A comforting taste of childhood

"First you put in two cups of oats," she says. My mother-in-law has made rusks so often that she doesn't need to reach for her recipe book.

We never leave her house without a tubful of homemade milk rusks. They're crunchy, crumbly, currant-studded cubes of dry sweetness - a far cry from the flat, round chocolate cookies I grew up with in faraway England.

To my mother-in-law, rusks are the taste of South Africa, where her parents once lived. In Afrikaans, they are known as beskuit.

She pours the oats into a plastic bowl on the kitchen counter. It's midafternoon. Lizards scuttle in the lazy heat outside. But the simple white kitchen is shaded by the pigeonwood tree my mother-in-law planted two years ago.

I sit at the table, taking notes.

She adds 8 cups of flour, two cups of brown sugar, three cups of bran, a few handfuls of currants, two teaspoons of salt, and two teaspoons of baking powder to the plastic bowl.

The eggs are waiting by my mother-in-law's elbow.

"Never use cold eggs," she says as she cracks two into a saucepan.

In goes a carton of sour milk (known as buttermilk in the United States). Zimbabweans call it "lacto."

Margarine (you can use butter, too) is bubbling gently on the stove. My mother-in-law dribbles the molten gold liquid into her flour bowl and stirs in the egg mixture with a battered wooden spoon.

Then she takes great dollops of the dough and flattens them into baking tins that she's greased with the margarine wrapping.

She slides them into the oven. We've got an hour to chat. Rusks take a long time to bake.

In my four years as a daughter-in-law in Zimbabwe, I've learned that rusks are much more than a sweet snack to this family. My mother-in-law's rusks are the comforting taste of her childhood.

One of the best things she's ever given me is an old black-and-white photo album. Pasted inside are pictures of my mother-in-law as a schoolgirl wearing a flared skirt, the collar of her regulation white shirt peeping out from a dark, V-neck sweater.

She's in the middle of her class photo. Her thick, brown curly hair and wide smile haven't changed one bit. In the sloping handwriting of a 15-year-old, she's written, "The belles of St Mary's."

She and her friends hid away sardines and tins of condensed milk for midnight feasts in their dormitory, she tells me. Rusks were everyday food, good for dunking into a mug of hot milk.

Their mothers packed picnic hampers for the long train journey to school in Johannesburg. The carriages were upholstered in green leather with cylindrical cushions. A guard came around every morning with hot water.

At the beginning of each school term, my mother-in-law and her friends spent two days chugging gently toward algebra and French verbs.

My father-in-law rode in a separate train, heading for a boys' boarding school in Grahams- town, another day's ride south of Johannesburg.

The two of them must have boarded school trains a dozen times. But they didn't meet until their lessons were behind them. My mother-in-law was a window dresser, working in a store in what is now central Harare, Zimbabwe.

"You have to be patient," she says, 40 years, three sons, and six grandchildren later, as she wraps a tea towel around her hand to lift the rusks from the oven. "You can't eat them straightaway."

She lifts a knife from the cutlery drawer and cuts deep into each moist tray. She cuts horizontal and vertical lines, like an edible chutes-and-ladders' board.

Smoothly she slips the rusks back into the oven. They have to dry out overnight at a low, steady heat.

"There," she says, wiping her hands with a satisfied sigh. "Those will be lovely in the morning."

She was right, of course.

Milk rusks

Note: Recipe can be halved.

8 cups flour (self-rising is best)

2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 cups brown sugar, packed
2 cups rolled oats
3 cups bran flakes (tester used Total brand cereal)
2 eggs
2 cups buttermilk
4 sticks butter or margarine (2 cups) (butter is best)
1-1/3 cups currants or raisins
1/2 cup sunflower seeds (optional)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Mix all dry ingredients together. In a separate bowl, beat the eggs. Stir in buttermilk. Melt the butter on low heat. Combine all ingredients.

Spoon dough into two medium-size well-greased bread pans. (Press the currants into the dough so they won't burn.)

Bake for 1 hour. Check after 20 minutes: If rusks are too brown, turn heat down 10 degrees or so.

Remove from oven and cut into 1 to 1-1/2-inch cubes. Cut around sides of the pan to loosen rusks.

Turn the pan over onto a cookie sheet. Spread out the rusks on the sheet and return them to a 'warming drawer' overnight. (If you don't have a warming drawer, you can bake them again on a low setting, 150 F. or so, for 3 to 4 hours.)

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