Some days a simple trip to the grocery store in Lexington is enough to take you deep into Kentucky history.
“I can’t find the baking powder. I’ve been up and down this aisle and can’t find it!”
I turned when I heard her voice, smiled and assured her that it had to be here somewhere, and set off back down the baking aisle with her to look for it. I found it quickly–it was on the top shelf and I was taller than she was.
“Oh, there it is! I’m making gingerbread stack cake and I want the baking powder to be fresh. What I have at home is three years old!”
I barely heard the last part, because I was still trying to make sense out of that stack cake reference!
So I asked this lovely lady what a stack cake was and spent the next half hour learning about Appalachian stack cakes. She had quickly realized that I wasn’t “from these parts” and was happy to fill me in.
She had grown up in Perry County, Kentucky–Walkertown–and later the family moved “up on the hill.” Walkertown is southeast of Lexington, on past Berea, on the other side of the Daniel Boone National Forest in the Appalachians. It’s near Hazard, Kentucky, in coal-mining country.
Her grandma was famous for her gingerbread stack cakes with apple butter and her mother continued the tradition. They were made for family and community get-togethers throughout the fall and winter. Each woman had a specialty that she would bring to a potluck and stack cake was her grandma’s specialty.
The cake had to be at least 4 layers, but 6 to 8 layers were better, especially for the men who worked in the coal mines.
Each layer is baked in a cast-iron skillet. After the first one is baked, it’s turned out onto a clean tea towel to cool. Apple butter is spread on top of each of the cooled layers as they are stacked. My new friend’s family doesn’t put apple butter on top, but she said some people do.
When I got home, I looked for more information online about stack cakes and found that this traditional Appalachian cake has an interesting history, dating to the 1770s:
A stack cake is a unique regional variation that replaces a wedding cake, which can be prohibitively expensive in the economically deprived area of Appalachia, United States. Friends and family each bring a layer for the cake, and the bride’s family spreads apple preserves, dried apples, or apple butter between each layer. A stack cake looks like a stack of thick pancakes. It is thought to have originated in the Beaumont Inn of Harrodsburg, Kentucky, by the original settler James Harrod. The greater the number of layers, the more popular the couple is considered. Wikipedia
Of course, I plan to bake a stack cake “one of these days.” Here are a few recipes I found online that look promising:
If you’re a visual learner, try this excellent tutorial from Appalachia’s Homestead on YouTube:
If you’d like to read more about the history of stack cakes: