Cooking to Reconnect

Five German-Russian recipes that will help you slow down, warm up, and rethink winter.

Story and photos by Micaela Gerhardt | Illustrations by Leah Ecklund | January 18, 2023

As a North Dakotan, I have two mentalities about winter. The first is that I’m tough, raised to withstand this weather. A foot of snow? Just a light dusting. Negative 30-degree windchill? Nothing I can’t handle.

The second, in more trying moments, is that winter is dreary, dark, and shockingly cold — something to endure, not celebrate. As the temperatures drop in fall, leading up to the great freeze, even the slightest mention of winter, or the most delicate of snow flurries, will make me groan.

When I went to graduate school in Washington state, I had classmates from the South who looked to me as an expert in winter. With them, I’d proudly shrug off blizzards and snow tires and temperatures above zero degrees. Since returning to Fargo, I’ve done my best to remain a winter optimist, but the endorphins tend to dwindle by mid-January, suppressed by drafts that seep in through my plastic-sealed windowpanes.

As this winter season approached, with the sun setting earlier and earlier each day, I found myself dreaming of soup boiling on the stove, steam clouding the quiet air, my favorite lamp casting light and shadows across the room. Could I make my kitchen its own sort of coveted winter escape, a dimly lit hobbit hole stocked with the perfect remedies for every case of the winter blues? Better yet, could I make winter itself something to delight in, something worth savoring?

In an attempt to conjure up some winter magic, I looked to NDSU Libraries’ Germans from Russia Heritage Collection (GRHC) for recipe inspiration. The GRHC, whose mission is to share and preserve the history and culture of the Germans from Russia in North Dakota and the Northern Plains, has an expansive historic library that includes photographs, letters, interviews, books, textiles, documentaries, and what is very likely the largest catalog of German-Russian cookbooks in the world — containing, for example, more than 100 recipes for making knoephla soup. Philanthropic support, like the $1.1 million Marie Rudel Portner endowment, has greatly contributed to the collection and helped secure its continued growth.

Retired GRHC Director Michael Miller and outreach and operations coordinator Jeremy Kopp.

Michael Miller founded the GRHC in 1978 and has dedicated the better part of his 55-year career at NDSU to sharing the stories, histories, and traditions of the German-Russian ethnic group. I sat down with Michael, who retired in December 2022, and Jeremy Kopp ’11, GRHC outreach and operations coordinator, to talk about some of their favorite German-Russian meals. The recipes they shared invite us all to create a space for winter warmth in the landscape of our imaginations.

Think of these as the perfect recipes for a slow winter Sunday when nothing is expected of you other than to make a delicious meal and then to fill yourself to the brim with it. Perhaps, with the dough resting and the house warm, you’ll want to brave the freezing temperatures and take a walk, or go ice skating, to return home flushed, energized, and extra hungry; perhaps, you’ll choose to read a book beneath a heaping pile of your warmest blankets instead.

The beauty of German-Russian cooking is that you probably already have the staples on hand: flour, butter, milk, and eggs. The Germans from Russia were known for their agricultural prowess, and most immigrated from Germany to Russia between 1763 and 1812 following the promise of free farmland. But changes in the Russian government, the 1862 Homestead Act, and recruitment tactics from U.S. railroad companies ultimately led more than 100,000 Germans from Russia to make a new home in the Northern Plains.

Spreading the custard filling for wedding kuchen — a variation on kuchen traditionally served at Catholic weddings in the Germans from Russia community.

When the Germans from Russia arrived in North Dakota, they found a much colder — and windier — climate than they had experienced in the southern portion of what is present-day Ukraine. There were, however, similarities in the rolling hills and prairie landscape with rich soil. In North Dakota — as in their former homeland — wheat was an abundant crop, and flour kept well through the winter, so some form of dough was incorporated into nearly every meal.

If you pay close attention, the humble ingredients in each of these recipes will teach you about the Germans from Russia ethnic group and the history of settling on this prairie they (and perhaps you, too) call home. Behind German-Russian foods are ingredients indicative of survival — of appetites earned while working long hours in the fields, of days spent in the kitchen preparing meals, of homes heated by the warmth of the stove, of gathering around a table and sharing language and stories, of making something delicious from seasonal crops and foods preserved in root cellars to enjoy in the coldest depths of winter.

Salting and sauteing vegetables for knoephla soup, a staple German-Russian recipe.

The most important aspect of cooking German-Russian food is that it’s shared. With the sun setting in the early evening, and chilly weather outside, winter is a time that naturally invites us to slow down and stay in. As harvest season came to an end, German-Russian families also leaned into winter as a time for more rest and kinship.

“I think wintertime [was my favorite season]. Really, I think I liked the winter,” Raymond Boechler remembered in an interview for the Dakota Memories Oral History Project. “We could skate, we could play hockey; we seemed to spend more time together in a warm house. In summertime, everybody was away working or going somewhere. In the wintertime, it was more togetherness.”

Michael, who is German-Russian himself, said when he grew up, he too felt more camaraderie in winter.

“I think that I grew up where we would have good conversation at the meal. Fortunately, I grew up speaking both German and English. That was good for me because it provided opportunity for keeping up the language,” Michael said. “I think food culture is very important in keeping the heritage and conversation.”

“Food brings people together,” Jeremy added. “I think it makes you nostalgic, too. You know, when you eat a specific food and it reminds you of something your grandma or mom cooked, you long for that. I think we all have good memories around food.”

Memories in the kitchen are what inspire NDSU alumna Erika (Graff) Green ’04 to make her grandmother’s recipe for cheese buttons — a quintessential German-Russian dish — once a year. Every Christmas Eve, as Erika rolls out the dough, she is transported back into her grandmother’s home where she vividly remembers her family gathering around the kitchen island and sharing stories as they pinched the folded edges of the cheese buttons — or “three corners,” as her family calls them — together into a triangular fold.

The signature triangular fold on Erika's recipe for cheese buttons, also known as "three corners" or "kase knoephla."

“It’s one of the things that is just really close to my heart, having that time in the kitchen with my grandma,” Erika said. “[Making cheese buttons] every year … it’s just a time of reflection. That’s probably why I only do it once a year — it’s a labor of love.”

Erika and her family have continued the tradition of making cheese buttons together. Even when they’re apart for the holidays, they make the family recipe and send each other photos.

“It’s a piece of our family and our history that I think is just very special to everyone,” Erika said.

Before you embark upon the adventure of making these delightfully warm and filling German-Russian recipes — let winter settle comfortably in your mind, its snowbanks and frosted windshields, white plumes of snow-laden clouds, ice crusted over the lakes and fields. Then, enjoy your meal in good company. Ask your guests to share stories about their families and the places they call home. An estimated 30%-40% of North Dakotans have German-Russian heritage, so if you’re dining among friends and family from the state, you may be among someone of German-Russian ancestry yourself.

Serve your German-Russian meal with prunes (if you want to be traditional), something pickled (cucumbers, beets, or watermelon), and fresh bread.

Germans from Russia Heritage Collection Recipes

Explore recipes from the story. Click the dish below to jump to the recipe.

Cheese Buttons

Knoephla Soup

Borscht Soup

Wedding Kuchen

Pumpkin Blachenta

Cheese Buttons

Michael’s and Jeremy’s favorite German-Russian dish is the cheese button, or kase knoephla, which are thin pierogi-like dumplings stuffed with a dry curd or cottage cheese filling. Cheese buttons can be sweetened with cinnamon or made savory with salt and pepper.

Michael’s mother served them boiled or fried and topped with pieces of bread toasted in butter. Erika’s family serves them with diced onion and a mushroom soup gravy.

Erika, who has been making the recipe since she was 7 years old and standing in the kitchen at her grandmother’s side, said it takes her about four hours to make them on her own — with help from a couple of people in her family, it takes about two. As with most new recipes, Erika said “a little bit of magic has to happen.” She encourages people who are trying this recipe for the first time to “keep your eye on things and learn by doing.”

If there are leftovers, Erika suggests freezing them or frying them up for breakfast.

Recipe for Cheese Buttons/Three Corners/Kase Knoephla
Yields between 24-30 cheese buttons

Family recipe submitted by Erika (Graff) Green ’04

Dough ingredients:

  • 4-5 cups flour
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 ½ cups lukewarm water

Cheese filling ingredients:

  • 3 cups dry curd cottage cheese (or strain cottage cheese overnight in a colander)
  • Dash of salt
  • 1 egg

Optional topping ingredients:

  • Small onion, diced and browned in oil or butter
  • 1 can of condensed cream of mushroom soup and milk, as needed
  • Sour cream, sweet cream, and salt and pepper
  • Pieces of bread, toasted in butter

Directions:

  1. Mix all of the dough ingredients together — starting with 4 cups of flour, adding more as needed — and knead together on a pastry board until no longer sticky. Make sure the dough has some elasticity. If the consistency is too dry, it can become stiff and difficult to work with.

  2. Divide dough into two sections and form balls. Rest the dough for 15 minutes while covered with a towel.

  3. Mix together the ingredients for the cheese filling.

  4. Separate the dough into halves or thirds and roll out each section until it is about ¼ inch thick. Keep whatever dough you aren’t working with covered.

  5. Cut the dough into 4-inch squares, then add a teaspoon of filling to each square. Fold the squares into a triangle and pinch the edges tightly to prevent the filling from spilling out. As you assemble the cheese buttons, cover them up with a tea towel so the dough doesn’t dry out.

  6. Bring 4 cups or more water and a little oil to a raging boil. Add cheese buttons, but do not overcrowd the pot, and cook for about 5-7 minutes or until they float to the top and the dough is tender. Keep the water at a constant boil. The cheese buttons get very mushy if they’re in the water for too long.

  7. Saute onions in oil and/or make a mushroom gravy by adding milk to a can of condensed cream of mushroom soup until it has a thinner, gravy-like consistency. Reader Marilyn Laubhan Yanke suggests heating sour cream on the stove with just enough sweet cream to make a sauce, then seasoning it with salt and pepper. Serve and eat cheese buttons as soon as the temperature cools to taste.

  8. You may freeze uncooked cheese buttons if desired. To cook frozen, take out of the freezer, bring the water and oil to a raging boil, and add the cheese buttons in small batches to ensure the water doesn’t cool down.
  9.  

*Editor’s notes: Work with small amounts of dough when rolling — the scraps do not re-roll well. Keep enough flour under the dough while rolling to prevent it from sticking.

Knoephla Soup

Knoephla soup is one of the most widely popular German-Russian recipes, but like most German-Russian food, it can be difficult to find if you live outside of North Dakota. The soup has a creamy, buttery broth, chewy dumplings called knoephla, tender potatoes, some variation of vegetables, and, occasionally, chicken.

Recipe for Easy Knoephla Soup | Serves 4-6

From Yesterday and Today Friendly Circle Cookbook from the Beulah Congregational Church

Soup base ingredients:

  • 1 stalk celery, diced
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 1 can chicken broth
  • 1 can cream of chicken soup
  • 1 cup half and half
  • 5 potatoes, diced
  • 6 cups water
  • 2 Tbsp chicken soup base

Knoephla dough ingredients:

  • 2 cups flour
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 2 eggs

Directions:

  1. Combine potatoes, onions, celery, 6 cups of water, chicken broth, and soup base; cook until vegetables are soft.

  2. Mix together the flour, baking powder, salt, eggs, and ½ cup water to make a fairly stiff dough. Roll into ½-inch ropes; cut into ½-inch pieces and drop into simmering soup. Add 1 can cream of chicken soup. Simmer 12-15 minutes or until done. Add 1 cup of half and half and serve.

*Editor’s notes: We made a big batch of soup and used 12 cups of chicken broth instead of water and 1 can of cream of chicken soup and 2 tablespoons of chicken soup base. We also added more celery stalks and leaves and 1 pound of carrots. Saute the vegetables in butter (1/4 cup) before adding the water and soup base or broth. Additionally, the knoephla dough is a bit stiff to work with — make sure to roll a thin rope and cut into small pieces as the knoephla puff up quite a bit as they cook. The recipe yields a generous amount of knoephla. Be careful not to oversalt the soup because the knoephla adds saltiness. The flour from the knoephla helps thicken the soup as well.

Borscht Soup

Borscht soup has many varieties, including beet, meat, vegetable, and green. Beet borscht is the German-Russian dish most influenced by Russian cuisine. In general, German-Russian food borrows more from German cooking because the Germans who settled in Russia lived mostly amongst other Germans, isolated from the Russian people.

Recipe for Mom’s Borscht | Serves 8

From “Sei Unser Gast: ‘Be Our Guest,'”
a collection of German-Russian recipes from the members and friends of the North Star Chapter of Minnesota

Ingredients:

  • 3 quarts water
  • 1 lb. soup meat or 1 large soup bone
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 1 large onion, sliced
  • 1/4 cup butter
  • 3 large carrots
  • 1 small head cabbage, shredded
  • 2 beets, diced or 1 small can of diced beets (optional)
  • 1 can of tomatoes
  • 1/4 cup rice
  • 2 large potatoes, peeled and diced
  • 1 cup sour cream

Directions:

  1. In a large kettle, bring the water, soup bone or soup meat, bay leaves, and salt to a boil. Cover and cook gently for two hours.

  2. While meat is cooking, melt butter and cook onion in a large frying pan. Add other vegetables (use a small or large can of tomatoes, depending upon your taste) to onion and simmer for 1 hour. When the meat is tender, remove it from the broth and strain the broth. Return the broth to the kettle with the meat and cooked vegetables and simmer for one-and-a-half hours. Add rice, then potatoes 10 minutes later; cook until done. Add sour cream, bring soup to a boil, and serve. (Peas, green beans, celery, or corn may be added to this soup, if desired).

Wedding Kuchen

A quick glance at the serving size for this recipe (12 kuchen) will tell you it was developed and written with the intention of sharing it at a large gathering — in particular, Catholic weddings. In fact, Jeremy adapted the recipe from the original recipe, which yielded 27 kuchen — now that’s a party! Thankfully, wedding kuchen is easily frozen and enjoyed throughout the year. Wedding kuchen is thinner than raised fruit kuchens, which are more readily found in grocery stores and bakeries around the state. It tastes similar to a snickerdoodle cookie. Cook the recipe alongside Marge (Burlack) Horner by watching Gutes Essen: Good Eating in German Russian Country, beginning at the 37:45 minute-mark.

Recipe for Wedding Kuchen | Yields 12 kuchen

From Gutes Essen: Good Eating in German Russian Country,
adapted from Marge (Burlack) Horner

Crust ingredients:

  • 6 Tbsp Crisco (butter-flavored)
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 cup cream
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp almond extract
  • 3 ½ cups flour

Crust directions:

  1. Mix together.
  2. Let rest for one hour.
  3. Divide evenly into 12 dough balls.
  4. Press into greased aluminum pie tins.

Custard ingredients:

  • 4 eggs
  • 1 cup milk
  • 2 cups cream
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 1/2 cup Wondra flour
  • Add 2 tsp vanilla after custard is cooked and cooled slightly

Custard directions:

  1. Mix together.
  2. Microwave until thick and bubbly (stir in increments; do not overcook).
  3. Distribute evenly on top of crusts.

Topping ingredients:

  • 1 Tbsp margarine
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup flour
  • Cinnamon to taste (about 1 tsp)

*Editor’s notes: When making the crust, mix the dry ingredients (flour, salt, sugar, and baking powder) first, cut the Crisco into the dry ingredients with a fork, then stir in wet ingredients. Knead to ensure the ingredients are well incorporated, and cover the dough while it rests. As you heat the custard, microwave in 45-second increments and stir in between increments to prevent burning. Apply the cinnamon sugar topping generously.

Pumpkin Blachenta

From Gutes Essen: Good Eating in German Russian Country,
adapted from Barbara (Reis) Wald

Pumpkin certainly has its moment in fall, but pumpkin blachenta are a delicious winter treat as well. Blachenta are typically stuffed with pumpkin or apple filling, and Michael recommends serving them alongside ham and bean soup.

Recipe for Pumpkin Blachenta | Yields 12 blachenta

Dough ingredients:

  • 4 cups flour
  • 4 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 3/4 cup shortening
  • 1/2 – 3/4 cup ice water

Filling ingredients:

  • 4 cups ground pumpkin (canned is fine)
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp pepper
  • Cinnamon to taste

Directions:

  1. For the dough, mix flour, baking powder, salt, and shortening until crumbly (like making a pie crust). Add enough ice water to make a medium stiff dough. In a separate bowl, mix together filling ingredients.

  2. Cut dough into 12 equal parts. On a lightly floured surface, roll each part of dough into a thin circle, then spread some filling on half of each circle, bring other half over on top of filled section; seal edges with a fork.

  3. Place on cookie sheet. Prick each “blachent” with a fork and bake at 350 degrees for 20-25 minutes or until nicely browned.

Looking for more recipes? Check out NDSU’s Germans from Russia Heritage Collection Recipes from the Community or purchase a cookbook from the collection. You can also watch Prairie Public’s Gutes Essen: Good Eating in German Russian Country, a documentary that invites you into the homes, bakeries, and supermarkets of North Dakotans who are keeping the German-Russian cooking tradition alive and well.

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