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
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?