, December 20, 2020


South African rusks are in my blood. In the houses of my childhood and teenagehood rusks lived in big metal cake tins that gradually collected dry layers of loose crumbs. Rusks were served in little baskets when tea was made. 11am and 4pm. And you dunked. If you went on a long road trip and stopped beside the road for a break, you had rusks and instant coffee. 

When the Frenchman and I have gone camping rusks were breakfast, easily packed into the breakfast box with the Bialetti, the ground coffee, the sugar jar, and the enamel cups. My Canadian-born, French-blooded husband took to rusks the way he took to South African boerewors. He fell in love, hard. 

They are hard, yet brittle, dry through and through. They travel well. They are sweet. They suck up hot liquid and turn just soft enough to bite. If you dip too long they calve into the cup like a global warming glacier and send a tsunami of brown liquid across your pajamas (you can study rusk splatter the way experts study blood spatter to piece together prior events). 

There are many styles of rusk, from delicate mosbolletjie flavored with caraway, to knobbly bran-and-raisin, to the classic buttermilk, cut into neat rectangles. The ones I grew up with had loads of butter and warm milk, and cream of tartar. 

In Brooklyn, that warm, sweet smell of drying rusks, baked for the first time late in this year of pandemic, whooshes me back to my mother's Bloemfontein and Cape Town kitchens, where she mixed enormous batches in a huge cast iron Dutch oven covered in chipped, pale yellow enamel. On Sundays it held a roast leg of lamb. I would beg for a still-soft rusk hot from the oven, split it, and cover it in butter and Marmite. Then, they are like American biscuits (or English scones). After, they are split and dried slowly. If kept dry, they last approximately forever.

I made rusks recently for the Frenchman, to whom rusks mean an unspooling road to the horizon, a car's nose pointed towards adventure, and freedom from desks and meetings and deadlines and targets. Because he has found that a low-carb diet works for him, I also worked out the carb count for each half-rusk. Because you eat rusks in halves. Now, if he wakes and worries in the night, he says he thinks of his morning cup of coffee, and the first dunk. It is his Om.

I based the rusks on my mom's recipe, and added yellow sweet clover (Melilotus officinalis) whose honey-like, fresh-mown hay scent is wonderful in baking. Collect its flowers in summer and dry them for use through the year. But the rusks are authentic without it. Go next door for the rusk recipe, residing at 66 Square Feet (the Food). 



  1. This post brings back memories of eating Rusks dipped in sweet milky chai all my growing years in India. Back home the best brand was Brittania, but nothing would beat the local bakery shop. Made of semolina and scented with cardomom , sometimes cloves, it was always the right way to start the day.

    1. Interesting! I have wondered, but never done any research, whether rusks date back to so-call hard tack or ships' biscuits.

  2. Probably even further back, when people used to pack saddle bags with non perishables. Do they sell marmite in south africa?


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