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What Is a Kuchen?

By Jack Magnus
Updated May 16, 2024
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Kuchen, pronounced "KOO-gan" or "KOO-ken", is a traditional German cake made of batter, custard and, usually, fruit. While any kind of fresh or dried fruit can be used in kuchen, it is popularly made with fruit that is in season and abundant — extra cakes are often made and frozen. The skins of the fruit can be removed, if one prefers, though dark or brightly colored skins are sometimes left on to boost the appearance of the finished cake.

Although one can use any sweet cake recipe, or even a tube of crescent roll dough for the base, the traditional way to begin making this type of cake is to prepare a batter made with yeast. The batter consists of flour, melted butter, yeast and milk or cream. Finely grated lemon zest, taken from the thin yellow skin on the outside of the fruit, also is added to the batter. The white inner rind of the fruit is not used, because it is bitter. After the batter is fully mixed, it is covered with a towel and left to rise in a dark and, if possible, warm place for about an hour.

When the dough has risen, it is placed in baking pans and allowed to rise once more. While one can then begin arranging the fruit on the dough, pre-cooking the cake for about 10 minutes allows the dough to continue rising, which results in a lighter texture. After the cake has cooled, it is ready for the fruit and custard.

Many fruits, especially ripe ones, are sweet enough on their own; however, sugar may be added to fruit slices before placing them on the cake. Some bakers arrange fruit in designs, while others prefer a more haphazard approach. Mixed fruit kuchen that blend berries, kiwis and pitted fruits such as apricots and peaches can be attractive and flavorful no matter how the fruits are arranged.

Custard, which is poured over the fruit, is made with cream or sour cream, eggs and sugar. Flavorings such as vanilla or almond extract also can be added. Some bakers use cream cheese, ricotta or mascarpone instead of custard.

Kuchen is then topped with streusel, or crumbs. Streusel topping is made with bread crumbs, melted butter, cinnamon and brown sugar, which are mixed until tiny clumps are formed and then sprinkled over the top of the cake. Finely ground nuts, such as almonds and walnuts, also can be used in streusel topping.

Some varieties of kuchen are made without fruit and are more like coffee cakes. Butter kuchen is made of dough that is placed in the baking pan and then lightly indented with a finger tip. Melted butter is brushed over the top of the dough, and a generous amount of streusel topping is added.

This cake was named the state dessert of South Dakota, an American state that is home to a large German population, in spring 2000. It is served at Schmeckfest, a festival similar to Oktoberfest that is held in various parts of the state at different times of the year. Festivalgoers nibbling on slices of kuchen are a common sight.

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