by Frances Dowell
I recently finished writing a novel set in the fictional mountain town of Stone Gap, North Carolina. In one chapter, twelve-year-old Arie Mae Sparks is invited to a picnic by her so-called betters, and her mother insists she bring an apple stack cake as an offering. Arie Mae is torn. On the one hand, she really doesn’t want to go to this picnic. On the other hand, who can resist apple stack cake?
In writing this chapter, I fudged a bit. The story takes place in mid-summer, and the family’s supply of dried apples would have probably been gone by then, even if the previous year had been prodigiously good for apple picking. But the fact is, no other dessert quite says Appalachia as the many-layered apple stack cake.
Kentuckians claim this autumn-inspired treat had its first taste of mountain fame in their region, having been carried down from Pennsylvania by colonist and farmer James Harrod in the mid 1700s. Historians point out that while this may be the case, it wasn’t until a hundred years later that flour was widely available to mountain cooks, and that’s when the cake became a popular treat in North Carolina and other parts of Appalachia. Apple stack cake is kin to Confederate old-fashioned stack cake, Tennessee mountain stack cake, and Kentucky pioneer washday cake, all which have been known to employ ginger and sweet sorghum molasses to great effect.
An apple stack more closely resembles a torte than anything whipped up by Betty Crocker. It’s on the dry side, with thin layers separated by dried apples, apple butter, or apple preserves (some cooks even use applesauce). Relatively inexpensive to make, it was once the cake of choice for mountain weddings and other festive gatherings. The story goes that wedding guests would each bring a cake layer on the big day, and each layer would get added to the stack (the bride’s family provided the filling). You could judge just how beloved a bride was in her community by how many layers her wedding cake had.
Apple Stack Cake Recipe
For the Cake:
- 1/2 cup shortening
- 1/2 cup brown sugar
- 1/2 cup buttermilk
- 1/3 cup sorghum molasses
- 1 egg
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- 3-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon ground ginger
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
In a small bowl, sift dry ingredients. In a larger bowl, cream shortening and sugar, then add egg and vanilla, followed by molasses. Alternately add dry ingredients and buttermilk to the mix.
Roll out dough about a quarter-inch thick, then divide into six parts and make into balls. Roll out each ball and bake separately in an 8” cake pan for fifteen minutes at 350 degrees. Bake in 350-degree oven for 15 minutes. Let layers cool, then stack them together, topping each layer with filling before adding the next.
- One pound dried apples, cooked
- 1 cup brown sugar
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
Cooking dried apples:
Place dried apples in a heavy pan and cover with water. Simmer until soft. While still hot, mash apples and mix with brown sugar and cinnamon.
Frances Dowell is the bestselling and critically acclaimed author of children’s literature including Dovey Coe, which won the Edgar Award. She lives with her husband and two sons in Durham, North Carolina.