- Jill Sauceman’s Stack Cake. Photo by Larry Smith.
Author Joseph Dabney calls it “the most mountain of desserts.” Dried apple stack cake is uniced, often unspiced. Its modest and optional frill is a scalloped edge. Its dominant flavor, Winesaps.
Stack cakes are products of Appalachian home cooking and are rarely found in restaurants. Most folks who lived in and around Hiltons, Virginia, along Clinch Mountain, from the 1920s to the ’70s probably tasted, or at least heard of, Nevada Parker Derting’s version of the age-old, meal-ending confection. She made them for holidays, birthdays, special guests, homecomings, or just at the request of a friend or neighbor with a craving.
“This is my grandmother’s very basic recipe,” says Jill Sauceman. “During the Depression, spices were hard to get in Scott County. Grandma used only those ingredients readily available to her, no cinnamon, no ginger. Her family grew to love the natural flavors of the sorghum and tart dried apples with no additional flavoring, not even a shot of vanilla extract. She’d often call the cake a molasses fruit cake or simply a molasses cake, and she pronounced the word ‘molassee.’”
Nevada Derting picked the Winesaps from her own trees, laid them on a cloth on the porch, and covered them with a wood-framed window screen to block out insects. In her younger days, she’d scatter them across her tin roof. When the apple pieces turned golden brown, she’d store them in sugar sacks stuffed inside lidded glass jugs which were then placed in a pie safe in an unheated room of the house.
With the popularity of home dehydrators, this process is easier today. It’s much better to make the cake with home-dried apples rather than those purchased at the store. The preservatives in the grocery store brands keep the apples white in color, producing a flavor much less rich than the home-dried variety.
Jill remembers watching her grandmother pour flour into a huge bowl and make a trough in the center. With her hands, she’d mix the ingredients, incorporating enough flour to make the dough the right consistency.
When the cake was assembled, always in seven layers, she’d remind the family to let it “season” a few days before it was sliced, to increase the moisture. Most mountain families whose women made these cakes pass down stories about children getting into trouble for cutting into the cake too early.
“I am the only grandchild to carry on the tradition of making the dried apple stack cake,” Jill notes. “And I always include instructions to keep it covered in a cool place and let it season for two or three days. I think Grandma would be proud.”
Ironically, it was the apple that eventually led many members of the Derting family away from the mountains. Their search for Depression-era jobs forced them to traverse the country, and they settled in Washington state, picking apples.
- Photo by Larry Smith
Nevada Parker Derting’s Stack Cake
Scott County, Virginia
- 1 pound dried tart apples
- ½ cup sorghum
- ½ cup sugar
- ½ cup buttermilk
- 1 egg
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 1/3 cup shortening
- Approximately 4 ½ cups of White Lily flour, plus enough for flouring the board when rolling out each layer
Cover dried apples with water and cook over medium low heat until most of the water is absorbed and the apples break up when stirred. If apples are not soft enough to break up, add more water and keep cooking. If desired, add a tablespoon or so of sugar to taste.
Cool and run apples through a sieve or Foley Food Mill to produce a smooth sauce.
Meanwhile combine the remaining ingredients. Dough should be the consistency of stiff cookie dough.
Separate dough into five to seven balls. Roll each ball of dough to a 1/8- or ¼-inch thickness.
Cut in 8- or 9-inch rounds. (Nevada Derting used a pie pan with a scalloped edge to cut out rounds.) Prick each layer with a fork, making a nice design.
Sprinkle individual layers with granulated sugar and bake on a greased cookie sheet at 400 degrees until golden brown (about five to eight minutes, depending on thickness). (Mrs. Derting sometimes baked her’s in iron skillets.)
Cool and place the first layer on a cake plate.
Spread a coating of cooked apples over the layer, within half an inch of the edge. Stack the other layers, alternating cake and cooked apples and ending with a cake layer on top. Save the layer with the prettiest design for the top.
Store, covered, in a cool place for several days before serving.