Recipe courtesy of Southern food historian Sheri Castle.

“Few cooks take the time to bake a stack cake anymore, assuming they’ve even heard of one. Those who do usually bake all the layers at once, or in large batches, in cake pans or by stamping out rounds of rolled dough as though they were oversize cookies. But culinary historians remind us that the original stack cake layers were made one by one in a cast-iron skillet nestled in the hearth embers—a layer cake that didn’t require an oven, only ingenuity, skill, and a lot of time. The cook would add each freshly cooked layer to the growing stack, alternating with a thick layer of stewed apple filling made from dried apples. Some cooks didn’t use any spices, while those who had them usually did. A stack cake doesn’t taste sweet on our modern tongues that are used to the copious amounts of sugar used in contemporary frosted cakes, but it isn’t bland either, especially if we pay attention to the subtleties. Stack cake was a treat for people who enjoyed sweets only in times of celebration.

Speaking of that, the oft-repeated story of stack cakes being what poor mountain brides had to use for a wedding cake (with various guests bringing a gift of a single layer so that a cake could be stacked and served on the spot, with a large number of layers being a sign of regard for the bride and her family) is poppycock. It’s a sweet story that we wish were true, but it isn’t. Anyone who knows anything about stack cake understands that an assembled cake needs to sit for at least a couple of days before it’s served, to give the cookie-like layers time to absorb moisture and flavor from the filling. A hastily assembled stack of dry, random, mismatched layers would be no gift at all.”—SC

Makes 12 to 16 servings 

INGREDIENTS

Dried Apple Filling

  • 1 pound (4 to 5 packed cups) dried unsulphured apples, preferably from a mixture of apples
  • 1 cup firmly packed brown sugar, or to taste
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground mace or nutmeg
  • 4 to 5 cups unfiltered apple cider or water, divided
  • 1/2 cup boiled cider (optional)

Cake Layers

  • 4 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup sorghum molasses
  • 1/2 cup well-shaken buttermilk
  • 1/3 cup vegetable shortening
  • 1 egg, lightly beaten
  • Parchment (cut into seven 8” circle)

METHOD

  1. 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 the consistency of thick applesauce, about 1 hour. If the mixture gets dry, add more liquid. If it is soupy, continue to simmer until the excess cooks away. Use a potato masher to break up the apples into chunky sauce. Stir in the boiled cider, if using. Set aside.
  2. For the cake layers: Preheat the oven to 350°F.
  3. Whisk together the flour, sugar, baking soda, baking powder, and salt in a large bowl.
  4. Add the sorghum, buttermilk, shortening, and egg. Beat with an electric mixer on low speed (or by hand) until the mixture is smooth and has the consistency of cookie dough.
  5. Divide the dough into five equal pieces. Wrap each piece in plastic wrap so it won’t dry out.
  6. Use lightly floured hands to pat a piece of dough evenly onto a circle of parchment paper. It should be patted into the full diameter of the 8” circle and the dough should be a scant 1/2 inch thick. Lightly prick the dough all over with a fork, making a pretty pattern if you wish. Repeat this step seven times for the cake layers. (Note: Repeating this process after your skillet comes out of the oven can be hazardous as it takes a considerable amount of time for the skillet to cool. Handle your shaped layers with care and use the parchment to protect your precious fingers.)
  7. Bake until the layer is firm when lightly pressed, 12 to 15 minutes. The layer does not rise as it bakes.
  8. 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.
  9. 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 Sheri Castle

Sheri Castle is an award-winning food writer, cook, recipe developer, cooking teacher, public speaker and raconteur, with an expertise in Southern cuisine. She has written several books and now hosts the popular PBS program, The Key Ingredient.

March 17, 2022