What is a Stack Cake?

A mountain delicacy, that’s what it is. An experienced pastry maker might call it a torte, and in fact a stack cake resembles a torte on a superficial level. It is comprised of many thinnish layers, up to about 12 depending on who’s making the cake, with each layer separated by some sort of fruit jam or conserve. Apple is the standard, but other fruit (i.e. peach) or berry fillings are acceptable.

But whatever form a stack cake takes, whether four layers or 14, apple or huckleberry, there’s no getting around the fact that this is a poor folks’ cake. Old school formulas for stack cakes contain little that couldn’t be found even a small mountain farm: apples (fresh or dried), buttermilk, sorghum, eggs, lard. Wheat flour and spices would had to have been acquired at a dry goods store, but that’s what you do on a special occasion: you pay up.

Original stack cakes were leavened, but only slightly, with baking soda. The layers were made from a stiff dough that was pressed into a cast iron skillet by hand, then either griddled or baked by the fire side (home ovens didn’t come to Appalachia until rather recently). The layer that resulted was at least initially more like a cookie than a conventional cake layer. However after the cake was assembled and filled — usually with apple sauce, apple butter or cider jelly — then left to cure for about a week, the layers softened to a cake-like consistency.

The finished confection was rather dense, with a distinct taste of lard, and not particularly sweet. But seen through the right set of eyes, and tasted with the right set of buds, a kind of mountain magic.

This sort of real deal stack cake is still made — and not all that far from where I’m sitting right now. But while I’ve kept my eyes open for them on my regular trips to Appalachia, I’ve never seen or tasted one. These kinds of heirloom preparations aren’t available in stores or restaurants. Like putting your family’s secret weapon Christmas fruitcake up for sale on Ebay, it just isn’t done. Still I’m hopeful that one day I’ll form a friendship of a quality that someone will share a piece with me.

Meantime I’ll try my hand at my own stack cake. It’s not going to be one of the old school variety, but something more contemporary. Pastry evolves. And anyway, while components like good-quality baking lard, sorghum, and homemade apple butter were once pantry staples in Appalachia, they certainly aren’t for me. Well, OK, I do make some truly awesome lard, but the rest I’d really have to search for, and especially in these COVID days, that doesn’t really seem in the spirit of the thing. So on we go with Joe’s citified stack cake. Why not?

4 thoughts on “What is a Stack Cake?”

  1. This reminds me a bit of a recipe for a Russian honey cake that I have but haven’t made (yet) – that one is also a stack of thin, cookie-like layers that soften after being layered with a sour cream filling and left overnight.

    Sweet baking with lard is definitely a different experience than butter; I’ve experimented with making some of Elizabeth Davies’ lardy cake recipes and they are very different in taste and texture. I like them, but I can see being rather taken aback if you’re used to butter.

    1. Hello Jane!

      Yes I know what you mean. I look forward to rendering lard every spring and fall. I like the stuff for biscuits and for pie crusts, but even I have my limits. Cake…I might draw the line there.

      But I’m going to go looking for this Russian honey cake you speak of. Sounds very interesting!

      Cheers and thanks!

      Joe

      1. For reference, the Russian honey cake is called medovik, or apparently can also be known as smetannik (from smetana, the sour cream). I’ve seen the recipe pop up in a few places on the internet, and I think it’d be a cool project for you to explore the history and of course the recipe itself!

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