Many people believe that museums, libraries, and universities are the conservators of civilization’s most precious treasures. This belief is incorrect, especially when it comes to universities, institutions that have been corrupted to their very cores as of late thanks to the influence of radical professors who believe, condemnably, that part of a student’s final grade should be based on attendance. Rather, they are grandmas who preserve the very best of what humanity has cooked up during our short time on earth. They know the dessert recipes.If you are of Italian descent, your grandma kept pastiera napoletana alive and well into your generation. If you have French in you, your grandma likely ensured that there could still be croquembouche. If your ancestors were Germans from Russia, the Russlanddeutsche, then your grandma may have been a scholar of kuchen. Karen Schwandt of Larimore, North Dakota is just that, and her mail order business Karen’s Kuchens keeps tradition’s fires crackling.
A kuchen is a wonderful, buttery, cakey thing that is all fluff and sweetness. Karen’s repertoire of 70 variations on the delight includes banana creme, caramel rhubarb, German chocolate, juneberry raspberry, maple pecan, poppy seed, black chokeberry, pistachio, orange marmalade, malted milk, toasted coconut, and apple.
Karen spends eight hours a day in her basement, which has been converted wholly into a kuchen bakery. (The time she used to take brushed twelve hours before the very welcome introduction of an industrial dough sheeter and a bread mixer with a hook like a dockside crane’s.) There she makes every custom order she receives for kuchen by hand, methodically mixing sacks of flour, gallons of heavy cream, grosses of eggs, spices, and fruits. “You can never be chintzy with the fruit,” Karen advises. In her ongoing devotion to keeping her creations authentic to her area, Karen buys strawberries, rhubarb, and blueberries from the Hutterite colony a 15 minute drive away from her home.
While Karen bakes, her husband Ken supplies. He believes that his installation of a dumbwaiter going down to the basement bakery was the best idea he has ever had — although his chiropractor may miss the supplemental income.
Once baked, each kuchen is flash-frozen, paired with an ice pack, and dispatched via UPS to any of the lower 48 states where kuchens are needed. They are very much needed. One of Karen’s best customers, whose comfort we need never concern ourselves with, has a standing order for 15 kuchens every six months. A recent Herculean effort saw to the delivery of 60 kuchens to a pastor’s retirement party in Tennessee. (The old pastor would likely disapprove of Karen’s kuchens having been described as “sin you can eat.”) Californians en route to somewhere, possibly in desperate search of plastic straws, stopped by just to get their latest kuchen in person.
“I remember the old holiday parties,” Karen reminisced. “All the ladies coming together to cover every flat surface in the house with kuchens, cookies, all of the treats that Germans use to say ‘I love you.’ Where Ken and I live now, it’s all Icelandics and Norskies. I say they are welcome to eat kuchen, too, since they let us eat their lefse.”
“Having this business, making kuchens for people, is a blessing,” Karen continued. “One of our recent customers ordered a kuchen for her father. He hadn’t had once since his mother had passed away. He wept while he ate it. Food brings us back into the past in a way that no other memento can.”
Whether you would like to revisit tradition or start one anew, you need only order a kuchen from karenskuchens.com.
By David Scheller