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by Rob Dehart
What foods do you associate with Christmas? For some in East Tennessee, it is the dried apple stack cake, a labor-intensive confection with ingredients that are simple and inexpensive. According to Fred Sauceman, Senior Writer and Associate Professor of Appalachian Studies at East Tennessee State University, most of the ingredients with the exception of flour could be found on the farm. Spices were difficult to get in some areas of Appalachia during hard economic times, so there are no spices whatsoever in the late Nevada Parker Derting’s over-100-year-old recipe (featured below). All one needed were eggs, flour, buttermilk, apples, sugar, butter or lard, and sorghum syrup.
Between the seven layers of cake is an apple filling made from dried/preserved apples. Most households 100 years ago did not have electric food dehydrators. People used different preservation methods such as laying apple pieces on the tin roofs of their homes or the hoods of their cars. Everyone agrees that the cake always tasted better after sitting for a few days in a cool place.
Making this cake was definitely a labor of love. You can still find these cakes in some bakeries. Although spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves are used in some recipes, Nevada Parker Derting never included them. You can make your own using the following authentic recipe courtesy of Jill Sauceman, Mrs. Derting’s granddaughter.
Nevada Parker Derting’s Stack Cake
Scott County, Virginia
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.
Rob Dehart is a history curator at the Tennessee State Museum. He'll be discussing Tennessee holiday food traditions at a Lunch & Learn at the Museum on Wednesday, December 12 at 12 p.m. and an evening lecture on Thursday, December 13 at 6 p.m. Both are free and open to the public. For more info, please visit our Calendar of Events.