It was only about 3 hours into the drive along Route 62 when I realised what I was actually doing; I was travelling 400km into the middle of the Klein Karoo (aka nowhere) in search of ‘The Perfect Koeksister’. Those that know me, expect nothing less, but still, it was quite crazy. Even for me.
To catch you up to speed, a koeksister is a plaited, deep-fried doughnut drenched in a seriously sticky syrup. It’s a treat as South African as milk tart, biltong and beer. Like American’s and their doughnuts? Koeksisters are a big deal here – we take them as seriously as our rugby! We even have a monument dedicated to the treat! My search for sweetness led me all the way to the little town of Ladismith where rumour has it, I’d find the best. Although tuisnywerheid’s (little shops selling home-baked treats) have all but died out in the big cities, in a small town like Ladismith it is still the place to go for the best cakes, rusks and jams (and also the latest skinner/gossip!)
Only the finest bakers get their goodies displayed on the shelves here. It was while scanning the fully-laden racks that I met Lallie Botha who tells me she was Ladismith’s first koeksister queen back in 1972 when she founded the tuisnywerheid. Back then, she would go through an 85L drum of oil each month! I was convinced I was in the right place – the people of Ladismith definitely love their koeksisters! After giving me some tips on what to look out for in the perfect koeksister, Lallie dished the dirt on who makes the best and sent me on my way (with 5 bottles of homemade jam). While walking through the town of Ladismith, I couldn’t resist stopping a few locals to ask about their favourite koeksisters. But it seemed the town was completely divided on who makes the best and I sensed a little competition between two particular bakers. It was definitely time for me to meet the koeksister contenders!
My first visit was to the home of Euradia Muller, who greeted me, voorskoot (apron) and all, before hurrying back into the kitchen while fretting that her koeksisters were now sitting in the syrup too long! Over a cup of milky rooibos tea brewed in a green teapot on the stove, Euradia caught her breath long enough to tell me that there are no secrets when it comes to making koeksisters! I could barely hide my disappointment. Had I come all this way for nothing?
Euradia wakes up at the crack of dawn to make the dough before the heat of the Klein Karoo sets in. She uses an heirloom ruler to measure her koeksisters – a lady after my own OCD heart! Her ‘sisters are cut into rectangles which are then halved and twisted before being deep-fried and plunged into ice cold syrup. She tells me that it is very important that the syrup is very cold. Finally! I had something to go on! My excitement was short-lived though as she then explained that the recipe was passed down to her by her mother who refused to give it to anyone. The recipe used to be kept under lock and key but is now engraved in her mind and she cooks it off by heart. My koeksister trek (mission) seemed more and more doomed. On leaving I was handed a neatly wrapped tray laden with freshly baked koeksisters and the instructions to store them in the fridge as soon as possible. But, as far as a recipe was concerned, I left empty-handed!
My disappointment was immediately forgotten though when I felt the warm Karoo hospitality the minute I was welcomed through the backdoor of Cynthia du Plessis’ farm kitchen. After I was shown photos of her 4 grandchildren, and told the long story of how her and her husband Willem moved from Pretoria to stay in Ladismith, I finally managed to sway the conversation back to her koeksisters. On hearing whose kitchen I’d just come from, Cynthia tells me she used to be a fan of Euradia’s but now bakes her own (I didn’t press the clearly sensitive matter!) But the big question was, would she share her secret recipe with an English girl from the big city?
I was in luck! Cynthia welcomed my enthusiasm with open arms and proceeded to run me through all her baking secrets like I was her granddaughter! I learnt to knead dough with my fists like a real Afrikaans tannie and mastered the trick to twisting the koeksisters just the right way so they don’t unravel while frying. And when it came to the syrup, I thought I was terribly clever when I eagerly offered my new-found knowledge from Euradia to use ice cold syrup, only to be told that it was actually the wrong way to make koeksisters! Ai. It seemed the only thing the two ladies did agree on, was that koeksisters need to be stored in the fridge to stay crisp. At least there was that!
As we finished deep-frying the twists, I stole a taste of Cynthia’s koeksisters. As to who’s were the best? I was undecided as they were equally delicious! But thankfully, this time, I left the kitchen (via the backdoor) with my mind filled with years of wisdom, a scribbled recipe in one hand, a packet full of fresh koeksisters in the other and two newly-adopted ouma’s who insist I come back to visit soon.
Recipe by Cynthia du Plessis
Note: While 165ml baking powder is a lot, Cynthia assured me it’s to keep the koeksisters crunchy in the syrup. Who am I to question the koeksister queen?! This recipe makes a large amount of koeksisters, so it’s safest to halve this recipe.
Makes 4 dozen
1250g cake flour
½ tbsp salt
165ml baking powder
1 ¼ cups milk
1 ½ cups water
5 large eggs
62g butter or margarine, softened
oil, for deep-frying
12 cups sugar
6 cups water
2/3 cups lemon juice
1 ½ tbsp cream of tartar
1 tsp caramel essence (optional)
Sift the flour, salt and baking powder into a large bowl. Whisk the milk, water and eggs together and add to the dry ingredients. Mix to form a soft dough then knead thoroughly for 10 minutes, adding a little butter or margarine in every now and then.
Cover the dough with clingwrap and place in the fridge overnight. Make the syrup by combining the sugar, water, juice, cream of tartar and caramel essence in a large pot and stir over low heat until the sugar is dissolved. Boil the syrup for 10 minutes then allow to cool to room temperature. Break off a fist-sized chunk of the dough and roll out into a long sausage on a lightly oil-greased surface, then using a rolling pin, roll out to about 10cm wide. Cut into 1cm strips.
Take each strip then roll into a sausage, twist the ends around each other to form a koeksister shape and pinch the ends closed. Heat the oil to 180C then deep-fry the koeksisters, a few at a time, turning often to brown on all sides, until golden and cooked through.
Drain from the oil and immediately plunge into the room-temperature syrup, making sure to keep the koeksisters submerged so they soak up the syrup. Drain the koeksisters from the syrup and allow to cool. To keep your koeksisters crispy, store them in the freezer. Remove them from the freezer 15 minutes before you want to serve them. Enjoy with a lekker koppie rooibos tee!