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…
Who were the Volga Germans?
In 1763, Catherine the Great needed settlers to occupy the Volga region of her Empire. She reached out to the Germans of the Holy Roman Empire, because she knew how hardworking they were. Special incentives like, no taxes, no conscription, and religious freedom sweetened the deal. Over 250,000 Germans settled in colonies along the Volga River. And for a while, it worked. A few generations later feelings changed. Many Russians felt that the preferential treatment the German nationals were getting wasn’t fair, and slowly, the rights were chipped away. By the 1870s, the Volga Germans looked towards the United States for to regain their freedoms. Learn more about the Volga Germans HERE
Many Volga Germans settled in the Dakota Territories to take advantage of the Homestead act of 1872. They brought their families, their traditions, and they brought recipes….
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 cooked and baked 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.
Looking for more Volga German Recipes?
Both of these cookbooks on on my shelf.
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?