If there's one cake that says Appalachia like no other, it's the apple stack cake. Some stories claim that this apple cake got its start in Kentucky, while others say Tennessee is its original home. But no matter what part of the Appalachians you're in, you'll find a version of this stack cake recipe. It's not a fussy cake, but it is perfect for any celebration, homecoming or family reunion.

The apple stack cake is a layer cake, with a spicy apple filling between each layer. Somehow a legend got started that when a woman got married, every family that attended the wedding would bring one layer of this apple cake for the wedding cake, which the bride's family would assemble as the guests arrived. The story goes that a bride could tell how popular she was by how tall the cake was. We're pretty sure that legend is about as true as the snallygaster, though, because this is one cake that you should never serve right away.

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The stack cake isn't hard to make, but there are a few steps and a lot of patience required to get it right. This is also one cake where it's important to stick to the ingredients as listed; don't swap fresh apples for dried apples, and you do need buttermilk. You also need to stick to the instructions and let the cake rest once it's assembled. If you try to cut and serve the cake before it's "ripened" you'll find yourself with a dry, crumbly cake.

How to Make the Perfect Appalachian Apple Stack Cake

Ingredients

For the apple filling, you need:

  • 1 pound dried apples (4 to 5 packed cups - do not substitute fresh apples)
  • 1 cup packed dark brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 4 cups water (plus more if necessary)

For the cake layers, you need:

  • 5 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 2/3 cup unsalted butter or vegetable shortening
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 cup sorghum syrup or dark molasses (sorghum is traditional, but if you can't find it, molasses will work, just know that the taste will be more robust)
  • 1 cup buttermilk
  • Powdered sugar, for serving (optional)

Baking and Assembling the Stack Cake

Start by making the cake batter first.

Whisk together the flour, baking soda, baking powder, cinnamon and salt in a large bowl. In your mixing bowl, cream the butter (or shortening), sugar and molasses together using your stand or hand mixer on medium speed. Add the eggs one at a time and mix in completely. Add the dry ingredients in thirds, alternating with the buttermilk. The mixture is going to end up thick, almost like cookie dough. Once the cake batter is mixed together, cover the bowl and refrigerate for at least an hour.

While the batter is in the fridge, make the apple filling.

Put all the filling ingredients in a Dutch oven or large, heavy-bottomed saucepan. Bring the mixture to a boil over high heat, then lower the heat and let everything simmer for about an hour. Check the mixture and stir it frequently. You can add more water, but you want the filling to be thick, not soupy. Use a potato masher (or the back of a large spoon) to mash the cooked apples. Note: You can adjust the spices in the filling to your taste. Add nutmeg or cloves if you like, or add a little extra cinnamon.

Next, preheat your oven to 350°F and prepare your baking dishes.

The traditional way to bake each layer of a stack cake is in a cast iron skillet. You can also use 9-inch cake pans (greased and floured), but honestly, the easiest way to bake the layers is to divide the dough into six portions and then roll or spread out each portion into a 1/2 inch thick, 9-inch round on a sheet of parchment paper and then slide the paper onto a baking sheet.

Bake each layer separately for about 10 minutes, or until the cake is dry and set. You can have two layers in the oven at the same time, but don't try to bake one or two giant cakes and then slice it into layers. Each layer will turn out like a thick pancake; the layers do not rise very much.

stack cake
Flickr:
alicia bramlett

Let the first layer (or two) cool on a wire rack for about five minutes while you put the next layer in the oven. Then place the first layer on a serving plate and spread about 3/4 of a cup of the warm apple filling on top of the cake layer. You can adjust the amount based on how much filling you end up with, but you'll need enough to get about a 1/4 inch thick layer of filling on top of five cake layers (don't add filling to the top of the cake).

Once the cake is baked and assembled, wrap it tightly in several layers of plastic wrap, then cover it with tea towels or place it in an airtight container. Let the cake rest at room temperature for two days before serving.

Don't skip the resting step. That time lets the flavors and the moisture meld together, turning this cake into something greater than the sum of its parts. When it's ready, sift some powdered sugar over the top of the cake or spread a thin layer of apple butter over it as frosting.

Slice the cake fairly thin; you should get at least 10 servings, but realistically, more like 12-14.

Watch: Wilted Lettuce Salad with Warm Bacon Dressing


Kentucky Stack Cake 

Prep Time: 15 minutes | Cook Time: 1 hour

servings

INGREDIENTS

  • For the apple filling
  • 1 lb. dried apples (4-5 packed cups)
  • 1 cup dark brown sugar
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1 tsp ground ginger
  • 4 cups water
  • For the cake
  • 5 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 3/4 tsp salt
  • 2/3 cup unsalted butter
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 cup sorghum syrup
  • 1 cup buttermilk
  • powdered sugar

Instructions

Whisk together the flour, baking soda, baking powder, cinnamon and salt in a large bowl. In your mixing bowl, cream the butter (or shortening), sugar and molasses together using your stand or hand mixer on medium speed. Add the eggs one at a time and mix in completely. Add the dry ingredients in thirds, alternating with the buttermilk. The mixture is going to end up thick, almost like cookie dough. Once the cake batter is mixed together, cover the bowl and refrigerate for at least an hour.

Put all the filling ingredients in a Dutch oven or large, heavy-bottomed saucepan. Bring the mixture to a boil over high heat, then lower the heat and let everything simmer for about an hour. Check the mixture and stir it frequently. You can add more water, but you want the filling to be thick, not soupy. Use a potato masher (or the back of a large spoon) to mash the cooked apples. Note: You can adjust the spices in the filling to your taste. Add nutmeg or cloves if you like, or add a little extra cinnamon.

Next, preheat your oven to 350°F and prepare your baking dishes.

Divide the dough into six portions and then roll or spread out each portion into a 1/2 inch thick, 9-inch round on a sheet of parchment paper and then slide the paper onto a baking sheet.

Bake each layer separately for about 10 minutes, or until the cake is dry and set. You can have two layers in the oven at the same time, but don't try to bake one or two giant cakes and then slice it into layers. Each layer will turn out like a thick pancake; the layers do not rise very much.

Let the first layer (or two) cool on a wire rack for about five minutes while you put the next layer in the oven. Then place the first layer on a serving plate and spread about 3/4 of a cup of the warm apple filling on top of the cake layer. You can adjust the amount based on how much filling you end up with, but you'll need enough to get about a 1/4 inch thick layer of filling on top of five cake layers (don't add filling to the top of the cake).

Once the cake is baked and assembled, wrap it tightly in several layers of plastic wrap, then cover it with tea towels or place it in an airtight container. Let the cake rest at room temperature for two days before serving.

Slice the cake fairly thin; you should get at least 10 servings, but realistically, more like 12-14.