Photography: Courtesy Karen’s Kuchen

Let them eat cake, um, we mean kuchen.

Considering the ubiquity of German ancestry and influence in the Midwest, it makes sense that South Dakota designated kuchen as its state dessert. If you’ve never heard of the treat (commonly pronounced koo-ken), it’s actually just German for “cake.”

Just like cake, kuchen can take many different forms, whether it’s a round, custard-filled cake; a roll-like pastry with spices and nuts spiraled in; or something resembling a small cheesecake with a bread-y base. Whatever the recipe, its sweetness and adaptability to different flavor profiles has made it a constant among family gatherings and celebratory events across the Dakotas.

Karen’s Kuchens in Larimore, North Dakota, offers nearly 70 different varieties — everything from cherry cola to maple pecan to, yep, German chocolate. And owner Karen Schwandt acknowledges the different approaches to the signature dessert. “My kuchen recipe was my great-grandma’s, and it is a Black Sea kuchen, where the custard is thicker,” she says. “The Volga kuchen from Russia is a thinner custard, and they’re usually cut in squares.

“I also make wedding kuchen, which my ancestors never made but was mainly used in Catholic churches. The reason for a thin butter crust and a thin custard is because people are too full to eat much when dessert comes around.”

Need authentic, family-tested recipes for different varieties of kuchen? Click here to see several at North Dakota State University’s Germans From Russia Heritage Collection.

From the October 2017 Taste of the West issue.


Explore:Food & Spirits