By Dorie Cox
Deckhand Ryan Woods of M/Y Three Sons, a 130-foot Westport, considers himself a heavy dunker. He lets his rusk soak for a few seconds in coffee before he eats it.
“That way, it is a little mushier and absorbs some of the coffee flavor,” he said. “Although not an intended byproduct, sometimes little chunks break off into the coffee and give a little surprise at the end of the cup. I like to call these ‘coffee dumplings.’ ”
A rusk? What is it?
Introduced to the traditional South African treat last summer, Woods described them as “a coffee biscuit with a crunch, depending on how long you dip them.” Now, he eats a lot of them since the chief stew on Three Sons, Morgan Brawley, has gone into business to make them from her home in Pompano Beach, Florida.
“I like to think I’m one of the Patient Zeros for Morgan’s rusks, and I’ve been on board since Day One,” Woods said.
Bernard Horn, former deckhand on the 165-foot Mangusta M/Y Moonraker, dunks his rusk in tea or coffee for 15 seconds or less to make sure it is soggy, but not so soggy it will break off. As Brawley’s boyfriend and business partner, he eats at least four a day.
“I do not prefer chunky bits on the bottom,” Horn said. “And just a little bit at a time. My dad dunks the whole thing in and eats it with a spoon. I don’t like messing with my coffee.”
Horn’s mother, Esther, taught Brawley the secrets of making a proper rusk during a recent trip to visit his family in South Africa. After the couple returned home, they tried the rusks sold in the United States.
“Some we’ve tried are too sweet or too soft, some feel like an unhealthy Christmas cookie,” Brawley said.
So the couple decided to make their own. Brawley baked and baked in search of perfection, but she hit obstacles: The recipe Horn’s mother used is in Afrikaans, with measurements in Celsius. American ovens have different temperatures and sizes. And the traditional South African ingredients were nowhere to be found. Plus, Mrs. Horn “does it the old-school way, with no rusk tray,” Brawley said, referring to a stainless steel frame used to cut the dough into 90 perfect rectangles.
Armed with a little notebook of experiments and past failures, Brawley bought a rusk tray and spent days on the time-consuming process. After the ingredients are prepared, the dough is spread onto a baking sheet to bake for 40 minutes. Then comes the slow wait as they continue to stay in the oven under very low heat for six hours. The buttermilk version needs 12 hours.
“They’re like having a baby, you have to watch them,” she said.
At first, the couple invented recipes to be creative for American customers.
“Americans want chocolate chips,” Brawley said. But the chocolate chips sank, the pumpkin was too dense, and the coconut was too coarse. She persisted and settled on buttermilk and a coconut bran versions.
“Bernard always says, ‘You’ve got to risk it to get the biscuit,’ ” she said.
Once perfected, Brawley and Horn got serious about their business plan.
“We would wake up in the middle of the night thinking about what will we name this?” she said. “Then I drew the Rusk logo.”
They researched cottage food laws and regulations, and began to talk with U.S.-based South African shops that sell meat pies and sausage to assess the clientele for rusks.
“So far, it’s 50/50 on South Africans and non-South Africans,” Brawley said of their customer base, which comes primarily through word-of-mouth and social media orders.
Local customer Jamie Maitland, owner of The Office fitness studio, likes to buy local and found the company online. She previously enjoyed her morning coffee with an Italian biscotti until she found Rusk.
“Out of the gate, they’re very hard. You have to dunk them for 12 seconds,” Maitland said. “This isn’t a cookie – I almost broke a tooth. But the good thing is, it’s not like they’re super sweet. They’re almost savory, very confusing to my pallet. They’re a good balance.”
Horn, who has experience in business and marketing, said, “It’s important to start on the right principals.”
As they learn about the cottage food industry, the couple are navigating challenges.
“It’s restrictive – we can’t mail order, we can’t ship,” Horn said. “We are looking at a commercial kitchen or co-packer to ship them. We hope to sell to yachts to put out for breakfast, and our goal for the U.S. is to bring them into coffee shops.”
As the business grows, Brawley keeps an eye on the right amount of crumbs to keep customers happy. This includes her father, who goes all the way with his rusk.
“My dad drops his in and it floats, then he sticks his finger in to pull it back out,” Brawley said.
She and her mother eat them with coffee during “robe time.” And how does Brawley like her rusk?
“I drink my coffee till the end and then dunk it so there are no crumbs in my whole cup of coffee.”
Dorie Cox is editor of The Triton. Comments are welcome below. To learn about Morgan Brawley and Bernard Horn’s company, Rusk – The World’s Greatest Dipper, search for rusk biscuits on Facebook and Instagram.