“Making a stack cake is slow-going, baking the thin layers of buttermilk cake one at a time in my iron skillet, while the dried apples stew down with sugar, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, and nutmeg. A good stack cake baker knows the care needed to make each layer even and thin, and my preferred method is to work the dough with my hands, kneading the sugar-grained mixture and feeling for the right consistency, then gently pressing each layer into the skillet with my fingertips. With the continual contact between my hands and the dough and the methodical nature of the tasks, creating a stack cake is for me a therapeutic process and a good time for thinking. And if, indeed, it is possible to convey a message through food, if a dish can absorb the emotions of its creator, a finished stack cake carries a powerful missive from baker to recipient.” Anna Ellis Bogle, Sitting Down To the Table, Hampshire College senior thesis, 1998.
Because the stack cake is widely distributed and has a long history, there are many variations. Indeed, the flavor, texture, and look of the cake varies from state to state, mountain to mountain, and family to family, and what follows will not recreate your grandmother’s stack cake, but it will provide the steps and quantities to get you started. The recipe is kitchen-tested, up-dated, and relatively fast to prepare.
RECIPE NOTES: Use 5 cups of apple butter or prepare the recipe for dried apple filling. If you don’t have pure sweet sorghum syrup, use molasses or dark corn syrup. Finally, if you have six 9-inch cake pans, the layers can be baked at one time, or I suggest using three 9-inch pans twice.
DIFFICULTY: Difficult. This 13-ingredient cake combines three recipes: apple filling, cake layers, and glaze. In the process you’ll boil, purée, mix, roll, cut, bake, pour and spread. Make the filling on one day, bake the cake and spread the filling on the second day, and let the cake rest the third day. Prior to serving, boil and spread the glaze or sprinkle powdered sugar.
YIELD: This recipe makes a large cake. Ten might eat a whole cake, but it will also serve 20. Don’t forget Francis Collier’s advice, however, and “Eat until your belly is content.”
- For the Dried Apple Filling:
- 5 cups home-dried (very dry) apples
- 4 cups water or apple cider
- 1 cup sugar
- 1 teaspoon ginger
- 1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
- Or, use 18 ounces of commercial, soft-dried apples and 4 ¾ cups of water.
- For the Stack Cake:
- 5 cups plus 1/4 cup all-purpose flour, divided
- ½ cup sugar
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 2 teaspoons ground ginger
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 cup melted shortening
- 1 cup 100% pure sweet sorghum
- 2 eggs
- 2 teaspoons vanilla
- For the Glaze:
- 1¼ cups sugar
- 1/3 cup water
- ¼ cup shortening or butter, ½ stick
- 1 teaspoon ginger
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- DO-AHEAD STEPS: Prepare the apple filling: Prepare the filling ahead so that it will be cool when you spread it on the layers.
- Bring to a boil and then simmer the apples, water or cider, and sugar for 30 minutes. Stir to combine fully. I cook them 10 minutes in a pressure cooker—be sure the apples are covered with water before putting on the lid.
- Stir in the ginger and nutmeg. Using a mixer or food processor?-some use a potato masher?-break up the apples so that they are smooth like applesauce. Cool.
- For the cake: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F and select 3 or 6 (9-inch) non-stick cake pans. I have found that with new pans, I don’t need to grease them.
- Measure the dry ingredients: 5 cups flour, sugar, baking powder, ginger, cinnamon, and salt into a large mixing bowl and whisk them together.
- Make a depression or nest in the center of the flour mixture and pour in the shortening, sorghum, and vanilla. Crack the eggs and drop them in. Whisk the liquids until well mixed. Now, if your hands are clean, dive in. Mix the dough with your hands, ring by ring, slowly incorporating the flour as you would for bread. When the dough is dry enough to handle and roll with a rolling pin, stop adding flour. Some may remain in the bowl. If the dough is too dry to come together, moisten it with water. If it is too moist to roll, add flour.
- Roll the dough into a log and cut it into six equal-sized parts?-about 8 ounces each. Round the pieces into a ball; roll them in the extra 1/4 cup flour.
- Even though Francis Collier says, "You need a number 10 iron skillet?-the cake just wouldn't taste the same baked in Silverstone," I suggest the following: Roll out each layer with a rolling pin making layers that are 8 to 9 inches in diameter. Fold or roll the layer and place it in a 9-inch non-stick baking pan. Unroll the dough and pat it evenly across the bottom, repairing breaks as you pat. Bake about 12 minutes or until the layer is brown on the edges and lightly brown across the top. Repeat for each layer.
- Remove the layers from the oven and flip them onto cooling racks. When the layers are cool, you are ready to spread the filling and stack the layers.
- Assemble the cake: Place the first layer on a cake plate and spread about 3/4 cup of apple filling over the layer. Repeat this with each layer. Do not spread apple filling on the top layer.
- Let the cake stand six to twelve hours at room temperature. This allows the moisture from the apple filling to soak into the layers. Refrigerate for 12 to 36 additional hours before serving.
- The top of the cake can be brushed with egg white before it is refrigerated or just prior to serving it can be dusted with powdered sugar. In addition, the following glaze is occasionally used.
- Prepare the Glaze: In a small saucepan on the stovetop over high heat, combine the sugar and water. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer for about 8 minutes or until the mixture reaches the soft ball stage or 234 to 236 degrees F.
- Remove from the heat, slice and stir in the shortening or butter and then the ginger, and vanilla. Pour the glaze over the cake, starting at the edges, carefully dripping it down the sides. Finally, cover the top of the cake with the glaze, spreading it with a knife. Reheat as needed to soften.
SERVING: Martha Hawkins, who lives on Elkhorn Creek below Pine Mountain between Virginia and Kentucky, likes to eat a piece of stack cake any time of year, and she eats it for breakfast. History shows that Hawkins is not alone for this cake was always served as an afternoon snack or saddlebag extra. One historian talks about having the cake available for the doctor when he arrived on horseback. Today, reheat heat a slice of stack cake in a toaster oven, and it comes out smelling like ginger-cinnamon toast with apples.
With dried apples, apple butter, or good cooking apples available all year, you can make stack cakes for any occasion. However, as Delphia Elkins says, because “it takes time, hard work, and skill to make ten-layer stack cakes,” we usually serve stack cakes for special occasions: birthdays, family reunions, music festivals, heritage fairs, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Sunday dinner. “At fall festivals, people run to get a stack cake. You can’t buy them in a store,” says Martha Hawkins. Sidney Saylor Farr, author of More Than Moonshine, can’t remember a fruit cake for Christmas, but she remembers Christmas stack cakes.
In place of the glaze, serve stack cake with whipped cream or hot sorghum. If the cake is dry, moisten it with spiced applesauce or vanilla ice cream. Offer the cake with cold milk, iced Pepsi Cola, hot water, coffee, or tea.
VARIATION: Party Stack Cakes. After rolling the dough to 3/8 of an inch, cut it into rounds with a 2-inch biscuit cutter. Bake on cookie sheets or parchment covered cookie sheets, and stack the “cookies” three high with filling between the layers. Drizzled the glaze and sprinkle slivered almonds.