(image: Tanya Heathcote)
Maybe if my gran had baked scones, I would feel different. Scones can be whipped up in a hot second. But she didn’t. My gran baked rusks.
On Sunday afternoons, when the entire house was bathed in a lazy daze, cats curled up on couches, the stereo quietly playing Vivaldi, and the grown-ups with their noses buried in gripping novels or the newspaper, on those Sundays, my gran would bake rusks. Our kitchen smelt then just as mine does now, wholesome, wafting with the caramelisation of butter and sugar as the oven timer tick-tocked the minutes away.
If you’ve never committed yourself to the task of rusk baking, let me tell you – it requires a decent chunk of your day. My gran would bake double batches, precisely because of the many hours involved. She used this enormous, tin dish. Young me thought of it as the oversized dog bowl. She would stand there with just a wooden spoon to assist, patiently churning the stiff batter, her arm bent out at a right angle like the handle of a car jack cranking up the weight of a one-ton truck. Slow and steady.
Many people I know bake their rusks in a bread tin and then cut them like standing soldiers. But that way, you only get a crust on the top – a little helmet. I was taught to spread the batter out onto a baking sheet, so the entire length of your rusk is a beautiful, golden crust. It holds together better when dunked into hot tea too. A good rusk should be dunkable without the bottom half drowning in your cup.
Then comes the Tetris game of flipping baking pans onto grids and back onto boards, cutting the bread sheet into measured rusk fingers. Granny had this trick for scoring the patted down batter before it went into the oven. That way you weren’t cutting into a solid sheet, which would often result in large fragments breaking off.
What’s left is precariously stacking them on the oven grid for several more hours of drying out in mild heat.
From the bottom of the stairs, she would call me from my room the way Snow White called birds from the forest, melodic and cheerful. I would huff down the stairs, annoyed at the playtime disturbance. There she would be standing in her lilac, fluffy knit with a cheeky, all-knowing grin. Her hand would inch towards me revealing a silver spoon with a perfectly rounded ball of rusk dough on it – the crunchy Cornflake bits, my favourite. I would gobble it up with sheer joy, all traces of frustration gone. Every time the same – it was like a little play we acted out.
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I’ve continued to bake her rusks into adulthood, following her recipe to the letter. As my passion for food has grown in confidence I’ve dabbled with amendments to her golden formula, like substituting the buttermilk for kefir – fermented goat’s milk. Butter can also be replaced with ghee or coconut oil but then the rusks become denser. The sugar quantity can invariably be halved without affecting the crunch. At one point I concluded I loved baking rusks so much I should convert it into a side business – a rusky business, I joked. Turns out, risky is just what it would be.
When things become an expression of self over a chore, we elaborate on them, adorning them with little touches. For all the substitutions and add-ins like nuts and seeds I’ve worked into my recipe, they would have to be gourmet rusks. Expensive rusks.
Gone would be the slow, methodical bake. It would become a numbers game, of haste and efficiency. In the end, I realised, all endeavours of profitability aside, baking rusks the way my granny did, they’re far more valuable to me as a mindful kitchen meditation.
If you haven’t yet delved into the personal business of rusks baking, I urge you to try your hand at an easy buttermilk rusk recipe, or perhaps even a muesli rusk recipe for a quick breakfast. With any luck, you’ll be as charmed by baking them as I am. Maybe the next time it rains on a Sunday afternoon, you’ll have a wonderfully warming baking practice to turn to, and with any luck, one day, a family heirloom.
More delicious recipes to begin your rusk baking journey…