Apple Stack Cake — to most people who grew up in Appalachia, those words conjure up appetizing sights, smells and tastes from their childhoods. The delicious dessert is a traditional cake baked in the Appalachians often in iron skillets before bakeries and Betty Crocker arrived. Many Sunday dinners after church and during special occasions featured an Apple Stack Cake on the table.
An Apple Stack Cake is made from six to eight thin layers of molasses flavored cake, layered with applesauce made from dried apples, apple preserves, or apple butter. The cake often begins dry, but after sitting 24 hours layered with applesauce, it becomes moist and delicious. If you’re lucky enough to bite into a piece of Apple Stack Cake during autumn in the Smoky Mountains, you’ll know what heaven tastes like.
Some historians claim the Apple Stack Cake originated in 1774 in Harrodsburg, Kentucky, at the Beaumont Inn. James Harrod, the area’s original settler, brought his recipe with him from his original home in Pennsylvania. Apple Stack Cake and its many variations, however, have spread through the Appalachians since then. And it couldn’t have become the cake it is today until the introduction of flour into household kitchens 100 years later.
Appalachian lore suggests that the stack cake originated as an Appalachian wedding cake. Guests would each bring a layer of cake and the bride’s family would receive them and stack them together with prepared apple butter or applesauce. Supposedly, the number of layers on the cake indicated the couple’s popularity.
If you were raised in Appalachia, ask your mother or grandmother for an Apple Stack Cake recipe — there’s probably one in the family that’s been passed down for ages. Otherwise, try this recipe taken from the book United Cakes of America: Recipes Celebrating Every State by Warren Brown.
21 ounces (4 1/4 cups) all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
6 ounces (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter
10 ounces (1 1/4 cups) superfine granulated sugar
3/4 cup molasses
1/2 cup buttermilk
8 to 12 cups dried apples
2 pounds (4 cups) superfine granulated sugar
2 teaspoons cinnamon
2 teaspoons nutmeg
2 tablespoons molasses
3 cups water
1. Preheat the oven to 350°F and place the rack in the middle position.
2. Combine the dry ingredients in a bowl and whisk to combine. Set aside.
3. Combine the butter and sugar in the bowl of a standing mixer with the paddle attachment and mix on medium speed until it is wet and grainy.
4. Add the molasses. Scrape the sides of the bowl with a flexible spatula to get all of the molasses into the mixture.
5. Add the eggs, one at a time. Mix on low speed, scraping all the way to the bottom of the bowl as needed.
6. While the mixer is still on low, alternately add the buttermilk and the dry mixture about a quarter at a time. Stop the mixer periodically to scrape the bowl. Mix on low for about 10 seconds once all the ingredients are combined. The mixture should be stiff, like soft cookie dough.
7. Shape the dough into a ball and wrap it in plastic wrap. Refrigerate for 30 minutes.
8. Divide the dough into 6 or 8 equal portions and place each one on a round piece of parchment paper a little larger than a 9-inch cake pan. Roll out the dough to the size of the parchment. Place the cake pan over the disk and trim away the excess around the edge.
9. Leaving the parchment paper underneath, lift the disks onto baking sheets and bake them for approximately 10 minutes or until the top surface appears dry and a wooden toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.
10. Slide the disks off the baking sheet onto a flat surface to cool.
11. To make the filling, combine all the ingredients in a large, heavy-bottom saucepan and bring to a light simmer. Immediately transfer to the work bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel blade and pulse into a thick paste.
12. To assemble the cake, spread about 1 cup of the filling onto each layer, taking care to center each disk on top of the one beneath it. Repeat until all the layers are used. Do not put any apple filling on top of the cake.
13. Wrap the cake well and refrigerate it for up to 24 hours. This gives the apple filling time to work itself into the cake. Dust with confectioners' sugar and serve chilled.
Baker’s Note: Ideally, you should dry the apples yourself in a fruit-dehydrating machine. If that’s not an option, go for store-bought dried apples. Do not use store-bought applesauce because the secret to the stack cake is not just what absorbs into the cake, but what doesn’t. Jarred applesauce gets lost in the layers, leaving only a soggy stack. You can try to make dried apple slices in the oven. Peel and thinly slice 15 to 20 fresh apples (I like Gala or Cortland). Place them, without overlapping, on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper, and bake in a 225°F oven for up to 4 hours or until dried.
From United Cakes of America: Recipes Celebrating Every State by Warren Brown. Copyright © 2010 by Warren Brown; photographs © 2010 by Joshua Cogan. Published in 2010 by Stewart, Tabori & Chang, an imprint of ABRAMS, available on Amazon at: astore.amazon.com/epistore-20/detail/1584798394.