The dried apple stack cake is one of the most popular southern Appalachian cakes— no surprise considering apples are found aplenty in the mountains. Culturally it’s akin to the classic European torte. It looks like a stack of thick pancakes, with apple preserves, dried apples or apple butter spread between each layer. At holidays and weddings, early mountain settlers traditionally served stack cake in lieu of more fancy, and costly, cakes. Neighbors would each bring a layer of the cake to the bride’s family, which they spread with apple filling as they arrived. It was said that the number of cake layers the bride got determined how popular she was.
Kentucky lays claim to originating the dessert via Kentucky pioneer washday cake. “Some food historians say that James Harrod, the colonist and farmer who founded Harrodsburg in 1774, brought the stack cake to Kentucky from his home in Pennsylvania,” observes Mark F. Sohn in Appalachian Home Cooking: History, Culture, and Recipes. “While Harrod may have brought the first stack cake to Kentucky, the cake could not have been common until more than 100 years later when flour became readily available.” Tennessee proudly points to Tennessee stack cake as the first, but in fact variations of the cake abound throughout the region.
The cake is many layered, low in fat, and not sweet. It’s made with layers of stiff cookie like dough flavored with ginger and sorghum and spread with a spiced apple filling. When served, the cake is tall, heavy, and moist.
1/2 cup shortening
1 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup molasses
1/2 cup buttermilk
1/2 teaspoon soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon salt
6 cups flour plus 1/2 cup for rolling dough
Cream shortening and sugar thoroughly. Drop in egg and beat well. Add vanilla. Sift all dry ingredients together.Add molasses; then add sifted dry ingredients alternately with buttermilk. Roll dough to about 1/4 inch thickness. Divide dough into si x parts. Roll each ball of dough over the bottom of an 8 inch round cake pan. Bake in 350 degree oven for 15 minutes. When the six round layers are done, put together with applesauce or with the following:
1 (8 ounce) package dried apples or peaches
1 cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
When the dried fruit has been cooked according to directions on the package, add the sugar and cinnamon. Put between the layers of cake. Stack the cake until all fruit and layers have been used. Let set several hours or overnight before cutting.
Appalachian Home Cooking: History, Culture, and Recipes, by Mark F. Sohn, University Press of Kentucky, 2005