People Travel From Across State to Taste a Piece of German Queen's Kuchen in Demand

Donovan, Laruen. "People Travel From Across State to Taste a Piece of German Queen's Kuchen in Demand." Bismarck Tribune, 16 December 1997, sec. C.

MCCLUSKY - Kuchen sweetens every event from the baptisms of newborns to funerals for the faithfully departed in McClusky. The creamy custard filling studded with fruit and supported by a soft, lightly browned crust goes hand-in-hand when it's time to observe a major passage of life, be it a high school graduation or a farm couple's 65th wedding anniversary.

There is one woman in the middle of McClusky's cloud of flour and river of cream. Verna Schaeffer, baker at Grenz Super Valu, annually makes enough kuchen to serve an entire kuchen to every man, woman and child in McClusky six times a year. Or she could, if so many of those kuchen didn't find their way into freezers between McClusky and Colorado and east to Wisconsin.

All this kuchen from a short, cheerful brunette who rarely takes so much as a bite.

"Even as a kid I didn't like it. I'm a terrible German. I don't eat sauerkraut, either," she said, crossing her arms over her clean apron and leaning comfortably against a wooden counter in the small bakery at the back of the main street store.

Schaeffer, 48, makes about 3,000 kuchen a year. She bakes most of them at the bakery and many at her home, where she uses a slightly different - and richer - recipe.

Her kuchen is so delectable it should come with handcuffs to keep that naughty hand from sneaking out for a second, OK, third piece. Word that she is queen of kuchen has definitely gotten around.

Men who travel to hunt in the McClusky area take it home to their wives, perhaps initially as peace offerings. Now, they don't dare to go home without it.

"I've got some hunters who come up from Fargo and the only reason their wives let them go is to bring kuchen back," she said.

There's more. "I had a guy here from Montana. He ended up buying coolers so he could take them back home," she said.

And more. "The couple that retired from the drug store here, whenever they come, they order 20-40 of the kind I make at home. Or people will call and say, 'I had some of your kuchen when I was visiting your neighbor's house and can I order some?'"

And still more. "I've got people who come over from Turtle Lake and from Bismarck, just to buy it. It freezes so well. A lot of people use it for breakfast for company," Schaeffer said.

It gives pause to wonder how many hostesses attempt pass off the kuchen as just "a little something" they themselves whipped up that very morning. Oh, cancel that thought. Schaeffer's kuchen has a flavor that is a trademark in and of itself.

She mixes egg, sugar, cream and vanilla and pours it over punched-down, sweet yeast dough in a round, pie-sized baking pan. She arranges fruit on the commercial dough ahead of the custard filling. Schaeffer says peaches are the all-time favorite fruit filling, but she also makes apple, rhubarb, blueberry, apricot, cottage cheese, pear, prune and raspberry. Actually, all that's pretty normal stuff on a kuchen recipe card.

What sets Schaeffer's kuchen apart from other kuchen are two things. First, she has heavy hand with cinnamon and it makes a great impression where the aroma of the kuchen meets the nose. Second, she crumbles a sugar-butter-flour crumb topping and lightly sprinkles it over the top of each before setting it to bake.

"After I sprinkle the topping, I put more cinnamon over that. I'm a cinnamon person," she said.

Excluding her many special orders, she bakes an average of 15 a day at the store. She starts at 7 a.m. Monday through Saturday and sets them on the display shelf cooled, wrapped and ready to sell by 9 a.m. It's a rare day when there are any left. If so, store employees get kuchen with lunch the next noon.

Schaeffer says she cooks the custard filling for the hundreds more kuchen she bakes at home to get what she considers an improved flavor and texture. At home in her kitchen, she also makes a much thinner crust from scratch.

She's somewhat at a loss to explain how and why her kuchen is so popular. "If you don't get it, it's something you crave," she said with a shrug.

Schaeffer's kuchen has been a staple at the Grenz Super Valu for only the past seven years. When owner Terry Grenz started talking about adding a bakery, he asked Schaeffer, already an employee, if she'd like to try her hand. She did and it wasn't long before he added a larger, commercial oven. A small one just couldn't keep up.

The new oven, with its proofing racks on the bottom, costs Grenz $7,000. "I think I paid for it already," Grenz said.

"It's been a nice service for the customer and the community. Birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, weddings. You can't celebrate anything without eating it," Grenz said.

Schaeffer's kuchen draws customers who wouldn't normally come to the store and Grenz said they often end up looking around a little bit. Then, there's the telephone. "We get all these phone calls. People call and say, 'Somebody's coming up and will you send some back home with them?'" Grenz said. And he's happy to, provided there are any left on the shelf.

Reprinted with permission of The Bismarck Tribune.

Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller