Making Kuchen Memories
Maas, Jacqueline Dohn. "Making Kuchen Memories." n.d.
Most children have vivid memories of being handed chocolate chip cookies
or some other round cookie treat when they visited their grandmas.
Visits to my German Russian grandmas were heralded with slices
of another round treat – this one topped with rich custard
and dotted with delicious fruit. We called it kuchen, the German
word for cake, but it is unlike any cake Betty Crocker ever made.
Kuchen is more like a fruit pie or a tart, with sweet roll dough
for the crust. Everyone has his or her preference but apple, prune,
apricot, peach and rhubarb are favorites. Some German Russians add
dry curd cottage cheese for “kasekuchen” or cheese kuchen.
As other influences have made themselves known, people have added
such “exotic” ingredients as chocolate chips, strawberries
or pineapple. German Russians living in Kansas and other more southern
Central Plains states make “blackberry” kuchen with
the berries in question from a variety of the nightshade plant.
About a month ago, I developed a craving for kuchen. The easiest
way to fix that urge would be to make some myself. Funny, I didn’t
So, I emailed my friend and fellow hometown gal Carol Just and
asked if she would teach a group of other German Russian kuchen
neophytes. She agreed and an e-mail invitation quickly went out.
Soon nine people ranging in age from early 30s to late 60s had
Saturday, Feb. 25, on their calendars. They arrived at my house
that day bearing pie pans, large ceramic crocks, old fashioned aprons
and the need to reconnect with their heritage, to learn how to make
a childhood staple before those who could teach us were gone.
We had grown up in different places – from North Dakota to
Kansas, Montana to California. Everyone had different memories of
how kuchen was made by their family members. But the basic process,
we knew, was the same.
Carol promised that, with her recipe, we could make an entire batch
of kuchen in two hours. We actually made four batches, which did
take us a little over our target, but by the time we were finished,
24 golden custard-filled treats filled us with nostalgia, a sense
of accomplishment and not a few tummy rumblings.
Here is the recipe. It is so easy that even I, a well-known failure
at baking round cookies, can do it. Now I can have kuchen, my favorite
round sweet treat, anytime I want!
GERMAN-RUSSIAN CUSTARD KUCHEN
From Carol Just
Sweet Roll Dough:
4 C. flour
1 tsp. salt
½ C shortening*
½ C. sugar
1 pkg yeast**
3 eggs, beaten. (The eggs should be a room temperature.)
1 C warm milk, divided. (You can warm the milk in the microwave
to body temperature, as if you were heating a baby bottle.)
Mix flour, salt, sugar and shortening as you would a pie
crust - to a fine crumb.
Dissolve the yeast in ½ C warm (not boiling) milk.
Add eggs and remaining warm milk to the yeast mixture. The liquid
should get foamy as the yeast becomes active. If the yeast is
not working, perhaps because the milk was not warm enough, you
can add a pinch of sugar to feed it. Once the yeast has achieved
the desired foaminess, it can be added to the flour mixture.
Form a “well” in the flour mixture and pour
in the yeast liquid. You can mix this dough with a spoon, pastry
blender or your hands. Only knead the dough enough to get all
the flour moist. Do not overwork it. It should form a shiny, rounded
ball. If the dough is too dry, you can add a little water or milk.
Let it rise in a warm place covered with a dish towel.*** By the
time the custard has been prepared, the dough will be raised enough
to be ready. (If your home is drafty, you can preheat your oven
to 200 degrees, shut it off and put the dough in there.)
If you have a “crock-type” bowl that is great.
I don’t, so I use a regular stainless steel mixing bowl.
This recipe will make enough dough for five 9-inch pie pans or
six 8-inch pie pans.
While the dough is rising, mix the custard filling with
a hand mixer or mix-master on low until the filling reaches a
creamy consistency. Then put it into a double boiler. (Water must
already be boiling). Stir constantly as it thickens. If it gets
too thick, add milk and keep stirring.
(If you don’t have a double boiler, don’t worry.
You can just carefully cook it in a regular pan, stirring often.
Some recipes don’t even call for the custard to be cooked,
but you would probably need to bake the kuchen a little longer.)
1 and ½ Tbsp. flour
1-1/2 C sugar
3 C whipping cream****
1-1/2 tsp. Vanilla
This recipe fits a regular size double boiler and fills
When the dough has risen sufficiently (about twice the size),
divide it into five or six parts by cutting it with a sharp knife.
Rub a little Crisco or lard on your hands. Take a chunk and work
it with your fingers into a little pancake shape. Then put it
into the pie pan and flatten it evenly, pushing the dough only
a half-inch to an inch up the sides.
Top with desired cut-up fruit. If using apples, choose a
tart variety such as Granny Smith. Peel, core and slice it into
thin pieces. If using dried apricots or prunes, you need to soften
them in warm water by letting them soak. Or cover them with water
and put them in the microwave for one to two minutes. Divide them
in two with your fingers before putting on the crust. For canned,
sliced peaches, drain and pat dry with paper towels. For rhubarb,
cut the stalks into small pieces. If the rhubarb is frozen, allow
to thaw and then pat dry. For cottage cheese, use the dry curd
variety and mix with sugar. If you cannot find dry curd, you can
use the large curd and drain first.
Carefully pour two ladles of the custard filling over the
fruit and dough. Sprinkle with cinnamon.
Bake at 350 degrees for about 20 minutes or until the dough
is golden brown. You may want to set the timer for 15 minutes,
check and then bake longer.
Remove from the oven and allow to rest. Custard will set
as it cools.
I find that I can usually do this project from start to
finish in 2 hours. The kuchens can be eaten immediately or stored
in the refrigerator. They can also be frozen and reheated later
in the oven or microwave after they’ve thawed.
*You can use lard if you can get it. Crisco or any vegetable
shortening will do.
**I use “quick rise” yeast to speed things up.
*** To honor my heritage I try to cover the dough with a
“day-of-the-week” dish towel that a long-deceased
relative embroidered for my wedding 37 years ago. Trust me….the
dough likes being blessed with the wisdom of elders.
**** If you are REALLY worried about your cholesterol, you
could use 1/2 and 1/2.
This recipe (slightly modified) can be found on Pg. 61 of the “Kochbuch
Der Deutschen aus Russland,” a cookbook published in 1968
by the Rugby, ND, Heart of America Chapter of the Germans from Russia
Heritage Society (GRHS). Irene Friederich submitted the recipe.
Irene and her husband, Judge Ray Friederich (both deceased), were
founding members of GRHS.