Appalachian Stack Cake: a taste from America's mountain south

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In the Fall 2017 issue of Sift magazine you’ll find stories and recipes from the traditions of Appalachian cooking, handed down in the families of the Mountain South. Appalachian Stack Cake is a perfect example of a celebration cake unique to mountain baking. 

No two bakers of stack cake go about it the same way, which means there’s no definitive stack-cake recipe or technique. We love this version from Appalachian writer and cookbook author Sheri Castle. She developed the recipe over three decades – and it’s the one she plans to pass along to her daughter.

“There’s no recipe more rooted in Appalachian culture: stack cake is an ingenious expression of traditional mountain footways,” says Sheri. “Thin, sorghum-sweetened layers are married together by a fragrant filling made from dried apples. Stack cake layers are made from dough, not batter. They’re thin and almost crisp, rather like excellent plate-sized gingerbread cookies. The first cook to make one almost certainly baked her cake layers one at a time, patting the dough into her skillet, baking them over a campfire or on the hearth, turning them out onto a plate, stacking and filling as she went.”

Appalachian Stack Cakes require at least five layers, but Sheri says the sky’s the limit: “At any height, a stack cake must sit and cure for at least two days. Given a little time, the moisture from the apples softens the layers, making the cake moist, sliceable, and delectable. Connoisseurs know that cutting into a stack cake as soon as it’s assembled is a disservice to the cake and the cook, despite the oft-repeated story of guests bringing stack cake layers to mountain weddings to be assembled and cut on the spot. That’s a charming anecdote that we’d like to believe, but it doesn’t add up. A freshly stacked cake is no gift at all.”

Bake up a taste from America's Mountain South: Appalachian Stack Cake is worth celebrating. Click To Tweet

If you’d like to try a taste of this mountain tradition, here’s a step-by-step breakdown.

Appalachian Stack Cake

For the filling, combine the following ingredients in a 2- or 3-quart saucepan.

4 to 5 cups (1 pound) roughly chopped dried apples or dried apple nuggets
1 cup packed brown sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground mace
4 to 5 cups water

Add just enough water to cover the apples. Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce the heat to low and let simmer, stirring frequently, until…

Appalachian Stack Cake via @kingarthurflour

…the apples are tender and the filling is very thick, about 1 hour. If the mixture gets dry, add more water. If it’s soupy, continue to simmer until the excess liquid cooks away. Remove from the heat and use a potato masher to break up the apples into a chunky sauce. Stir in 1/4 cup boiled cider. The finished consistency should be similar to lumpy apple butter. Set the filling aside to cool.

Baking the cake layers

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Grease and flour five 9″ cake pans. If you don’t have that many pans, by all means bake in batches.

In a large mixing bowl, whisk together:

4 1/2 cups (19 ounces) King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour
1/2 cup sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt

Then add the wet ingredients:

1/2 cup sorghum syrup
1/2 cup buttermilk
1/3 cup vegetable shortening
1 large egg

Appalachian Stack cake via @kingarthurflour

Beat on low speed until the mixture is smooth and has the consistency of cookie dough. If the dough is very dry and stiff, as you see on the left, add 2 more tablespoons of buttermilk and mix until the dough is smooth and pliable.

Divide the dough into five equal pieces; they’ll weigh between 7 and 7 1/2 ounces each. Cover the pieces you aren’t working with so they don’t dry out. Use lightly floured hands to pat a piece of dough evenly into the bottom of each of the prepared pans. The dough should be about 3/8″ thick. Lightly prick it all over with a fork.

Bake the layers until firm when lightly pressed, about 15 minutes. The layers won’t rise much as they bake.

Appalachian stack Cake via @kingarthurflour

Assembling your Appalachian Stack Cake

Turn the first lukewarm layer onto a large cake plate. Immediately spread it with 1 heaping cup of the apple filling. Continue baking, stacking, and topping the warm layers. Leave the top layer bare.

Cover the cake with several layers of plastic wrap, then tea towels, or store it in an airtight cake carrier. Let the cake rest for at least two days before dusting the top with confectioners’ sugar and cutting.

A simple way to dress up the top is simply to use a doily as a stencil. The cake is wonderful with hot coffee or tea.

Give this Appalachian Stack Cake a try, and get a taste of true mountain traditions, courtesy of Sheri Castle and Sift magazine. Let us know what you think in the comments below!

Susan Reid
About

Chef Susan Reid grew up in New Jersey, graduated from Bates College and the Culinary Institute of America, and is presently the Food Editor of Sift magazine. She does demos, appearances, and answers food (and baking) questions from all quarters.

comments

  1. Anne

    Such a fascinating mid-way point between a layer cake and an icebox cake, and with an interesting cultural provenance. That history aside, it looks as though the same concept could be modified to use a different filling to suit the ingredients (and maybe even cultural inclination) more easily found in a different place? Realizing that it won’t be Appalachian Stack Cake any more, I’m imagining that most things with a similar moisture and sugar content would work in place of the cooked apples like, say, low-sugar homemade berry preserves, or a really well-flavored sweetened pumpkin puree?

    Reply
    1. Susan Reid, post author

      Hi, Anne. Yes, this could very much be adapted to other fillings. A Kentucky chef friend of mine just posted a stack cake with olive oil cake layers filled with homemade apricot jam. And you have it right; matching a dry-ish, firm layer with a moist filling that’s not too sweet is the way to go! SusaN

  2. David

    I made this after seeing it in Sift. It was delicious and a big hit with the people I shared it with. It’s was quite a long term project for me, since I started about a week ahead by drying my apples and worked on the rest as it fit my schedule. Is there any way around using dried apples if what you have available is fresh? Could you cook them down to the point where they thicken and skip the drying step or does that concentrate flavor? I see they retained their shape somewhat in the pictures here. My dried apples cooked to pieces, but that was to be expected since I was using Macs.

    Thanks for a wonderful recipe! I really enjoyed baking it.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Funny you should ask, David, as the question recently came up around here too. The short answer is that dried fruit makes this dish more traditional. Like other traditional Appalachian food, this cake takes advantage of food that’s been preserved to last all year – hence the dried apple. If you really want to give a version with fresh apples a try, we’d suggest using them to make an apple butter, which can then be spread on the layers. Hope this helps to make for a second successful bake! Mollie@KAF

    2. Mary Ridley

      Wouldn’t apple butter be a good substitute for the dried apple mixture? My Mama made apple butter cakes with the apple butter in between as well as on top of split yellow cake layers. I can hardly wait to try this sorghum sweetened layers!

    3. Susan Reid, post author

      Sure, Mary, you could certainly use apple butter instead. Although the flavor of the recipe given is more intensely apple, because of the boiled cider. A lot of apple butter is very highly spiced, and since the cake layers are already spicy, it could end up being more than you bargained for. Susan

  3. Sheila

    I was just going to ask if apple butter could be used as a filling! Since my first question has already been answered, here’s another – could you substitute molasses (or even maple syrup) for the sorghum syrup? I’ve never seen sorghum syrup in New England.

    Reply
    1. Susan Reid, post author

      Yes, Sheila, molasses works just fine. Slightly different flavor, but still very good. Susan

  4. Melinda

    I understand there are many versions of apple stack cake, but growing up in southeastern Kentucky I can honestly say this is nothing at all what I expected this recipe to be. I was excited to see the link, the title, the respect given to Appalachian recipes. Wanting to replicate my great grandmothers recipe I hoped this might be a guide for measurements since she used a teacup and her hands. Sadly this is only faintly similar to what her version of apple stack cake was. It is a respectful version which I appreciate. I will just have to keep gathering family recipies and work on measurements and taste based on childhood memories. Travel Appalachia, eat, drink, visit a while.

    Reply
  5. J P Garrison

    I remember this cake! It is part of my “dessert heritage”, as my dad’s three “old-maid” sisters who lived at the old home place baked their stacked Apple cakes in an old wood-fired range in the dead of winter when all the fresh apples were long gone. As a hobby grower of antique Apple varieties, I dry lots of them, and an glad to have a new/old way to enjoy them. Only a few bakers here remember this cake, which my late mom made sometimes – I haven’t found it among her recipes. As to the wedding anecdote, I think it’s only a romantic notion, since big wedding parties are very much a recent thing: most couples just found a judge or preacher to perform a simple ceremony. Most folks here in the North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee mountains were quite poor and lived quite simply, as my grandparents did. Anyway, thanks KAF for great info ! And, as a P.S.,could you ask Ms. Castle if she has a recipe for old-fashioned fried pies, using dried apples? My attempts have been,shall we say, less than stellar….it’s a pastry problem.

    Reply
    1. Susan Reid, post author

      JP, I have sent a note to Sheri asking if there’s a recipe for them in the Southern Living Community Cookbook that she compiled; in the meantime you could try making your pastry dough with an egg as part of the liquid, which would help it hold together when it’s being submerged in fat. Susan

      Just heard back from Sheri. This fried pie is, in fact, in the book linked above:

      Fried Apple Pies

      The roster of famous Southern pies is long and honorable, but perhaps none
      inspires more nostalgia than a fried apple pie, those handheld half-moons of
      tender pastry encasing a delicately spiced dried apple filling. (The other
      traditional filling is dried peaches.)

      Despite the implications of their name, most homemade fried pies are not
      deep-fried, but cooked in a skillet until they are golden brown. Fried pies
      have long been popular in the Mountain South, where hearthside baking in a
      trusty iron skillet was perfected in the days before ovens were common.

      Makes 6 servings

      1 1/2 cups dried apples
      1 Tbsp. butter
      1/2 cup sugar
      3/4 tsp. ground cinnamon
      1/2 tsp. ground nutmeg
      2 cups all-purpose flour
      1/2 tsp. salt
      1/2 cup shortening
      1/4 to 1/2 cup whole milk
      Vegetable oil
      Sifted powdered sugar

      1. Bring apples and water to cover to a boil in a medium saucepan. Reduce heat
      and simmer, uncovered, 30 minutes or until apples are soft. Remove from heat
      and let stand, uncovered, for 1 hour. Drain off any standing liquid. Mash
      apples coarsely with a fork or pastry blender. Again, drain off any standing
      liquid. The filling should be very thick. Stir in butter, sugar, cinnamon, and
      nutmeg. Cover and chill.
      2. Whisk together flour and salt in a large bowl. Work in shortening with
      pastry blender or fingertips until mixture is crumbly. Sprinkle milk, 1 Tbsp.
      at a time, evenly over surface; stir with a fork until dry ingredients are
      moistened.
      3. Divide pastry into 6 equal portions. Roll each portion to 1/8-inch
      thickness on a lightly floured surface and cut each in a 6-inch round. (A
      saucer makes a nice guide.)
      4. Spoon one-sixth of apple filling on half of each round. Moisten edge of
      pastry, fold dough over apple filling, press edges to seal. Crimp edges with a
      fork.
      5. Pour oil to a depth of 1/2 inch into a large, heavy skillet. Heat over
      medium-high heat. Working in batches, fry pies 3 minutes on each side or until
      golden brown, turning once. Drain well on paper towels. Sprinkle warm pies
      with powdered sugar, if you like. Serve warm or at room temperature.

      Mrs. Denver W. Anderson
      Eva, Tennessee
      1994

  6. Bruce Hansel

    My great aunt, Maggie Durham (1880-1980), used to make her Apple Stake Cake for me when I was little. We had a Golden Delicious Apple tree and we dried apples every year on old screen doors set on saw horses. Aunt Maggie lived her younger years in the Renfro Valley area of eastern KY. She taught John Lair, the Bluegrass musician and other children, to read and write in a one room school house. John Lair later taught my father third grade in the same school house. Aunt Maggie is with her Lord Jesus now and took her recipe with her. So, thank you, Susan for reminding me of better days. I will definitely try out this Stake Cake recipe.

    Reply
    1. Susan Reid, post author

      Thank you, Bruce, for your story. I love the tangible history certain foods can bring alive! Let us know how you like it. Susan

  7. Barb

    I remember having this as a child at my grandmas house. We were taught to slice the cake straight across instead of wedges. Slices were kept small so the cake could be shared by the whole extended family. It was delicious as I am sure this will be. Can’t wait to make one on Thanksgiving. My question is about storing the cake. Is it left at room temperature or does it go in the fridge.
    P. S. I love baking with Measure for Measure.

    Reply
    1. Susan Reid, post author

      Hi, Barb. I would refrigerate the cake if you’re planning to hold it for more than 1 day. Susan

  8. Gannon

    My family is from Harlan Ky in the Appalachian Mountains. This looks similar to what my grandma and great grand ma would make. I can’t wait to try it.

    Reply
  9. Lynne

    I grew up in the Great Smoky Mountains, and my mother made stack cakes with fresh home made applesauce from our trees, cooked thick, lightly sweetened and slightly spiced. There were a dozen layers, and such good eatin’, oh my! Somehow, mine don’t taste nearly as good as hers did. I’ll try this recipe with store bought dried apples, and hope for the best!. Thanks so much for this “blast from the past”!

    Reply

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