Koeksisters are a South African pastry that’s deep-fried and then dipped in spiced sugar syrup. Somewhat reminiscent of doughnuts, koeksisters are made by twisting/ braiding either 2 or 3 small strips of dough, deep frying them and dipping them in a ginger and cinnamon spiced sugar syrup.
It seems of the two versions of the koeksister, the Afrikaner version is crisper, syrupy and usually braided while the Cape Malay version is softer and cake-like, spicier and rolled in coconut.
According to Jeanne (she’s South African and her blog is called Cook Sister), the name koeksister or koeksuster (pronounced cook sister) comes from the Dutch “koek” or cake and “sissen” or sizzle. She says the sizzle part of the name might be from it being a deep fried pastry, but I think it could also be from the slight sizzling sound that comes when you dip the hot pastry in the chilled sugar syrup.
I first came across koeksisters in an article which mentions Nelson Mandela eating Mrs Verwoerd's koeksisters. This new and interestingly twisted preparation caught my attention as much as the mention of Nelson Mandela.
I spent my senior school and university years in Nigeria, so hearing and reading about the apartheid in South Africa was a daily affair. I have always admired Nelson Mandela more especially because he showed us, at much personal cost, that in today’s world peace and perseverance can achieve freedom.
Getting back to koeksisters, I found a lot of different recipes online and as is the case with many traditional recipes I’m not sure there is an “authentic” recipe for these. If anyone does know of one, please point me to it.
Many of the recipes used eggs, though I found a couple that didn’t. Many of them seemed to use a lot of baking powder, up to 2 tbsps! I couldn’t find the cream of tartar used for the sugar syrup, so left that out.
So I made some adjustments to the quantities of some ingredients, but otherwise stayed true to the spirit of the recipes.
I made the Afrikaner version which is the crispy variety of koeksisters. The trick to this is to move the hot koeksisters to the chilled sugar syrup as soon as possible. It is very important to keep the sugar syrup chilled. Once the sugar syrup warms up, the koeksisters will not become crunchy, but become softer which is more like the Cape Malay variety.
For the dough:
2 cups cake flour
2 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
25 gm butter, chilled and cut into pieces
1/4 cup milk
1/4 cup water
1 tsp lemon juice
For the sugar syrup:
2 cups sugar
1 cup water
2 pieces (3/4” each) fresh ginger
a pinch of salt
1 tbsp lemon juice
1 stick cinnamon
Oil for deep frying koeksisters
First make the syrup.
Break the cinnamon stick into 2 and out it into a pan. Crush the ginger pieces and add to the pan. Now add the remaining ingredients for the sugar syrup in a pan. Place it on medium heat, and keep stirring till all the sugar dissolves. Bring to a boil, then cover with the lid and let it boil for a minute.
Uncover, turn down the heat and allow to simmer for 5 minutes and take it off the heat. Cool the syrup and chill in the fridge for at least 6 to 8 hours, preferably overnight. The sugar syrup must be ice cold when ready to use. Remove the cinnamon and ginger pieces before using syrup.
Now make the dough.
Sift the flour, baking powder and salt together and rub the butter into the mixture, till it resembles breadcrumbs.
Add the milk, water and lemon juice to this and knead till the dough is very soft and elastic but not sticky. You should be able to roll it out easily.
Cover the dough with plastic wrap and allow it to rest for about 2 to 3 hours, or even overnight in the refrigerator.
I would suggest watching this video on making koeksisters before proceeding further.
To make the koeksisters, roll out the dough to about a little less than 1/4” thickness. Cut out strips about 5” long and a little under 1/2” wide. You can decide how long or short you want the strips to be depending on what length you want to make your koeksisters.
Braid 3 strips together pinching both ends together very well, or they will unravel while being fried. Repeat with all the strips of dough.
Heat the oil over medium heat until quite warm but not too hot. If the oil is too hot, the koeksisters will be brown on the outside, but raw on the inside. When the oil is at the correct temperature, it will take 10 seconds for a piece of dough to pop to the surface after it has been dropped into the oil.
Keep the chilled sugar syrup ready. To ensure that the syrup doesn’t get warm, you may place it in a bowl of ice, or take out only half the syrup out of the refrigerator. When this gets warm, use the other half.
Drop the braided dough, about 4 at a time into the oil and fry them till they’re brown on both sides and done. Remove 2 at a time, with a slotted spoon and drop them straight into the sugar syrup keeping them submerged in the syrup. Keep them in the syrup till they’ve soaked through.
Remove them from the syrup and place on a wire rack allowing the excess syrup to drip onto a plate below.
The koeksisters can be stored in the refrigerator is not serving immediately, to retain their crispness.
This recipe makes about 15 to 18 koeksisters.
These crunchy little sweet braids were an absolute hit here. The idea of a deep fried pastry dipped in spiced sugar syrup seems very Middle Eastern in origin to me. This dessert also seems remarkable like the north Indian sweet Balushahi, to me, in texture and the way in which it is made.
Meeta is taking us all to South Africa this May for her monthly mingle. I am being a bit fashionably late for her party and am hoping that being the gracious lady she is, she will let me in, especially when she sees these koeksisters.
P.S. My cookbook giveaway is open till the 20th of this month. Have you entered yet?