Tracing a recipe’s path

In the small North Dakota farming community where I grew up, most residents belong to a group known as “Germans from Russia” (GFR), which describes a “a unique group of Germans who lived in Russia after the 1760s and began their immigration onto the Great Plains in the 1870s” according to The Encyclopedia of the Great Plains. My ancestors fit this description, and I can trace my family tree from the late 1700s in what is now far western Germany, to the early 1800s in a village situated on what is now the border between Moldova and Ukraine, and finally to the early 20th century on the Great Plains of the American Midwest.

Of course, being a lover of all things food-related, I am keenly interested in how the community’s traditional foods traveled with, and were changed by, this migration. In particular I’ve been trying to discover the origins of what GFR’s call “kuchen”, which literally translates as “cake” in German but which has a different and specific meaning to the GFR community. Our version of kuchen is not a cake, but rather a sweet dough topped with custard and fruit that is baked atop the dough. Until recently, I could not find anything in cookbooks or online that I considered a worthy candidate to be the logical predecessor to this dessert.

I have German- and English-language cookbooks that feature traditional foods from various regions of Germany, including the Rhineland-Palatinate region from which my ancestors hale. None of the recipes in those volumes resemble what we call kuchen (although I can definitely see the outlines of lebkuchen in my family’s recipe for ‘honey cookies’). So while my family and many members of the GFR community believe kuchen to be an old German recipe, I have come to the conclusion that it isn’t German at all, but was picked up from Eastern Europeans along the migratory path.

As I dived into this quest, I found a handful of European recipes that were close but no cigar, different enough from kuchen to discount them as being its logical ancestor. Czech and Slovak kolaches bear some resemblance but are much smaller and feature a cream cheese filling rather than custard. Some Nordic cream buns contain all of the necessary elements but are assembled much differently. Danishes are right out because of the laminated dough. However, I knew there had to be something that provided the inspiration for kuchen, because there are precious few things that are created out of whole cloth (or in this case, whole dough) in the food world. One recipe begets another.

Today the stars aligned, and by virtue of following GBBO contestant Januz Domagala on Instagram, I discovered a recipe that is strikingly similar to what my family and other GFR descendants make. It is a Polish sweet bread called Drożdżówka z budyniem, which Januz says translates to ‘bun with pudding’. While smaller in scale than the GFR kuchen, which is usually made in 8 or 9 inch cake pans, these buns look almost exactly the same: a thick, soft dough embraces a pocket of creamy custard.

Likely borrowing from the kolaches mentioned above, GFR kuchen usually features fruit atop the custard. Peach and prune are the most common, but apple, apricot, rhubarb, and other fruits also make appearances. A few recipes add dry curd cottage cheese on top of the custard (not one of my favorite variations), and some bakers go wild and add a dusting of cinnamon or nutmeg on the finished bake.

While my sleuthing wouldn’t pass muster in a doctoral dissertation, the evidence is convincing enough for me. It is no secret that GFR cuisine borrowed heavily from the cultures the diaspora encountered on its travels from Germany to Russia (including Ukraine and the Volga River region) to the Americas. Our vegetable soup is heavy on beets and dill, making it borscht-adjacent. Halvah, a decidedly non-German delicacy, is a favorite among the GFR community. Haluptsi is straight-up Ukrainian golubtsy. While there was much borrowing, elements of traditional German baking did trickle down through the generations, including the honey cookies I discussed above. I am sure the borrowing and sharing did not occur in only one direction, and the other cultures probably incorporated German elements or dishes into their cuisines as the groups encountered one another.

What this quest highlights for me is how food provides a connection between people who possess different languages and traditions. I imagine my great-great-great grandparents seeking new opportunities and landing in an unfamiliar place with terrain that wasn’t conducive to growing some of the crops with which they were familiar. They would talk to people as they slowly made their way eastward, picking up tips and learning about different foods that were plentiful in their new home. Wives would find ways to incorporate these products into their existing recipes using familiar techniques.

Where I live now, Somali immigrants are contributing to local food traditions. You can easily find sambusa in the frozen food aisle of major supermarkets, and it’s not just Somalis buying them. Finding connections through food leads to increased understanding of people with whom you might believe you have nothing in common. I hope that this sharing and borrowing continues, and in the 22nd century, someone writes about how they found the origins of one of their family’s favorite recipes.

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  • FuzzyChef  on  September 14, 2023

    I’ve seen the Polish pastries, in Krakow, with fruit on top. So more evidence.

  • Jillyb3  on  September 14, 2023

    What a great story! It’s awesome you found what you’ve been looking for! I saw Januz’s post this morning and thought it looked delicious!

  • Tillamook1946  on  September 14, 2023

    My Aunt that was born in the village of Sulz in the Beresan District around 1908. The family came to America about 1910 and settled in Judson, N.D. and then Mandan, N.D. So my aunt made what she called Zucher Kuchen, I may have spelled that all wrong. It was more of a bar cookie, it had anise in it, it was kind of flaky and had a crumb topping over apricot preserves. After she passed, I asked where her recipes were and no one knew where they had ended up. I have searched so many sites trying to find anything remotely similar to what I remember. Does anyone have a clue to what I may be looking for? Thank you in advance.

  • EmilyR  on  September 14, 2023

    I love that you dug deep on this and really discovered something fascinating. I would be very interested to know if there is something similar to “multiple independent discovery” in regards to food and cooking. It’s curious to consider people knowing what plants were safe to eat, about specific spices and natural medicine, the spread of the Spice Routes (a contributor to slavery), as well as the diversity and heirloom plants that people grew or traveled with for a connection to home… there is so much information that surely has been lost or appropriated along the way. Considering all of this rich history makes the prevalence of processed food that much more of a travesty. Also, you might appreciate this book : What Caesar Did for My Salad: The Curious Stories Behind Our Favorite Foods by Albert Jack.

  • EmilyR  on  September 14, 2023

    Tillamook1946… my husband is German and it might be Zuckerkuchen / Butterkuchen / (possibly Dina Kucha). Or perhaps they adapted the same and simply called it that. I didn’t see a recipe with anis specifically, so it could be a custom touch or perhaps they traveled through Alsace Lorraine where it was a popular flavor and added it. There was a post on facebook that I saw that might interest you :

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