Growing up in Kentucky means accepting a wide variety of judgments from the rest of the country. New York welcomes you as a culinary ambassador bearing all things Southern: biscuits, grits, bread pudding and bourbon. Meanwhile, Alabama’s like, “Fry up all the chicken you want, Yankee Doodle, but y’all ain’t one of us.”
And maybe we’re not. For all that Kentucky fancies herself a Southerner, she has just as much heritage in the mountains of Appalachia. While kitchens across the South start welcoming fall with apple dumplings, pan dowdy, cobbler, and pie, in Kentucky we have eyes only for apple stack cake: layer and layers of gingery molasses cake, slathered in dark apple butter. By the time Christmas rolls around, pumpkin pie and fruit cake reign across Southern sideboards, but Kentuckians in Appalachia see the holidays as just another excuse to start stackin’ cake.
Lore has it stack cake originated as an Appalachian wedding cake. Those living in rural mountain communities didn’t exactly have access to swanky bakeries, so the bride would rely on her guests to furnish the cake, one layer at a time. As guests arrived to the celebration, the bride’s family would receive the layers and stack ‘em together with homemade apple butter for frosting. (The popularity of the bride may have determined the final height of the cake.) Eventually, people must have gotten tired of waiting for someone to get hitched before they could dig into their favorite dessert—nowadays stack cakes show up at just about any celebration. Sometimes, it’s a celebration because there’s a stack cake.
The popularity of apple stack cake dates back at least a hundred years, yet, as Appalachian historian Mark Sohn writes in Appalachian Home Cooking: History, Culture, and Recipes, “the recipe for this historic and treasured cake cannot be found in any large-scale, nationally distributed book published before 1980.” I had a chance to talk with Sohn and he explained that the only place where stack cake recipes flourished was in the pages of tiny community cookbooks. And, of course, in the minds of those who knew it by heart.
My mother can recall her mother, another Stella, making stack cakes the traditional way: one layer at a time in a #10 cast iron skillet. That Stella grew up as one of 11 children on a farm in Buchanan County, Virginia; then and now one of the poorest in America. There, she learned to make stack cakes from her mother; they both knew it by heart, never needed to write it down.
But by the time my mom would have been old enough to learn that recipe, my grandmother had quit making stack cake. Instead, she took pride in being able to buy cakes from the bakery, piled with buttercream roses. And once the grandbabies started showing up, the only thing she baked at home came from a box of Duncan-Hines. When she passed away a few years ago, she took her recipe with her.
Some more digging in cookbooks, though, and I found that while apple stack cake may not have appeared in print before the 1980s, it may be in part because, like the brides who served it at their infares, it too changed its name. In those early years, it appeared in cookbooks everywhere under the guise of “apple short cake.” Helen M. Robinson’s The Practical Cook Book, published in 1864, describes apple short cake as a huge biscuit wheel, split in two and filled with stewed apples; a cro-magnon sort of stack cake, but still. By 1877‘s The Cultivator & Country Gentleman, Volume 42, it had evolved into two biscuit wheels, split, brushed with melted butter, filled with homemade apple jam, stacked, sprinkled with nutmeg, and served warm with fresh sweet cream poured over the top. (A preparation known in the trade as, “holy mother of yum.”)
A decade later, the ghost of Alvin Wood Chase would push apple short cake toward its final incarnation. Chase, last seen elucidating the origins of red velvet cake, died three years before the publication of his Third, Last, and Complete Receipt Book and Household Physician, but in it he includes a “receipt” for Apple Short Cake. Where previous recipes for apple short cake revolved around simple buttermilk biscuits, Chase’s “sweet short cake” contained both sugar and egg, marking the first step of apple short cake’s transformation into a proper cake.
Soon enough, apple stack cake started to gain a reputation as “a poor man’s fruit cake,” or so Alfred Emanuel Smith described it in his an 1893 issue of New Outlook. Given our modern anti-fruitcake sentiment, you might mistake that description as an insult, but don’t fool yourself.
While I’ll never have a chance to try my grandmother Stella’s recipe, with my mother’s memories and some culinary triangulation, my version can come awful close. And I can tell you this poor man’s fruit cake, as part of any holiday spread, would be a distinct improvement over any other sort.
Apple Stack Cake
Serves six, but recipe is easily doubled or tripled
Traditionally, apple stack cakes “mature” for a day or two before serving, where the relatively lean cake slowly soaks up apple butter, making it fall-apart tender. But given its other history as a crowd-sourced wedding cake assembled and eaten on the big day, I wanted this version to taste delicious without the wait.
Double or triple this recipe to make a show stopping layer cake to feed a holiday crowd. Or, if your friends and family enjoy baking at home, enlist their help, ask them to bake a layer or two, and make it the traditional way.
13 ounces all-purpose flour
4 ounces unsalted butter or lard, room temperature
4 ounces brown sugar
1½ teaspoons ground ginger
1½ teaspoons fresh ginger, grated
1 tablespoon baking soda
6 ounces molasses or sorghum
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
2 ounces buttermilk
To assemble and serve
2 ounces unsalted butter, melted
2 cups apple butter, homemade or store bought
6 tablespoons heavy cream
1½ teaspoons freshly grated nutmeg
1. Preheat the oven to 350. This cake is made most traditionally, in a 10” cast iron skillet. If you have one and want to use it, brush it generously with melted butter and set aside. Otherwise, prepare three 8" cake pans with parchment paper rounds and grease lightly with pan spray.
2. Sift the flour and set aside.
3. Using a hand or stand mixer, fitted with a paddle attachment, cream together the lard or butter, brown sugar, ground and fresh ginger, baking soda and molasses. Mix on medium speed for about four minutes, stopping halfway to scrape the bowl down with a rubber spatula. Then, with the mixer on lowest speed, add the egg. Once it has fully incorporated, add the flour all at once, followed by the vanilla and buttermilk. Continue mixing on low speed until the cake batter becomes homogenous; it will be quite thick.
4. If using the 10” cast iron skillet, transfer half the batter (about 15 ounces) to the skillet and reserve the other half to bake later. If using 8” cake pans, divide the batter into thirds (about 10 ounces each). In either case, use an offset spatula to spread the batter into a thin, even layer. Bake until the cakes have puffed and spring back when touched lightly, about 12 minutes for the 10” layer or 10 minutes for the 8” layers.
5. Run a thin knife around the edge of the skillet or pans to loosen the cakes. Invert the cakes onto a wire cooling rack. (If using the cast iron skillet, brush away any stray crumbs sticking to the skillet with a clean towel; re-grease the skillet with butter. You do not have to wait for the skillet to cool completely before adding the remaining batter, spreading thin, and baking as before.)
6. Unlike other layer cake recipes, you don’t have to wait for the cakes to cool before assembling. Set the first cake on a serving plate or cake stand. Use a pastry brush to brush lightly with melted butter. Top with about ½ cup of apple butter and use an offset spatula to spread it into an even layer from edge to edge. Now add the next two layers, brushing with butter and covering in apple butter as with the first cake. Spread a little apple butter over the sides of the cake in a thin layer. It will not be thick like a traditional frosting— the point is to cover any exposed bits of cake to prevent them from drying out. Spread any remaining apple butter on the top of the cake.
7. Serve immediately, with a little cream poured over each slice and a sprinkle of freshly grated nutmeg. If the cake has cooled to room temperature, it’s especially lovely to warm the cream before serving.