Known by several names—dried apple cake, washday cake, gingerbread cake—the elements of an Appalachian apple stack cake are essentially the same: dried apples and hearty disks of dough are married; the apples stewed, spiced, mashed and spread atop each pancake-like layer. The resulting texture is thick and tactile on the palate. Apples and sorghum offer just a touch of sweetness, allowing the cake to retain its stick-to-your-ribs character.
Several states lay claim to the cake, but it is widely believed it was brought to Kentucky by James Harrod, the founder of Harrodsburg, in the mid-1700s. Legend states the confection often was used as a wedding cake, with family members and friends baking and contributing their own layer. The more layers on the cake, the more popular the bride. This romantic lore is up for debate, as one consistent rule I came across during a month spent researching the history of this humble cake is that, once assembled, the cake must sit for at least two days before being cut. Regardless of the cake’s history, after several rounds of recipe testing, there is no doubt the cake is a labor of love.
Appalachian food and folklore hold a special place in my heart. My grandfather, the oldest of 12, was born and raised in the hills of Hindman in Knott County. I reached out to my Great-Aunt Nett, who still resides in the area, anxious to see what she had to say about this cake of old. She jumped right into the conversation, first offering advice on the apple filling: “If you are going to dry your own apples, you must use the Cortland apple. Golden Delicious won’t work; the meat ain’t right.” While she had never baked an apple stack cake herself, she was familiar with it and spoke of the gingerbread stack cakes she enjoyed growing up in the mountains. The recipe-developing side of my brain began to churn.
I decided to keep things simple during my first test run, making the apple filling by simmering dried apples on the stove with brown sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg and ground ginger. I kept the cake batter straightforward and traditional, substituting butter for vegetable shortening, and poured a healthy cup of local sorghum into the mix. Buttermilk is an ingredient in every variation of the cake and, other than the eggs, it is the only element that adds moisture. The resulting dough was dense and difficult to corral in the cake pan. I floured my hands liberally and pushed and prodded the dough until it was spread into a thin, albeit uneven, layer along the bottom of the pan. I wasn’t terribly confident of what I would find after the cake baked for 15 minutes. I was certain it would be hard and crumbly—more like a cookie than a soft and pillowy cake. To my pleasant surprise, the first batch was fragrant and soft, the color a beautiful gold. I baked the cake layers in shifts, the recipe yielding five layers between which I spread the filling. I covered my completed creation tightly in plastic wrap and placed a clean dish towel on top. After two days of resting, I sliced the cake with a bit of trepidation, unsure if it would be at all moist or if it would have any complexity of flavor. It was immediately apparent that the apple filling and the cake had become one harmonious union. Each bite was rich, and the flavors were fully developed.
With my baker’s legs feeling stronger, I took it up a notch and attempted to bake the cake the most traditional way—in a cast-iron skillet. I was not so successful. I scraped off the burnt bits from the bottom of my failed attempt, but the meat of the cake, which I had spiced with fresh ginger and cinnamon this time, was more intensely flavored, and I knew I had gotten something right with this version. A few more tweaks resulted in the recipe outlined here, which is heavy on the spice and brown sugar and makes enough apple filling to serve an extra spoonful alongside each slice.
The fact that this cake can last for more than a week speaks to its origins and to the strong-willed people of Appalachia, their fortitude and love for their slice of earth as timeless and classic as the recipes they have left.
Appalachian Apple Stack Cake Recipe
11⁄2 pounds dried apples
1 cup light brown sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1⁄2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
5-7 cups water
- Place the dried apples, light brown sugar, cinnamon, ground ginger and nutmeg in a saucepan. Add enough water to just cover (approximately 5 to 7 cups) and bring to a boil.
- Once boiling, reduce the heat to medium-low and allow to simmer for an hour or more, until the mixture has reduced and the apples have softened. Add more water if the mixture begins to dry out as it cooks. Continue to simmer until nearly all of the water has been absorbed.
- Break down the apples with a potato masher. Remove from the heat and set aside.
2⁄3 cup unsalted butter
1⁄2 cup sugar
1⁄2 cup light brown sugar
1 cup sorghum
2 tablespoons vanilla
1 tablespoon fresh ginger, grated
1 tablespoon ground ginger
5 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup buttermilk
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
- Using a mixer on low speed, cream the butter, sugar, brown sugar and sorghum until smooth and well combined. Add eggs, one at a time, making sure the first egg is well-incorporated before adding the second. Add vanilla, grated ginger and ground ginger.
- In a large bowl sift together the flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt. With the mixer on low speed, add one-third of the flour mixture to the bowl with the sugar and spices, and combine well. Next add 1⁄2 cup of buttermilk. Mix to blend.
- Continuing to mix, add another third of the flour, blend, and then add the second half of the buttermilk. Add the remaining flour and scrape down the sides of the bowl, ensuring that the dough is smooth and well incorporated.
- Butter two 9-inch cake pans. Using a measuring cup, scoop one cup of the dough into a pan. Using well-floured hands or a knife, spread the dough along the bottom of the pan, smoothing over any holes that are created. The dough will be approximately one-quarter of an inch thick. Repeat for the second pan.
- Bake in the oven for 10-15 minutes until light golden and a knife inserted into the center of the cakes comes out clean. Place a plate over the top of the cake pan. Wearing oven mitts, carefully turn the pan and plate upside down, so that the cake will fall out of the pan and onto the plate.
- Transfer the warm cake to a cake stand and top with 1⁄2 cup (or more) of the stewed apples. Turn out the second cake from the pan and slide it on top of the apple-covered first layer. Add the apples to the second layer of cake.
- Wipe away any remaining crumbs from the cake pans, re-grease, and repeat until all of the cake batter has been baked. This recipe should yield five cake layers.
- Layer each cake with the apples, with the exception of the top layer. Cover cake tightly with three layers of plastic wrap and place a clean dish towel on top. Allow the cake to rest for at least two days before slicing.