Growing up, I always looked forward to visiting my grandparents on my dad’s side the Friday after Thanksgiving. We would play two hand touch football with all the cousins, enjoy a heartwarming time sharing our blessings, and of course, lots of Thanksgiving food. We were (and are) a very large family, so things would get loud and the stories told by the adults would get more elaborate each year.
I would look forward to all of these things. But after the football, and sharing stories there would be – DESSERT! I think we all were secretly (or not so secretly) looking forward to dessert, because it meant grandma’s delightful kuchen. The cousins (and I) would jockey for position in line to ensure we got a slice!
Since kuchen means cake in German, many families have very different ideas of what kuchen should be. Some are like American cakes, but I grew up with a different kind of kuchen. My grandma’s kuchen is closer to what Americans would consider a custard pie with fruit in it. Except it was made with a sweet bread crust instead of a crumbly crust most Americans are used to in pies.
My grandma grew up riding in covered wagons and living out her early life in a way very reminiscent of “Little House on the Prairie” but in the Dakotas. She was never far removed from farming and the farming culture, so it makes sense that the recipe I found for kuchen that most closely resembles what she made uses A LOT of eggs and milk.
After extensive research I conducted 5 years ago, I found the kind of kuchen recipe my grandma made was a German-Russian adaptation that many Americans in the plains (including the Dakotas) still make. My grandma’s kuchen had about 2 parts custard filling to crust, which can be achieved in the recipe below. Just be mindful that the crust is a yeast bread and it will continue to rise even while cooking.
Happy cooking, and I hope your gatherings this year include some sweet memories!
Recipe for: German-Russian Custard Kuchen
From Carol Just, originally published here
Yield: About 5 9-inch pie-pan kuchens, or six 8-inch pie pan kuchens
Time: About 2 Hours
Sweet Roll Dough:
4 Cups flour 1 teaspoon salt 1/2 Cup shortening 1/2 Cup Sugar
1 package of yeast 3 eggs, beaten & room temperature
1 Cup warm milk (Warm to body temperature, like heating a baby bottle)
Mix flour, salt and shortening as you would a pie crust – to a fine crumb.
Dissolve the yeast 1/2 Cup warm (not boiling) milk. Add eggs and remaining warm milk to the mixture. The liquid should get foam 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.)
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 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.