South Dakota Kuchen Recipe- A Volga German Legacy
The South Dakota Kuchen recipe sent me on a deep dive through two of my favorite topics… German Immigration History and Food. (I bet you can tell, I’m lots of fun at parties) I can already hear all the Germans saying… “Kuchen means Cake”! And yes, generally, when speaking German, if you say Kuchen, you mean non-specific Cake. But THIS Kuchen refers to a very specific kind of cake… South Dakota’s Kuchen arrived with Volga German immigrants in the 1800s. Maybe as part of a tattered recipe book, splattered with kitchen stains… maybe as a memory of home. Either way, there are as many slight variations to the recipe as there are cooks, and available ingredients. The most important part of Kuchen seems to be the social aspect. Like Germans in Germany, South Dakota Germans make time to sit with a coffee and a slice of Kuchen.
As I said, there are a LOT of variations to the recipe (sort of like Potato Salad). Most use an enriched yeast dough, are filled with fruit and custard, then baked in a pie or cake pan. (Enriched yeast dough contains butter). But different versions mean… some skip fruit…some use cinnamon sugar, others nutmeg… some use cottage or farmers cheese instead of custard. I even found a version using baking powder instead of yeast. Clearly, when the immigrants arrived, they baked their Kuchen with what was on hand, and made it delicious. After a generation or two of making the recipe a certain way, it became family lore. “Oma made it like this, so this is how it should be made.”
It is amazing to think about how this recipe traveled, for how far, and for how long, while still holding onto its German roots…
Quick Look at Volga Germans
The Seven Years War (1756-1763) involved all of Europe with Germany as the battlefield. When the dust settled, most Germans were left in poverty, fields and farms destroyed, with only a patchwork government to keep an eye on things. In steps Catherine the Great, former German princess (born in Pomerania), current Czarina of Russia. War with the Ottomans left the Volga region of her country barren. She needs farmers, and knows firsthand just how hard Germans work, so she devised a great plan…. invite Germans to fill the area with productive farms. Her Manifesto enticed many poor farmers from the Rhineland and Hesse with offers of autonomy and land. Flyers went up all over Germany, and special agents went out to recruit Germans to come live in the Volga region.
Manifesto of July 22, 1763:
Freedom from taxation and licenses for 30 years to rural settlers.
Government support with interest-free loans and repayments after 10 years.
A guarantee of self-rule within the colonies.
Permission to bring personal possessions with them duty free.
No military service for all settlers and their descendants.
Free transport to areas of settlement.
Volga German Settlement Map public domain
What started as a trickle of a few thousand settlers in 1767 became a Tidal Wave. Germans established hundreds of small villages along the Volga River. They set up schools, churches, and even their own form of government and division of labor. The language was German. By 1869, there were over 250,000 Volga Germans, all living their way within Russia.
But you could say they were victims of their own success. Others in Russia grew frustrated with the special treatment these “German” were handed…especially the exemption from military service. Slowly these rights were chipped away, and by the 1880s, many Volga Germans looked toward North America for the freedoms they wanted.
The first Volga Germans arrived in the Dakota Territory in 1872 to take advantage of the Homestead Act which promised any adult male 160 acres of land for only $10, provided they build a house, raised crops, and survived 5 years. (Not an easy task) This was a bet the Germans were happy to make, and they came by the thousands. And with them, they brought Kuchen (Later groups settled in Nebraska, Colorado, Washington State and California Fresno)
Think about the Dakotas 150 years ago… no Supermarkets, not many towns, not a lot of infrastructure. Although the area would become the Breadbasket of the New World, at the time, much of what people ate was grown on their farm. Special items like sugar had to be purchased. Not so easy. The first train arrived in the southern part of the Territory in 1862, but train travel was still a few years away for the majority of people. Most farmers would have a cow for milk and butter, chickens for eggs… but fruit? Orchards take time. Women baked Kuchen with what they had… and stretched when necessary (For a rough idea of the Dakota Territory around that time, think about the Laura Ingalls Wilder book “By the Shores of Silver Lake“, which takes place in 1879).
South Dakota Kuchen Recipe
Today’s South Dakota Kuchen Recipe is a legacy of that journey. After making a request on the site, I got quite a few recipes! This one comes from Jordan, who said it came down through his mother’s side of the family. (I will include the biscuit dough variation below.)
Fair warning… you can make up 6- 8 Kuchen with this recipe. That’s a lot. Obviously the recipe is left over from days when you baked once a week, or for a LOT of hungry family members and friends. I made the dough without any changes, but then I cut the dough in half, cut the custard recipe in half, and just baked 3 Kuchen. ( I added my notes) The rest of the dough went to making Yeast Dough Snails. (You can freeze the dough or the Kuchen)
The recipe seems a bit vague about the fruit filling… so I just made sure to fill the bottom of the pan with fruit (and a little extra). The directions just say to cover the fruit with the custard mixture… Because of this, baking time may vary. Since I used frozen fruit that was mostly thawed, I let it bake a little longer . (once time is up, check to make sure the center is set… jiggle it!)
One last thing… the Streusel looks more like crumbs than what you see on a typical Streusel Kuchen. This really isn’t a Streusel kuchen, but it is a relative.
Edit- Thanks to Becky for her nudge to search for Schwarzbeeren… a berry her husband’s grandfather used for Kuchen. These Nightshade relatives grow as volunteers, and are tricky to pick. But they are delicious in Kuchen. Learn more about them, and find a few recipes in this paper by Sam Brungardt
South Dakota Kuchen Recipe- A German Immigrant Recipe
- 1 1/2 cups milk
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1/4 cup butter
- 2 tsp yeast I used one packet
- 5 1/2 cups flour divided
- 1 1/2 tsp salt
- 2 eggs room temperature
- 7 eggs beaten
- 3 cups heavy cream or a mix of cream and sour cream (I used 2/3 heavy cream 1/3 sour cream
- 2 cups sugar
- 1 Tbl Vanilla extract
- 2 cups flour
- 1 cup sugar
- ½ cup butter cut into cubes
- pinch Salt
- I just made sure there was enough to fill the bottom of the pan plus some extra overlap.
- Many different fruits can be used – blueberries peaches, apricots, cooked apples, plums, blackberries, rhubarb (add sugar), raisins, prunes, and more If using canned fruit, drain well, at least for a couple of hours. Frozen fruit should be thawed and drained.
- Cinnamon and Nutmeg as needed
- Scald milk (heat it up). Add sugar and butter, stir so that the butter melts and sugar dissolves.
- Let cool to lukewarm (80°).
- Dissolve yeast in lukewarm milk and let stand for 5 minutes. (If the yeast is alive, it will bubble up to the top... if it's dead, you won't see any activity)
- Pour into a mixing bowl of a stand mixer
- Add 3 cups of flour and salt, then beat vigorously
- Add eggs one at a time. Beat well again.
- Slowly add remaining flour and beat until it's a dough.
- I used the bread hook on my machine, but you can do the kneading by hand.
- Knead the dough. It will be a soft, not stiff, dough.
- Put in a greased bowl to rise until double in bulk. Cover and let rise (I let the first rise happen in the refrigerator overnight... but you can just do this in a draft free space on your counter)
- Punch down, let rise again. (If you are letting it rise overnight in the fridge, the second rise may take some time)
- Grease pans well with butter.
- (I used a mix of cake pans and pie pans. You can even use two sheet pans. The Dough is supposed to be enough for 6-8 pans. I cut it in half and made 3)
- Shape risen dough into balls 4-6 inches in diameter, depending on the size of pan you are using. So a pie pan needed a slightly bigger ball, and the 8 inch cake pan got a smaller ball.
- Place each ball in well-greased pan and let rise for 30 minutes. (as a ball... not pressed in yet)
- Push the dough into the pan so it covers the bottom and up about an inch on the side. (Alternatively, roll it... but I found it easier to press it into place)
- Let set about 15-30 minutes until it begins to rise. (Yes, this is the 4th rise)
- Prick lightly with a fork, sides too, but do not prick all the way through dough on the bottom.
- Grate nutmeg or sprinkle cinnamon across the bottom.
- While waiting for the last few rises, you can make the custard and crumb.
- Make the custard by whisking all of the custard ingredients until smooth. (That's it)
- Flour and sugar in a bowl
- Cut the butter into the flour sugar mix with a fork or pie crust maker... I used a food processor and it went zippy fast. It will look like crumbs, and not really squish together like Streusel.
- Make sure the fruit is drained. If using Apples, cook them a bit first. With Rhubarb, macerate in some sugar.
- Add the fruit to the dough lined pans
- Sprinkle the fruit with 1-2 Tablespoons of the Crumb
- Pour in enough custard to cover the fruit, but not go over the top of the dough
- Cover the Custard filling with more of the Crumb
- Sprinkle a bit of cinnamon on top of the crumb
- (I was able to get 3 in my oven at a time... )
- Bake at 350° until set, about 30 – 40 minutes
- Check it... if the custard is still jiggly, let it bake a bit longer. The time depends on the Oven, the thickness of your Kuchen, and the juiciness of the fruit. Some Kuchen recipes end up less than an inch thick...
- Cool on a rack
- Slice and serve (and it's yummiest warm)
Kuchen Freezes well:
- When cooled, remove from the pan, wrap in plastic and foil, LABEL IT with a date and what flavor. It should be fine for three months.
Baking the Kuchen
I put the dough into the refrigerator for the first rise. This made the second rise take a bit longer (it might be smart to cut it in half after punching down the first rise to speed things up)
Dough is made… it will be covered and put into the refrigerator. You CAN do the first rise on the counter!
After the first rise
Push the dough 1 inch up the sides of the pan
Sprinkle with cinnamon or nutmeg
Then sprinkle with crumbs
Cover the fruit with Custard and more crumbs
Cool on a rack
What to do with 3, 6 or 8 Kuchen
The obvious answer is invite people around for a Kaffeeklatsch… It is also possible to freeze the Kuchen. Wrap it tightly, label it, and freeze for up to three months. Thaw out wrapped.
Dakota Kuchen No-Yeast
Almost every recipe for South Dakota Kuchen is made with a yeast dough… but I did come across a few made with Baking Powder, including this one. The filling looks like the Yeast version, but since it’s baked with Baking Powder, there is no rising time. click here to see the recipe–>Dakota Kuchen no-Yeast
Looking for more Volga German Recipes?
There Is Always Room For One More: Volga German Stories And RecipesCookbook for Germans from Russia
Great newsletter: you are entertaining as well as informative; a pleasure to learn, read and try out the recipes!
Oh my! I want to save this recipe! All four of my grandparents were immigrants to South Dakota from the Ukraine. I remember my grandparents making Kuchen with canned peaches on top! Absolutely delicious
YUM! I believe canned peaches don’t get enough love… they really are delicious in baked goods.
I visited Germany a few years ago and wondered if I would find anything similar. I attended a local church gathering and pot luck and found it!!! Also my grandmother used dried fruits that she would reconstitute in hot water. They used what they had for sure.
I love seeing how recipes change and evolve. Food history is fascinating. Cleary, people used what they had on hand to make foods that were familiar.
My grand parents were German, Russian.resided in N,Dak in 1910. Use too have a lot of good Kutcher and German food. I reside in WA. State and retired.
I’m of Czech descent. But, my Bubby & mother made lots of Kuchens, especially peach & plum.
I’m a home based baker living in CO & have some strict regulations that I need to follow to be able to sell any specific baked goods. Since your Kuchen recipe has a “custard filling,” does the baked cake need to be refrigerated after baking? Unfortunately, if so, then I’ll only be able to make it for family & friends…which is not a bad thing!
Thank you for sharing such a yummy dessert, which brings back lots of memories!
Yes, custard should be refrigerated
Thank you! I just found your site and I am all Volga German lineage. I’ve been trying to find our recipes and this means a lot to me. I love the historical information to these as well.
Thank you! I’m glad you like it. If you are looking for more information, you might want to check on Facebook… there are a number of groups for Volga Germans. History, food, genealogy etc.
My great grandparents were from Germany and Switzerland who went to the Crimea region of Russia at the invitation of Catherine the Great. My grandparents lived in Bowdle, South Dakota, where I would visit every summer and eat lots of kuchen. I am happy to have found this site. Thank you.
I am trying to find out more information about blackberries. Volga Germans called them schwartzenberren. The berries are the size of green peas, and are dark purple to black when ripe. They contain many tiny seeds and have a wonderful flavor. Is this what you have pictured?
the ones pictured are just plain old blueberries. I’m curious now about Schawrtzenbeeren….
There is a large number of towns of Volga Germans in Central and western Kansas too. Here, they grow and use blackberries, called schwartzenberren, for fruit. I’ve been told it is a huckleberry but they have a wonderful flavor. Do you know anything about that? Thanks for the recipes.
I’ve never had huckleberries… now I want to try them
My Germans from Russia ancestors came from the Black Sea region and also settled in South Dakota. Our Kuchen recipe is very similar to that of the Volga Germans. Our grandmothers and mother made this large Kuchen recipe several times a year. They made the Kuchen with apples, prunes, peaches and apricots. If there was no fruit handy, they used cinnamon and sugar with the custard. The Kuchen was and still is particularly enjoyed as Easter breakfast with colored eggs.
Have you ever used evaporated milk instead of cream
I haven’t… Is that something you do?
The author doesn’t know a lot about the Germans from Russia who settled in South Dakota. Nearly all, if not all, of the Germans from Russia that settled in SD, were NOT Volga Germans but Schwartz Meer Deutsche which means Black Sea Germans and came from Ukraine down in the area near north and northeast of Odessa. The Black Sea Germans settled some in ND, and in other states, but since you are talking about South Dakota and kuchen, it should be Black Sea Germans.
My research comes from Volga German sites which state that Volga Germans did settle in South Dakota. And they brought their Kuchen with them. Thank you for the tip, I will work on a post about the Black Sea Germans. German immigration is a fascinating topic for me.
I am a German girl I northern Wisconsin. Thank you for posting this. My mouth was watering as I read it!
Do they serve it in Wisconsin as well?
I pulled my resources from Volga German sites which say that Volga Germans ended up in both North and South Dakota. And they lay claim to the Kuchen recipe. Thank you for the tip, I plan to write about the Black Sea Germans in the near future. I do find German immigration interesting.
My Grandparents are from the Volga. A small village by the name of Dreizbitz (Three points in German) My Great Grandfather, of which the name I carry was originally from southeast Poland and Slavics that settled very early on the Volga. My Grandfather then married a German, spoke German and Russian or Slavic and they left the Volga around 1910 to southern Minnesota to a town called Mountain Lake. Then to the small community of Carson ND, that has/had a large population of Volga Germans. My earliest rememberance of Kuchen, Beirocks, Borscht and many sourkraut recipes came from my grandparents. I was recently in Germany and for the first time in years was able to find and taste the original Kuchen recipe you picture above. All the local bakers make a Kuchen that is more like a pie and does not have the heavy breaded crust or the heavy crumbles topping that the original that you show and I grew up with. Thanks for this recipe.
I need to try Bierocks next. All of these are new to me, but I’m really enjoying learning about them.
I am really excited about trying this recipe. When I showed the picture to my husband it got so excited and said “that looks exactly like what my mom made”. He is Russian German on both sides from Bowden, N.D. and is very proud of his ancestry. Since his mom passed some years ago I have been trying to recreate some of the dishes she made.
I just picked up the cookbook “Sei Unser Gast” https://amzn.to/3U2JH5k. It’s full of great recipes.
(Keep your eyes on it, the price goes up and down)
Many a German lady could whip up kitchen in a flash. Hub mom made them every Saturday his mom would bake a batch for the freezer. She had a lot of company during the week.you never left her home unless you ate something before leaving. Many asked if I had the recipe, but sadly I did not. Mom had it in her memory and never shared. Mom was from Siberia and dad was from St. Petersburg. They both arrived here in the early 1900s
I love that… “you never left her home unless you ate something before leaving” Thank you
My grandparents were Volga Germans and my grandmother baked the berry bread weekly. The berries she used were pea sized and were Wonder Berries. They are full of seeds and once the are established in your beds they reseed and come up voluntarily. I live in Oklahoma and was amazed that they were growing in my yard. The exact same berries that were used in my grandma’s baking. I grew up in Lamar, Colorado which had a large German community. Their name was Schlick.