Making Kuchen Memories
Maas, Jacqueline Dohn. "Making Kuchen Memories." 2005.
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 know how.
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 5-6 kuchen.
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.