Following the paths of history leads to a lot of strange endpoints. A group of people ends up halfway across the world, replanted in a strange location, and you wonder, why is there a population of Koreans in Kazakhstan?
To this and many other Central Asian mysteries, my friend from Kazakhstan shrugs and simply says, “Stalin.”
Unsurprisingly, when I went to find out why the Dakotas of North America are full of a population that identifies as “Germans from Russia,” the answer is partly Stalin.
Another good shrug-answer to the “why” behind complicated mass migrations might just be be: “geopolitical issues.”
In the case of Germans from Russia in the Dakotas, we go back to the 1760s when Catherine the Great promised land, religious freedom and exemption from military conscription to European farmers if they’d start farming in the Volga flatlands.
Large groups of people, many from southern Germany, accepted her terms and resettled in Russia. This setup seemed to work for short period of time, until Russia needed to conscript people for their armies in the 1880s. (Yeah, you didn’t see that one coming, right?)
That resulted in large numbers of German farmers migrating to the upper midwest, which looked pretty much like the flatlands of Germany or Russia. The pressure to flee or starve and/or be deported to Siberia/Kazakhstan increased under Stalin, who had suspicions about the loyalties of Germanic people in Russia.
Obviously, there’s a lot we could say about Stalin and the suffering caused by his suspicions, but let’s get to the main topic today, which is baking.
I grew up in an area that was heavily settled by these Germans from Russia, but I thought they were simply Germans. The more insular Hutterite and Mennonite groups still speak a dialect of German. And to this day, here are still a lot of folks in the Dakotas that think of their heritage as German and have some old family recipes with German flair.
One of the most interesting is South Dakota’s unique take on “Kuchen." This is a word that simply means “Cake” in German, but if you say “Kuchen” in the Dakotas, people think you’re talking about a specific sweet pastry that’s filled with fruit and/or pastry cream baked on a sweet dough crust.
In fact, this particular definition of “Kuchen” is so engrained in the minds of South Dakotans, they voted it the official state dessert after a bit of campaigning by the folks in Eureka, South Dakota, where this style of Kuchen is a way of life.
My cousin and I used to blow our allowance on what I now think of as “Eureka Kuchen.” It was one of my favorite treats. These days, I find it amusing that I really can’t talk about it. Here in Germany it’s just too confusing to say “Kuchen” when I mean “cheesy fruit tart with a sweet-bread crust.”
Interestingly, I did find a Russian restaurant here in Berlin (Babuschka) that’s serving a fruit-filled “Russian Cheesecake” which does rather resemble my childhood Eureka-Style Kuchen, so I’m assuming that some version of this dish is still known in parts of Russia as well.
There are a lot of arguments about whether recipes should use lard, shortening or butter, and whether they’re topped with cinnamon or not. I feel like you can use any fruit that’s in season. Rhubarb is a classic. I’ve even heard of Banana Kuchen, although I’ve never seen one. Many South Dakota Kuchens are only made with sweet dough and custard cheese. These are known as “Cheese Kuchen.” Some people actually use cottage cheese instead of a pastry cream or custard.
Mom and I agree that the best-known fillings are either plain cheese or the summer stone fruits, particularly Plum Kuchen, And plums are in season right now, so that’s what I’ll feature here.
On my Eureka-Style Kuchen, I prefer a thinner sweet dough crust, lots of fruit and a thicker custard. I like the fruit gently cooked, so it’s still mostly whole rather than incorporated as a jam. My childhood Kuchen also had really obvious areas of fruit and custard on top, although I’ve seen many South Dakota Kuchens that have a smooth layer of custard that hides the fruit layer. Lots of people in the Dakotas also make their kuchen with a pre-made frozen sweet bread dough, and that saves time, but I’ll give the “from scratch” recipe.
You can see the industrious ladies of Eureka making a smaller-sized version of their Kuchen in this video.
Do keep in mind that Kuchen freezes really well if you wrap it tightly in plastic wrap, so if you’re going to the bother of making it, don’t be afraid to make a whole stack to freeze for later! That’s what a practical South Dakotan would do.
(Two 9-inch (24-cm) Kuchen)
- FOR THE DOUGH:
- 1/2 cup (118 ml) whole milk
- 1 teaspoon (3 1/2 grams) active dry yeast
- 2 Tablespoons (28 grams) butter, softened
- 1/4 cup (50 grams) sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 large egg yolk
- 1 2/3 cups (209 grams) all-purpose flour
- FOR THE PASTRY CREAM:
- 250 grams Quark Cheese or Sour Cream
- 1/4 cup (50 grams) sugar
- 2 Tablespoons (16 grams) all-purpose flour
- 1 large egg
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- FOR THE FRUIT:
- About 1 pound (.5 Kg) of ripe plums (about 8 medium-size or 16 small plums)
- 1/2 Tablespoon (7 grams) sugar
- 2 teaspoons (10 milliliters) apple cider vinegar
- FOR THE STREUSEL:
- 2 Tablespoons (25 grams) sugar
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- EQUIPMENT: Two 9-inch/24-cm tart pans or pie tins
- To make the dough, gently warm the milk in a small saucepan (or the microwave) until it just begins to steam (not boiling) and sprinkle in the yeast. Let the yeast dissolve for 1-2 minutes before adding the butter.
- In a separate bowl, combine the sugar, salt and egg yolk. Blend in the flour and then work in the yeasty milk mixture. Stir 1-2 minutes until you have a sticky ball.
- Place the dough ball in a lightly greased container, cover it with plastic wrap or a damp towel, and allow it to rise for about 2 hours or until it doubles in bulk. Rise times will vary according to the room temperature. You may also want to put it in the refrigerator and let it rise overnight.
- In the meantime, make the pastry cream by whipping together the quark or sour cream, sugar, flour, egg and salt. Cover and chill the mixture until you're ready to use it.
- When your dough has fully risen, lightly oil and flour your countertop and butter the bottom of both of the tart pans or pie tins.
- Gently deflate the dough, divide in two equal balls and stretch or roll each ball into a 9-inch/24-cm disk. You may need a little extra flour to keep it from sticking to your hands, or, try buttering your hands while you work with the dough.
- Press a dough disk into each pan. Try to extend the dough evenly across the bottom of the pan. Let it rise for about 20 minutes while you cut and season the fruit and mix the streusel.
- Move a rack to the middle of the oven and preheat the oven to 350ºF/175ºC.
- Divide the fruit and distribute it on top of the dough. Spread half the pastry cream in each pan, stopping about 1/2-inch (1.5cm) before the edge if you want a bit of crust there. Some just people spread the pastry cream and fruit all the way to the edge, and that can also be fine.
- Sprinkle the streusel across the pastry cream and put the tart pans/pie tins in the oven for about 20 minutes or until the dough is a light golden brown color.
- Cool on racks before removing from the pans and serve either warm or at room temperature.
- If storing for later, cool the kuchens completely, wrap tightly in plastic wrap and aluminum foil and stack them in the freezer. They'll thaw pretty quickly, and you can easily re-warm them to serve.
Kuchen is typically sliced into pie-like wedges and served at room temperature with lots of hot coffee for breakfast, brunch or dessert. It’s the kind of homespun food you find at potlucks and church functions. I like making the traditional round Kuchen to serve as wedges, but you can easily spread the dough and filling across a larger jellyroll pan and then serve them as squares.