I grew up in a large family. One of the things I learned very quickly was that it was cost effective to feed a crowd well with a little bit of water, flour, salt, and yeast.
Baking bread and making dough-based recipes was my first real chore.
I'm certain I got out of years of working outside simply by tying on an apron and baking.
It meant that I had to be up earlier than everyone to make oatmeal before school each morning, but I didn't haul around a bucket and shovel. Pretty great trade off.
There's something about baking bread or rolling out a dough that is the epitome of comfort food to me. When I can take those most simple ingredients and make something that makes my family smile and fills their tummies, I feel successful.
I used to get pretty creative. I'd bake up braids of bread, often stuffed with cheese, broccoli, and ham. My mama had me make her little bite-sized muffins with ham and cheese when she was battling cancer.
When I make up a big pot of split pea soup and tell my dad I've made rolls, the first thing he asks is "Langren Rolls?" He's referring to one of my mama's hand-written recipes passed down, ink fading from the paper by now. I think that it used to actually be Laugen Rolls, from Laugenbrötchen (pretzel rolls). No matter what we call it, they are delicious.
Speaking of German bread recipes, when I lived in Katterbach, my favorite thing to buy was Käsebrötchen (a roll with salty cheese baked on top).
The amazing thing about making breads and dough is the variety of dishes that we've shared as a family over the years. We've always had an eclectic mix of recipes from a variety of different heritages. Maybe that's one of the most fun things about coming from a diverse background.
I've made dough for piroshki and pasties, and nearly every variation of the either (i.e. runza, bierocks, fleischkuche, pierogi, etc.). Whatever you call a combo of meat and dough, I've probably made plenty of them. My dad and brothers are always happy to have batches of these. I think these were easy recipes for a large family because they were portable and very filling, and you didn't need to add a lot of meat to them.
My kids enjoy piroshki and pasties also, but for a few years when we lived too far for pizza delivery, they were huge fans of stromboli. I would make stromboli ahead of time and put them in the freezer for last minute dinners. I suppose you can buy similar stuff in the freezer section these days, but there's something rewarding about making your own.
I'll share some more of my tried and true recipes in the near future, but the one dough-based recipe I wanted to share this week is kuchen. Kuchen is German for "cake" and typically you'll find kuchen served as a dessert with sweet dough, custard and a fruit filling. My kids used to like very sweet kuchen with peaches and strawberries, but these days, both would probably choose rhubarb instead. It's funny to see my children enjoying the same things my siblings and I did (though I like my kuchen with nectarines).
You'll find countless recipes for kuchen, but I'm partial to mine. So that's what I'll share with you today. Don't let the length of the recipe fool you. It isn't too labor intensive and it is worth the effort.
This recipe makes quite a few, so you can put them in the freezer. They're thin, so they thaw quickly if you have company coming over, or if you just suddenly have a craving for something sweet.
Wild Prairie Kuchen
Yield: Dough and filling for five 9-inch pie pans or six 8-inch pie pans
Sweet Roll Dough:
4 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp. salt
½ cup shortening (or lard)
½ cup granulated sugar
1 pkg quick-rise yeast
3 eggs, at room temperature, beaten
1 cup warm milk, divided (not hot/boiling)
Cut together flour, salt, sugar and shortening to a fine crumb with a pastry blender, as for a pie crust. Set aside.
Dissolve the yeast in 1/2 cup of the warm milk. Add the eggs and the other 1/2 cup of milk to the yeast mixture. You can add a pinch of sugar to the yeast, if desired. When the yeast has activated and is foamy, add to the flour mixture by forming a well in the flour mixture. Cut together with a pastry blender, or mix with your hands or a wooden spoon. However, don't overwork the dough. Simply mix together to moisten throughout. If the dough seems too dry, you can add a little bit of water or some milk, a little at a time.
Put the dough in a greased mixing bowl. Flip so that top of dough is greased, too. Cover with a towel and let sit in a warm place until doubled.
While the dough is rising, prepare the custard filling:
Mix together the following ingredients, beating on low with a mixer until creamy:
1-½ Tbl. all-purpose flour
1-1/2 cups granulated sugar
3 cups whipping cream or half-and-half (whipping cream preferred)
1-1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
Once the custard ingredients have reached a creamy consistency, put into a double-boiler, or a bowl set over boiling water. Stir constantly until the custard thickens. If it appears too thick, you can add additional half-and-half or milk to thin.
When the dough has doubled in size, divide it into 5 or 6 portions to fit your choice of pie pans. Grease your hands before working the dough, as it will be sticky. Flatten each portion into a disc, like a pancake, and place in pie pan. Use your fingers to flatten evenly and work the dough up the side of the pan about half an inch or so.
Add fruit topping to the pan:
The fun part of this recipe is choosing what filling you'd like to use. You want to ensure that any fruit you use is sufficiently drained and patted dry, prior to topping the dough. This is necessary for canned fruit, such as peaches or frozen and thawed rhubarb pieces.
You can use peeled tart apple slices, such as Granny Smith, or fresh nectarine or peach slices.
Another option is to rehydrate dried apricots or prunes by soaking in water warmed on the stove top or in the microwave. Drain them well and then you can smoosh them slightly (a highly technical term) with your fingers or the back of a spoon before putting on top of the dough.
I've even used jam or berries mashed with sugar and a little lemon juice. There are probably as many combinations possible, as your imagination can think of.
Another variation of kuchen is käse kuchen (cheese kuchen). If you want to try this, you'd find dry curd cottage cheese mixed with a little bit of sugar. If you aren't able to locate dry curd cottage cheese, you need to allow the cottage cheese time to drain in cheesecloth over a bowl in the fridge to lower the moisture content.
Top fruit topping with custard filling:
Ladle about 1/4 cup (or 2 scoops) of custard filling over the fruit and dough. Sprinkle with cinnamon.
Bake the kuchen:
Bake kuchen at 350 degrees for about 15-20 minutes or until the dough is golden brown. Remove from the oven and allow to cool. The custard will set as the kuchen cools. Serve immediately, or cool and store in the fridge or freezer.