If you live in North Dakota, chances are you’ve fought the desire to not eat a panful of kuchen in one sitting. Somewhere between a cake-y pie and a custard, this dessert came to North Dakota via Germans from Russia – and if you ask me, tastes the best when it’s made by a German grandma.
Fortunately, we have plenty of those in North Dakota – such as Karen Schwandt, who is the namesake, brains, and heart behind the famous Karen’s Kuchens. The fantastic Karen has kindly offered up her thoughts on how she is baked up modern-day success by honoring her Old World heritage:
Kuchen is a lost art and I have customers that have tried to bake their own with no luck. My husband says it is the feel with the dough. My kuchen recipe was handed down by my Mom who said, in a hushed tone, that it was her first mother’s recipe. Her first mother died when she was a young girl, but my Mom was the baker back then. It is from the Black Sea area of Russia (Germans from Russia) and I know there are bar kuchens out there (they are from the Volga area of Russia).
Karen’s Kuchens is now a North Dakota household name; how did you get started?
I thought about baking kuchen back in the 1980’s but it was just a thought. I talked to my Mom about this and she said that would be a lot of work! (And she was right.)
It took me 20 years to feel it was the right time to try baking and selling kuchen. I thought I would do a trial run over at the C-Store near Akra at a local Farmers Market in 2005. I put some kuchens in coolers and sold out of the back of my van. I also did few other area Farmers Markets. I went to a vendor Christmas show at the local school and was asked by another vendor if I was licensed, so I contacted the State Health Department to find out what I needed to do to get licensed.
We had the right kind of home up in Cavalier to make a small bedroom into a kuchen kitchen. I started with one stove, refrigerator, and freezer. We installed a long counter, a dishwasher, a hand sink, and some cupboards. I painted the walls with a washable paint. We also took out the doors to a closet and installed the required triple sink. We put down flooring that was washable. I had one rolling pin and a hot plate to wrap.
After the inspector came, I was good to go. I started going to Farmers Market in Grand Forks, and some small shows in the area. I started to think ahead of joining the Pride of Dakota and how would I handle a large show. So since there was a bedroom next to the one I was using, I turned that into a second kitchen. I put the refrigerator and freezer in that room and added one more of each, along with more counter and cupboards and microwaves. I put in a second stove in the first kitchen. I also invested in a heated shrink wrapper.
My third year up in Cavalier I decided to add a warehouse as I needed more freezer space. We built it next to our double garage. It held my little van and some coolers to ship. I also got a website up and running with help from a local person. Soon after we purchased national barcodes for stores. One of our sons took pictures of the kuchen so I could create labels for each flavor.
Later on, my retired husband took a job in Grand Forks, so we found a home near Larimore. We fixed up the entire basement and in 2015 I moved my business there. My husband and son-in-law came up with the idea to build a dumb waiter for supplies to go down and kuchen to go up.
I have invested in various vans and finally found a cargo that works for me. It holds two freezers and lots of coolers. I have had growth at the Pride of Dakota shows, so it was a necessity.
It was a dream to be in a store in the freezer department, but now, after trying many stores, I have changed my thinking in that wholesaling is not my area of interest anymore. I am in larger stores of my choice. I am glad I gave it my all and tried different stores. I am FDA licensed and ship kuchen all over the continental United States. People order off the website, by phone, or by texting.
I have been in Cash Wise, Fargo, Leevers (Devils Lake), and the Hugo’s stores in Grand Forks for about ten years now. When I tried to get into Hugo’s, I wrote three letters and never heard back from them. So one fine day, when I felt brave I marched myself into Hugo’s and asked to speak to the person who puts new products in the store. I was told he was out and didn’t know when he would be back. I said I would wait, and three minutes later he walked in. I started talking about kuchen nonstop right out there on the floor. He said okay, they would try them, and if they didn’t do well he would pull them out. I said okay, with a smile. I have had the same spot in the frozen section at Hugo’s all these years. I was invited into the Hugo’s at Jamestown about three years ago.
Where do you get your flavor inspirations?
Creating flavors has been a lot of fun. Some ideas came out of nowhere, some from my husband, kids, and grandkids. I can make any kind of kuchen by request. I started out with the Apple, Blueberry, Peach, etc. I take pride in my Almond Creme flavor as I am the only baker with that flavor and many others. My husband is a taste tester, as are our kids and grandkids – we call it Research and Development.
A salesman that went to the C-Store asked if I could make Sour Cream Raisin as that was his father’s specialty at his Mobridge Bakery, which no longer was around. I made him this flavor and he said it was perfect. It is still a regular.
Our two youngest grandsons asked me to make Cotton Candy Kuchen and being the Grandma I am, I created this flavor for them.
Your website says you are powered by “Grandma Steam.” What is it?
Grandma Steam is probably my German stubbornness and determination to get something done on time. I usually bake a large store order within a week of receiving it and I make a schedule for myself for shows, especially the Pride of Dakota shows (I do at least 3 of them). Family help at shows includes my children, sister, cousins, and a variety of grandchildren.
What is your connection to North Dakota? What does North Dakota Quality mean to you?
I grew up in Ashley, ND German country, but I was born in Mobridge, SD and lived in that area for the first two years of my life. The North Dakota winters can get long, but I would never want to leave the state. Family and heritage keep me here.
North Dakota quality means using the best products locally for my kuchens. And I like to use fresh frozen fruit. I like Dakota Maid Flour out of Grand Forks (North Dakota Mill). My kuchen is all made from scratch.
North Dakota products are made with love, pride and passion by North Dakota people who love doing what they are doing, so the products are well-made and the food is awesome.
What are you most proud of related to Karen’s Kuchens?
I am most proud of the magazines I have been in. First it was the AAA Travel Mag, then Cowboys and Indians based out of Dallas, Texas and last year it was the shop. dine. live. magazine out of Bismarck. My kuchen was also voted the Best in the State in 2018. USA Today had the nationwide contest and I am proud to be #1.
What’s next for Karen’s Kuchens?
Each year is different so it is hard to say what will come up for Karen’s Kuchens. It is in my heartstrings and I worked hard to get where I am. It is my passion and I hope to continue as long as I can.
Baking kuchens has been an interesting journey. I started out baking for something to do and to honor my heritage. My Grandmother was known in McIntosh County for her baking. Her angel food cakes were so loved – and we know that must take a lot whipping with the beaters and nothing was electrical back then.
I kept pushing myself as I like a good challenge. I like creating kuchen that no one else bakes. I like that I have different sizes, so people can choose either extra large, pie pan size, mini, or samplers that make a gift box of eight little kuchens. I also bake three flavors of wedding kuchens with a thin crust. I created the recipe combining two different recipes to make my own. I love it when people say I am the best and feedback is taken to heart.
[From Amanda: You can purchase any of Karen’s Kuchens 46 flavors – including chocolate mint, honeyberry, and plum – on her website here. They come in a wide variety of sizes and are deliciously affordable. Or, if you can’t wait, you can purchase them in-person at the grocery store. As Karen says, Germans say “I love you” with food.]