Makes about 30
These crisp South African deep-fried pastries soaked in a sugar syrup (pronounced “cook sisters”) are a national favorite. They are believed to have originated with Malayan slaves brought to South Africa’s Cape Province by European settlers. The Malay cooks shaped the dough into round balls and dipped them into a cold sugar syrup as soon as they came out of the hot fat. In this version the dough is shaped into short braids, fried, and dunked into an ice cold sugar syrup flavored with cinnamon, ginger, and lemon. The pastries are crisp and sweet and fun to make and to eat. It’s very important the syrup be kept as cold as possible so that the insides of the koeksisters stay crisp.
Bryony Schwan, who immigrated to this country from South Africa, learned how to make them as a child from her grandmother. In America she makes koeksisters regularly to remind her of the sweet connections to the country she grew up in. Her ancestors moved to south Africa from Europe in the 1700s, and her relatives there are tenth generation descendants. By the time Bryony learned how to make koeksisters from her mother, they had already acquired their braided shape.
Afrikaaners eat koeksisters at any time of the day or year. They are best when very fresh, so make them for a big gathering. To keep the syrup ice cold, store half of it in a bowl in the freezer, and dip the hot koeksisters into another bowl nestled in crushed ice. When you notice the first portion of the syrup has lost its chill, switch bowls. Leftover syrup can be stored in the refrigerator for a week or two to use on your next batch of koeksisters.
Make the syrup first, preferably a day ahead, and refrigerate. The dough may also be made ahead and refrigerated for a day or two before shaping and cooking.
6 cups sugar
3 cups water
1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar mixed with 1 teaspoon water
1 3-inch stick cinnamon
3 1/4-inch-thick slices fresh unpeeled ginger
1 lemon, zest removed in strips with a vegetable peeler
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour (dip and sweep)
3 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar
2 tablespoons cold unsalted butter
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
About 1 cup water
3 quarts vegetable cooking oil
1. To make the syrup, with a wooden spoon stir all the ingredients together in a large heavy saucepan. Bring the liquid to the boil over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally. Boil rapidly, without stirring, for exactly 10 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and cool to room temperature. Cover and refrigerate several hours or overnight.
2. To make the dough, in a large bowl stir together the flour, baking powder, salt, and sugar. Add the butter and work it rapidly into the flour with your fingertips until the texture resembles fine crumbs. Gradually add the eggs while tossing everything together with a fork. The mixture will be crumbly. Add about 1 cup water gradually, while stirring with the fork, to make a firm yet soft dough that holds together. It’s all right if the dough is slightly sticky. Transfer the dough to an unfloured work surface, and knead it briefly until it is smooth and not sticky, flouring the dough lightly, if necessary. Wash and dry the bowl, and add the dough. Cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap and let the dough rest in the refrigerator for at least an hour or two, but even overnight is okay.
3. To shape the koeksisters, roll half the dough on a lightly floured surface until it is about 1/8-inch thick. No thicker! Cut the dough into 2-inch wide strips and divide the strips into 4-inch lengths. Gather the scraps and cover them for later use. Cut each rectange of dough the long way into 3 even strips still attached at one of the 2-inch ends. Braid the strips loosely, keeping them flat. Moisten the ends of the strips with a pastry brush dipped in water and seal the strips together. Set the koeksister, uncovered, onto a board. Repeat rolling, cutting, and shaping the koeksisters until all the dough is used, including the scraps.
4. Heat the oil slowly over medium heat in a large heavy saucepan until the temperature is between 365˚ and 370˚F. Meanwhile, set a large wire cooling rack over a large baking sheet (18 x 12 x 1-inch). Have 2 slotted spoons nearby. Remove the ice-cold sugar syrup from the refrigerator and strain about half of it into another bowl. Put the bowl of unstrained syrup in the freezer and the bowl of strained syrup into a bath of ice and water. The syrup must be very cold when used.
5. To fry the koeksisters, slip two or three pastries into the hot oil and turn them about in the oil with one of the slotted spoons until the pastries are puffed, crisp, and a deep golden brown color. Cooking time is about 1 minute. Remove the pastries from the oil with the same slotted spoon, allowing the excess oil to drain back into the pot, and drop the pastries one at a time into the bowl of cold sugar syrup. Use the second slotted spoon to submerge the pastries in the syrup for about 15 seconds. Then remove the pastries one at a time from the syrup with the slotted spoon and set the koeksisters onto the wire cooling rack. Cook, drain, and dip the remaining koeksisters into cold syrup. When the first batch of syrup begins to lose its chill, place it in the freezer. Strain the remaining syrup from the freezer into another bowl and set it into the ice water bath. Keep switching bowls of syrup as needed to make sure the syrup is always cold.
6. When all the koeksisters have been cooked, dipped into syrup, and cooled, store them uncovered on a large tray. Never cover them or they’ll turn soggy. Koeksisters will stay fresh at room temperature for 1 day, or possibly 2 days at most depending on the humidity.
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