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, you’ll need the following ingredients:

4 to 5 cups (454g) roughly chopped dried apples or dried apple nuggets
1 cup (213g) packed brown sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground mace
4 to 5 cups (907g to 1134g) water
1/4 cup (85g) boiled cider

Place the apples, brown sugar, and spices in a 2- to 3-quart saucepan.

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 the 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 (539g) King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour
1/2 cup (99g) sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt

Then add the wet ingredients:

1/2 cup (170g) sorghum syrup
1/2 cup (142g) buttermilk
1/3 cup (60g) 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. Linda King

    I am an old timer from TN. I learned how to make apple stack cake from my mother and used to make this cake often. You must use dried apples and the apples should be washed before using unless you dried them yourself. To make baking the cake layers easy, turn your cake pan upside down, grease the outside bottom of the cake pan, pat the cake layer on top of cake pan. Put the upside down cake pan in the oven and bake. When done use a spatula and it will slide right off the top of the cake pan like a giant cookie. My mother would put the hot dried apple mixture on the cake layers while they were still warm and store the cake in the refrigerator for days.

    Reply
  2. Laura

    Looking forward to making this – I iust wanted to double check there are indeed no spices in the cake batter itself? A previous response regarding using apple butter as a filling mentioned that the cake layers were already spicy (and the article compares them to gingerbread), but the only flavor I see in the batter is sorghum syrup – all the spices are I the filling. Is that right? Thanks!

    Reply
    1. Susan Reid, post author

      You’re right, Laura, sorry about that. The impression when you eat a forkful is so reminiscent of gingerbread I have a hard time segregating the spices in the filling from the sorghum in the cake. Susan

  3. Anita Strickhausen

    Just now read the comments & like to add mine. My Mama made stack cake using dried apples but didn’t leave me her recipe. Living in Western North Carolina, Stack Cake is very popular but everyone makes them using apple butter or apple sauce. The flavor is vastly different than the dried apple flavor. I’m grateful for your recipe as well as the fried pie one & plan to make them. Mama made fried pies often using her iron skillet. My favorite was pineapple.

    Reply
  4. Kathleen Kindred

    I grew up in Kentucky eating these wonderful cakes from both sides of my family. Seeing this has encouraged me to pull out the old recipes ( very similar to yours) and bake this for the holidays. As an aside, my great aunt once told me any cook worth her salt had no less than 12 layers.

    Reply
  5. Barbara C.

    Correction- vinarterta. Just looked up the spelling. Note, Paul Hollywood has a recipe for vinarterta that has chocolate and NO prunes. His is not the Icelandic cake you want.

    Reply
  6. Barbara C.

    This reminds me of an Icelandic stack cake we’ve made for generations called vinatarta. Shortbread type layers with a prune purée filling that softens the layers after a few days of curing. The cake and filling are flavored with lots of cardamom, cinnamon, vanilla. It slices really well. Ships really well and looks beautifully black and white on the plate. Don’t let the prune filling scare you off. Even scaredy cats have been converts. I still have my mother’s handwritten recipe. I even entered it in the Sonoma County Fair for my first ever entry and won Best of Show.

    Reply
    1. Susan Reid, post author

      Barbara, that sounds intriguing. I think of Stack cakes as cousins to refrigerator cakes in some ways; they soften up from the filling with enough time. I am going to give your vinarterta a try! Susan

  7. Diane Hughes

    The dried apples give a very distinctive flavor when and where ever they are used. Drying them intensifies the flavor. Seems like with using fresh fruit you would lose that wonderful full flavor of apples.

    Reply
  8. Kristi

    Never heard of this before but I love the history and will have to give it a try. Do you take requests to resurrect lost recipes? Ha ha! My little country church had a woman that made the best “apple dumplings” for homecoming every year. They were actually rolled like cinnamon rolls in a pyrex casserole dish and surrounded by sweet juices like a cobbler would be. I can’t find a recipe anywhere that looks right. : (

    Reply
    1. Susan Reid, post author

      Hi, Kristi. As a matter of fact, we have pretty much the recipe you’re looking for right here on our website: we call it
      Apple Dumpling Slices, and it’s been in our archives forever! Susan

    2. Kristi

      OMG!!! Thank you so much! I remember her’s being a darker brown and smaller rolls but who cares as long as it tastes right. I can’t wait to try this–just have to finish off my husband’s devil’s food birthday cake. What a chore! Ha! Ha!

  9. Freda Wise

    Being from WV I GREW UP WITH this delicious cake. I could never get a receipe. Grandma taught mom and it was never written down. Mom often used sweetened, homemade applesauce, with extra spices. The cakes were baked in a cast iron skillet. Always baked two cakes, with all of us kids it was impossible for them to last two days. They go great with a glass of cold milk! Wonderful memories, can’t wait to try.

    Reply
  10. 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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