In the months before Christmas, apples bend tree branches in Nada Sheets’s yard. Through the summer, the apples grow and become heavier. By fall, the branches arch toward the ground.
Sheets sees the curving branches as a sign, a signal that it’s time to go outside and begin collecting apples. She brings them inside her home near the North Fork New River in Lansing, where she peels them, slices them, and places each wedge of each apple onto a baking sheet that she slides into her oven.
For as many as two days, the apples stay put, drying at a low temperature. Sheets cracks the door to the oven ever so slightly to allow moisture to escape. Her mother, Ethel Owen Stuart, dried apples this way, too. She had her own apple trees on her own land, about six miles down the road on the North Fork New River.
Stuart dried apples and stored them to make a 10-layer stack cake every Christmas. A cake that her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren knew as an essential part of the holiday.
Stuart knew this tradition, too. When she inherited the recipe from her mother, she was the third generation to make the stack cake. She always made it because, as she told the Jefferson Post in 1990, she couldn’t remember a Christmas without one.
For years after Sheets married her husband, Dean, in 1955, she always ate the stack cake her mother prepared for Christmas dinner. The one Stuart made with homemade molasses from the sugar cane she grew. The one she woke up early to bake because she thought cakes and pies turned out better in the morning.
Stuart died in 2002 at age 93.
Now Sheets, along with her two sisters, is part of the fourth generation to use the recipe. Each Christmas since her mother’s death, Sheets has made a stack cake. Her six children, 14 grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren know Christmas wouldn’t be the same without it.
Jeffrey Turner is the assistant editor of Our State magazine. His most recent story was “Finest Plate in Town” (November 2012).
Unfortunately, Kitchen Keepsakes from the Owen Family is no longer available in print.