THE "DRIED APPLE STACK CAKE" is the most "mountain" of all cakes baked and served in Southern Appalachia. The story goes that James Harrod, one of Kentucky's earlier pioneers and the founder of Harrodsburg, Kentucky, brought the stack cake recipe with him when he traveled the Wilderness Road to Kentucky. Whether this story is true or not, this cake has remained popular with mountain people.
Wherever Appalachian people migrated--to Washington, Florida, and Arizona, for example—they took along recipes for their favorite version of old-fashioned stack cake. Called by different names such as the dried apple stack cake, apple stack cake, Confederate old-fashioned stack cake, stackcake, and Kentucky pioneer washday cake, all were made using two constant ingredients: ginger and sweet sorghum molasses.
While sorghum molasses was considered not suitable in most cakes and pies, it worked very well in the stack cake. Sometimes cooks varied the amount of sweetening by adding brown sugar to the sorghum molasses--one-half cup of sugar to one-third cup of molasses. The apple stack cake is a low fat, not sweet, many-layered cake. It is made with stiff cookie-like dough, flavored with ginger and sorghum molasses, and a sweet, spiced apple filling. When served, the cake is tall, heavy, and moist. The dried apple stack cake was a favorite pioneer wedding cake.
In the mountains weddings were celebrated with "in-fares" where people
gathered to party, dance, and eat potluck food. Because wedding cakes were
so expensive, neighbor cooks brought cake layers to donate to the bride's family.
The dough for the cake was rolled or pressed out into very thin layers and
baked in cast-iron skillets. The family of the bride cooked, sweetened, and
spiced dried apples to spread between the layers of the cake. The number of
layers per stack of her wedding cake often gauged the bride’s popularity.
Sometimes there would be as many as twelve layers, but most often the average
was seven or eight layers. Along with weddings, the stack cake was served at
family reunions, church suppers, and other large gatherings.
The original recipe is a long, tedious process (taking as much as three hours to assemble). Some cooks just use regular cake layers and plain applesauce or apple butter, or a combination of both, as the filling between the layers. While stack cake made this way may be tasty, there is no comparison between applesauce or apple butter and the strong apple flavor that dried apples give.
One method of preserving foods in Appalachia is by air and sun drying. After coring and peeling, apples are cut in half then cut into quarters. Each quarter is cut into two or three thin slices. When the apples are ready, they are spread on a large white cloth and placed on top of a shed or other flat area to dry in the sun. A fine wire screen put over them kept out flies and bugs. This method is chancy because of cloudy skies and often rain. However, apple slices can be dried near a wood-burning stove, in a sunny window, or in the oven at a low temperature. They can also be dried by stringing the slices with a needle and stout thread and hanging them up to dry. The apple slices shrivel and turn brown. When completely dry they are stored in cloth bags, glass canning jars, or the freezer.
Not many mountain families dry fruit in this old-fashioned
way, although they still love dried apples and dried
green beans. They are more likely to dehydrate or barter
local florists for room in a greenhouse where they can
spread out their apples and beans to dry. Today different
versions of the stack cake are found in recipe collections
and cookbooks, but mountain cooks still prefer the old-fashioned
recipes that come down through generations of mountain
I collected the following recipe from Mrs. Elmer Gabbard who, with her husband, founded the Buckhorn Center and Orphanage, and worked there many years. The widowed Mrs. Gabbard retired to Berea where, by good fortune, I met her, and we talked about the old-time cooks in the mountain. She said the recipe she gave me had been handed down in her family for generations.
Dried Apple Stack Cake
1/2 cup shortening
1/2 cup sugar
1 egg, well beaten
1/3 cup molasses
1/2 cup buttermilk
3 1/2 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ginger
1 teaspoon vanilla
Cooked dried apples
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cream shortening and sugar; add beaten egg, molasses, buttermilk, and mix well. Sift flour, soda, salt, and ginger into a big mixing bowl. Make hole in center of dry ingredients and pour in creamed mix, stirring until well blended. Add vanilla, stir well, and roll out dough as you would for a piecrust. Cut to fit 9-inch pan or cast-iron skillet (this amount of dough will make 7 layers). Bake layers for 10 to 12 minutes, or until lightly browned. When cool, stack layers with spiced, sweetened old-fashioned dried apples. (See recipe below.) Spread between layers and smooth around sides and top. Sprinkle with powdered sugar, if desired, or beat egg whites into a meringue and spread on outside of cake. You may brown the meringue if desired. Prepare cake at least a day before serving it and put in refrigerator (it will keep several days, if necessary, in a cool place). To serve, slice into very thin layers.
Cooked Dried Apples*
Put 1 pound apples in heavy pan and cover with cold water. You may need to add water several times to keep apples from sticking to pan. Cook until soft enough to mash. While still hot, mash apples and add 1 cup brown sugar, 1 cup white sugar, 1 teaspoon cinnamon, ¼ teaspoon cloves, and 1 teaspoon allspice.
*If dried apples are not available, cook several pounds
cooking apples with a little water. Add spices and sugars
as listed above, and cook until mixture is very thick.