The hallmark of cooking in the Mountain South is resourcefulness, making utterly delicious dishes from modest ingredients. Consider the stack cake: many thin layers of sorghum-sweetened cake married together by thick, fragrant filling made from dried apples. There is no cake — perhaps no recipe — more rooted in Appalachian mountain culture.
For generations, families and communities came together each fall to cook their annual supply of sorghum molasses — the most important sweetener in areas that had limited access to refined sugar and even less cash for buying it. The cane was crushed and pressed to release the juice, which was cooked until it reduced and thickened into dark, sweet, sticky syrup. At one time, most cane presses were powered by a mule walking in a circle around the press, setting the mechanics into motion. The collected juice was poured into huge troughs and cooked over open flames, tended by people with watchful eyes and ingrained expertise. At the end of a long, hot, sticky day, the year’s supply of sorghum was sealed into crocks and canning jars.
Continue reading after the recipe.
Appalachian Apple Stack Cake
Yields: 12 to 16 servings.
Dried Apple Filling
1 pound (4 to 5 packed cups) dried unsulphured apples
1 cup firmly packed brown sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
½ teaspoon ground mace or nutmeg
4 to 5 cups water, divided
5 cups all-purpose flour, plus more as needed
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
⅔ cup vegetable shortening
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup sorghum molasses
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1 cup well-shaken buttermilk
For the filling: Place the apples, brown sugar, cinnamon, ginger, and mace in a large saucepan. Add enough water to cover. Bring to a boil over high heat, reduce the heat to low, and let simmer, stirring frequently, until the apples are tender and the filling is very thick, about 1 hour. If the mixture gets dry, add more water. If it is soupy, continue to simmer until the excess cooks away. Use a potato masher to break up the apples into chunky sauce. Set aside.
For the cake layers: Preheat the oven to 350°. Grease and flour two 9-inch cake pans. You will be baking the layers in batches, for a total of six layers. (Alternatively, you can bake the layers one at a time in a greased and floured, well-seasoned cast-iron skillet, which is the traditional technique. Yet another option is to pat the dough into six 9-inch rounds and bake them on cookie sheets lined with parchment paper.
Whisk together the flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt in a large bowl.
In another large bowl, beat the shortening, sugar, and molasses with an electric mixer set to medium speed until the mixture is smooth and creamy.
Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition.
Add the flour mixture in thirds, alternating with half of the buttermilk. The mixture should be the consistency of cookie dough, so knead the dough together with your hands if that works better than the mixer. Add a bit more flour if needed.
Pour the dough onto a lightly floured work surface. Divide the dough into six equal pieces. Wrap each piece in plastic wrap so it won’t dry out. Use lightly floured hands to pat a piece of dough evenly into the bottom of the prepared cake pans. The dough should be about ½-inch thick. Lightly prick the dough all over with a fork, making a pretty pattern if you wish. Bake until the layers are firm when lightly pressed, about 15 minutes. The layers do not rise as they bake.
Turn out the first layer onto a large cake plate. Immediately spread it with one-fifth of the apple filling (about 1 heaping cup). Continue baking, stacking, and topping the warm layers. Leave the top layer bare.
Cover the cake with several layers of plastic wrap and then tea towels, or store it in an airtight cake carrier. Let the cake rest at room temperature for at least two days before cutting.
About that same time of year, mountain families dried apples so they would have fruit through the long, cold winter. Pieces of apples were threaded onto strings and hung in the rafters, or strewn onto quilts spread out under the chilly, bright, sunshiny autumn sky. Properly dried apples are sweet, pliant, and flavorful. To make stack-cake filling, dried apples were gently cooked until they collapsed into a thick, fragrant stew. Some cooks added a fat pinch of spices, perhaps mace or cinnamon or ginger. Others let the apples speak for themselves.
No one knows who made the first stack cake, but it was likely a cook who had a trusty cast-iron skillet, a good supply of sorghum and dried apples, and a dab of flour. Stack-cake layers are thin and almost crisp. That first cook almost certainly baked her cake layers one at a time, patting the dough into her skillet, baking them over a cooking fire or on the hearth, turning them out onto a plate, stacking and filling as she went. Nowadays cooks more often bake several layers at once, but, no matter, the layers are stacked and filled as soon as they are baked and ready.
Stack cakes require multiple layers, at least five, and the sky is the limit. Many people believe that there must be an odd number of layers. 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 a bit, melding the flavors and making the cake moist and delectable.
Cutting into a stack cake as soon as it is assembled is a disservice to the cake and the cook. That is why eyebrows are often raised when stories are told about poor mountain brides who could not afford a wedding cake and were gifted with stack-cake layers donated by friends and family members. The layers (surely a hodgepodge of different thicknesses and diameters) were allegedly brought to the wedding, stacked on site, and cut on the spot. The more layers, the more popular the bride. That’s a charming story, but it doesn’t add up. A freshly stacked cake is no gift at all.
Still, a stack cake was (and is) a labor of love and an exercise in patience, usually made only for celebrations. A stack cake is a special occasion in and of itself.
This story and recipe originally appeared in “A Carolina Cake Tour” from the February 2014 issue with four other regional cakes. See them all below.
Mountains and Foothills
Black Walnut Pound Cake with Old-Fashioned Penuche Frosting
The meek might never taste a black walnut. The outer husks of these tree nuts are a mighty fortress, resembling a petrified tennis ball. Black walnuts must be pounded into submission, by mallets or more. Once open, not everyone appreciates the bitter flavor of black walnuts. Those who do, however, do so passionately.
Cheerwine Pound Cake
There is no historical marker for the first time and place that some creative home cook poured soda pop into cake batter, but the idea took hold fast, especially as these products flourished after World War II. Almost all community cookbooks include a recipe or two for a cola cake.
Cheerwine pound cake has a delicate golden crust and a moist, dense crumb. It needs no frosting, only a sprinkling of confectioners’ sugar, like fairy dust. It keeps well for days, if it lasts that long.
Central N.C., Sandhills, Coastal Plain, and Outer Banks
We North Carolinians love our native grapes. Compared to the imported, thin-skinned, seedless grapes found in the grocery stores, muscadines might seem like a lot of trouble, but they are worth it. The skins are thick and the pulp is shot full of stubborn seeds. Ah, but the flavor, the perfume, the musky sweetness. No other grape compares.
Fig Preserves Cake with Buttermilk Glaze
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For some reason, fig trees accept that challenge. A dozen or more different varieties of figs, many of them native, grow along the Outer Banks. Figs are so popular on Ocracoke Island that they practically star in the island’s annual Ocrafolk Festival.