I’m on a roll, and with your kind permission, I’d like to slip into a natural followup to my last post, which was about using up some of the bounty of our autumn harvest – specifically, plums. We here in the U.S. don’t seem so much interested in eating our fruits au naturel, but seem rather to prefer them to grace some super rich pie, or a super sweet cobbler – we tend to forget that there are other less caloric ways to enjoy the deliciousness of our fruits. But we have less ostentatious models of culinary excellence available, and there are times when a less fancy vehicle does more to bring out the best in our fruits than a rich pasty presentation – I’m speaking of the very plain, and very delicious fruit kuchen.
Kuchen, as you may well know, is German for cake – more commonly thought of as a breakfast cake, or coffee cake. In Germany, coffee and kuchen is a morning ritual, engaged in with great respect for both the coffee and the kuchen – and the kuchen seen most often there is one topped with various fresh fruits.
BTW, are you aware that the best coffees in the world are not destined to be sent to the U.S. – I know we think we always get the best, but No, my friends, the world’s best coffees are sent to Germany and Italy – and have been for hundreds of years. It’s in those countries where the respect and appreciation is such that they are willing to pay outrageous prices for the very best, while we here in America are still caught up in the desire to somehow snag excellence cheaply. Sad.
The German immigrants to America of course brought their kuchen, and we have since done our American best to change it until it’s almost impossible to recognize its relationship to the original. But the currently popular streusel topped quick-bread known as “coffee cake” is perhaps our most common offspring of the German kuchen - fruit kuchens are much less common here these days, but this is an undeserved fate for such a noble and delicious fare.
I’m a fan of the yeast based kuchen, as opposed to the baking powder version – once again, the yeast kuchen is rarely encountered in the U.S., perhaps because we Americans don’t favor sweetbreads over cakes, and my favorite kuchen is certainly a sweetbread. Actually, a sweetbread kuchen can be quite rich and sweet, or it can be very much like a bread, which frankly I find a better vehicle for bringing out the best qualities of the fresh fruits topping it. I have even -mistakenly- made a kuchen with a straight bread dough, and surprisingly found it quite delightful – so know that kuchen is very adaptable as well.
I feel duty bound to share a few personal rules about kuchen making that have worked their way into my baking psyche through trial and error – ignore them if your own personal bent is such. First, I don’t care for thick kuchen – by thick, I mean 4 inches and higher. Keep in mind here that the kuchen is not the star of the show – the kuchen is the stage on which the real stars perform – it’s a balancing act. I think if, when stretching and forming your kuchen dough to the pan in which it will rise and bake, you make it about 3/4 of an inch to an inch thick, this will give you a perfect thickness in your baked kuchen.
This second rule I tend to forget frequently -as in this current baking- and that is to jam your fruit in tight on top of your kuchen dough – I’d suggest that you fill every open space until you can’t see any dough showing – then you have enough fruit. When you do this, it helps to push the fruit slices down into the dough -’cause they like slip off- and to use a pan with edges high enough so that the rising dough does not allow the fruit to slip off over the side. We’ll try to use the butter and sugar as a glue for the fruit as we assemble the kuchen.
This kuchen is simply taking my Roasted Plums of my last post and using them to top the kuchen – but of course, you could use any combination of spices you happen to like, and any combination of fruits as well. I love the adaptability of kuchen, and I hope you’ll feel free to make your own adjustments until it warms your heart perfectly.
This is a relatively plain kuchen – although it can be made either richer or even plainer, as you wish – Play with it and have fun – I know it’ll bring out the best in your summer fruits.
- 2 tsp. instant yeast
- 2 cups scalded milk
- 1/2 cup butter
- 3/4 cup granulated sugar (or less as you wish)
- 1 teaspoon salt
- Dash of nutmeg
- Grated zest of 1/2 lemon
- 6 cups of AP flour
- 1 egg or yolks of 2
Add the instant yeast to the flour in a separate bowl – set aside.
To the scalded milk add the butter, sugar, salt, a little nutmeg and lemon zest. When lukewarm, add 1 beaten egg or the beaten yolks of 2 eggs; stir in only enough flour to knead (Do not add more flour than needed – all flours differ, and it’s impossible to give exact measurements).
Knead dough on a lightly floured board until smooth and elastic.
Place in a large oiled bowl, cover and let rise until doubled in bulk (1-2 hours).
Return dough to your board, knead briefly and stretch into a rectangle to fit into your chosen baking pan – you’re now ready to assemble the kuchen.
Assembling the kuchen:
- Enough fruit to fill top of kuchen
- 1/4 to 1/2 cup of melted butter (depending on amount of fruit)
- 1/4 to 1/2 cup of brown sugar
- 1 to 2 tsp of ground cinnamon
- 1 to 2 tsp of ground cardamom
- 1/4 to 1/2 tsp of ground nutmeg
- 1/4 to 1/2 tsp of ground cumin
- If your butter is not salted, add a few dashes of salt too
Cut your fruit into pieces that will attractively fit on top of the kuchen – plums can be quartered, apples and pears can be cut into eighths or smaller, depending on size of fruit.
Paint the top of the kuchen with melted butter – sprinkle on about 1/4 of the brown sugar.
Arrange the sliced fruit tightly over the top of the kuchen – press down into the kuchen dough.
Mix together the spices with the remaining brown sugar – sprinkle over the top of the fruit slices – drizzle the remaining melted butter over all, making sure to wet all the fruit with the butter.
Cover with plastic wrap and a towel and set in a warm place for the final rise, which should take about an hour.
While the kuchen is rising, heat the oven to 375F.
When the kuchen and the oven are ready, bake until fruit is bubbly and browning (about 25 to 35 minutes).
I usually make this in a sourdough version – and it’s quite easy to make the adjustment. If you’re interested in doing a sourdough kuchen, simply cut a 1/4 cup each of the flour and milk, and use 120 grams of 100% hydration sourdough starter instead of the yeast when you put the dough together. You may then proceed as you would for a sourdough loaf – personally, I would also add a half teaspoon of the yeast to this enriched dough, and give the dough an overnight proofing in the fridge before proceeding.
I would caution you about choosing the right size pan for baking this – it’s better to have too much pan than not enough! There is little problem with a kuchen that doesn’t snugly fit right up to the edges of your pan – it doesn’t have to have straight edges all around. A much bigger problem however is to have such a tight fit in the pan that the butter and sugar leak over the sides and set your smoke alarms off – so take care in choosing your pan, and make sure it has sides high enough to guard against overflow.
Additionally, remember that you are using the butter/sugar/spice mix to subtlety bring out the qualities of the fruit – you are not making a sauce to drown the fruit. It’s a good case of less being more, so don’t overdo it.
I leave you today with two harvest wishes: may you have such abundance that your problem is in finding ways to use it all (remember, kuchen freezes well); and may you have the opportunity to try a fruit kuchen, especially if you’ve never had the opportunity before.