Earlier this month when I was challenged to cook for a group of South African rugby players, the nerves soon set in and, to be honest, I grabbed the phone and called my mother. Living in the UK for nearly 20 years now, I must admit that traditional South African recipes are not as prominent in my culinary repertoire as one might expect. The challenge was to make a tasty Bobotie (aromatically spiced lamb mince dish topped with egg, almost like a moussaka without the aubergines), a Malva pudding (sticky toffee pudding without the dates), and Koeksisters.
I can hear the question already – what is a koeksister? When I started making these, the team were enthusiastic and everyone was asking what they were (I think they all just wanted a taster!). To define something in a different language and also to describe it in comparison to what they would recognise challenged me slightly. So the explanation is as follows. It’s a soft dough (almost like a doughnut dough without the yeast), that is shaped into long spiral fingers, deep-fried until golden brown and crisp and then immediately dunked into an ice-cold acidulated spice-infused sugar syrup. They’re best eaten a few days after they are made (if you can wait that long!), and they are traditionally served with tea in the afternoon. If you could make them small enough they would effectively make great petit fours too, but mine always end up a tad on the larger side.
I must say following mum’s advice and a recipe from my grandmother’s book, along with a few additions of my own, I was impressed with my efforts. Mum and I had a giggle whilst translating the recipe. We always get stuck on two ingredients and that is cream of tartar and citric acid; the translation causes us confusion. When she reads the recipes, she always mixes the two up, and after a panic and a hissy fit, we always realise that she has given me the incorrect information! They are two completely different ingredients and in baking they deliver different results. Well, after a few disasters, we have now wised up to the errors we previously made, hence we had a laugh about it this time round.
For this recipe, you need both cream of tartar and citric acid. Cream of tartar is acidic, but it also provides a creamy texture to the syrup, so when the hot crispy fried koeksisters are dunked into the cold syrup, the cream of tartar will provide the luxurious creamy, velvety texture to the syrup. The citric acid on the other hand prevents crystallization of the sugar syrup and provides the required acidity. Citric acid is also used for making elderflower cordial (acting as a preservative and preventing crystallization). If you do not have citric acid to hand, use extra lemon juice instead.
Ingredients & Method
For the syrup
- 1kg caster sugar
- 800ml cold water
- 4 tablespoons golden syrup
- 30g fresh root ginger, peeled and thinly sliced
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 5 cloves
- ½ teaspoon citric acid
- ½ teaspoon cream of tartar
- finely grated zest and juice of 1 lemon
For the dough
- 600g self-raising flour, plus extra for dusting
- a pinch of table salt
- a few gratings of fresh nutmeg
- 2 heaped teaspoons baking powder
- 50g cold unsalted butter
- 375ml buttermilk
- sunflower oil, for deep-frying
First make the syrup – this is best made a day in advance and kept chilled in the fridge overnight. Place all the syrup ingredients, except the lemon juice, in a medium saucepan over a medium heat, stirring to dissolve the sugar, then bring to the boil. Once the mixture is boiling, stop stirring and reduce the heat to a gentle simmer. Simmer the syrup for 15–20 minutes, until it has reduced by one-third and becomes glossy, slightly thickened and the colour has changed slightly to a golden tinge.
Remove from the heat, stir in the lemon juice, then cool the syrup over ice. Once cooled, transfer to a bowl, cover and keep chilled in the fridge overnight. The next day, pass the syrup through a fine sieve and then keep it chilled until you are ready to serve. Also, keep the syrup chilled over ice as you dunk the koeksisters, to keep it as chilled as possible throughout (see Cook’s Notes).
For the dough, put the flour, salt, nutmeg, baking powder and cold butter into the bowl of a mixer, attach the paddle and mix to rub the butter into the flour until it resembles fine breadcrumbs (or do this by hand, if you prefer). Gradually add the buttermilk, a little at a time, mixing well to make a soft dough. Turn the dough out on to a lightly floured work surface and knead the dough for 4–5 minutes until it forms a smooth ball. Cover with cling film and leave to rest at room temperature for 10 minutes.
Divide the dough into 25 even-sized balls (if you are pedantic like me then weigh them into 40g balls). Roll each ball into a 20cm long, thin, even sausage and then fold the sausage in half and twist the two strands together, pinching the ends to seal them together (do not use too much flour for the rolling and shaping as this will make the dough tough and dry and will foam when the pieces are fried). Place all the shaped pieces of dough on a baking tray, then cover lightly with cling film or a damp tea towel.
Heat some sunflower oil in an electric deep-fat fryer or in a deep frying pan to a temperature of 180°C (or until a small piece of bread browns within about 15–20 seconds in the hot oil). Deep-fry the dough shapes in batches, 3 at a time, deep-frying them for 6–8 minutes until golden brown all over, turning them occasionally to achieve an even colour all over. Remember that you want a deep golden brown colour and not a light colour. They have got to be crispy and cooked all the way through.
Once cooked and golden brown, carefully remove them using a slotted spoon and drain, then gently place them into the ice-cold syrup (see Cook’s Notes). Leave them in the syrup for 5 minutes while you continue to deep-fry the rest in batches. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the dunked koeksisters from the syrup to a tray (keeping them in a single layer). Once all the dough shapes are cooked and dunked, pour the remaining syrup over the koeksisters, then let them rest for at least a day in the fridge before serving (if you can resist the temptation to eat them straightaway!). Keep them refrigerated until you are ready to serve (see Cook’s Notes).
Always make the syrup first, preferably a day in advance, and make sure it’s well chilled before use, then keep it chilled over ice while you deep-fry the koeksisters. Ideally, divide the syrup into two bowls and alternate between them as you dunk the fried koeksisters, keeping each bowl of syrup as cold as possible for the entire cooking and dunking time.
The cooked and dunked koeksisters will keep for up to a week in the fridge, and they even freeze well for up to 3 months.
Even though you might feel that the quantity of raising agent in the dough is a bit too much for your liking, please do not alter the recipe, as it is correct and will result in light and delicious koeksisters (the dough can easily become tough and heavy).