You won’t find it in many modern gourmet cookbooks, but you might run across it in a southeastern Kentucky grandmother’s recipe collection.

Stack cakes, a treat found in certain parts of Kentucky and Tennessee, can take as much as three days to make when you’re doing it the traditional way, Jill Sauceman, a member of the Southern Foodways Alliance says.

Sauceman’s grandmother’s recipe is more than 100 years old and has appeared in numerous cookbooks and magazines. Many of them changed the original formula, adding in spices and other modern ingredients. But Sauceman holds that her grandmother’s recipe is best when it is made the way it was in the hills and hollers years ago.

Jill Sauceman stands over a sink, wearing an apron and using a whisk to combine stack cake ingredients.
Jill Sauceman in her kitchen, whisking together the dry ingredients for a batch of stack cakes. (All photos in this article: Fred Sauceman)

Stack cakes, typically four or five layers of biscuit-like dough, stacked and separated by a filling made from dried apples, are probably a throw-back to mountain residents’ German roots, says Sauceman.

“You see it in eastern Tennessee and southeastern Kentucky where German immigrants settled… there’s so much German culture in this area of the Appalachian mountains,” she says. Stack cake is like the German torts. Tort was a cake with layers of filling in between.”

Unlike the recipes for jam cake – a southern staple of rich, thin layers of moist cake separated by blackberry filling and covered with a caramel frosting – stake cakes have few spices, no frosting and little in the way of special ingredients.  

The cakes are made with sorghum, the only sweetener that would have been available in the area in the 1800s.

“Sorghum is grown from Sorghum cane,” she says. “And molasses is a by-product of sugarcane. Sugarcane will not grow this far north… some people interchange sorghum with molasses, but a real stack cake would have been made with sorghum because that’s what they would have had back then.”

The cake isn’t made with any special flavorings or spices either, she says, because those wouldn’t have been sitting in an 1800s Appalachian pantry.

“You want the layers as thin as possible, probably not over a half an inch thick, and it can either be pressed out or rolled out” she says. “It’s like a cookie dough. When they come out of the oven they’re crispy, just like a cookie.”

Thin layers are essential for a good, traditional stack cake.

“You want the layers as thin as possible, probably not over a half an inch thick, and it can either be pressed out or rolled out” she says. “It’s like a cookie dough. When they come out of the oven they’re crispy, just like a cookie.”

The key, then, is the filling. Made from dried apples, its intense flavor permeates the cake and lends not only moisture but flavor.

“It has to sit for two or three days before you can eat it or else you can’t even cut it ‘cause it’s so hard,” Sauceman says. “You need to puree the dried apples so the cake can absorb the moisture better. My grandmother always used dried apples because she liked the flavor better.”

People in Appalachia at the time would have had dried fruit like apples or cherries on hand for the winter. Since the cakes are traditionally made during the holidays, they would have had plenty of dried fruit available, she says.

Some tales tell of the cakes being made for weddings. Guests would all bring a layer and the bride’s family would supply the topmost layer.

“Of course, it was said that the more layers of cake the bride had, the more prominent the family was in society,” Sauceman says. “That’s probably just folklore. I believe it’s something that came from their German culture using what they had on hand for a special occasion.”

Nevada Parker Derting’s Dried Apple Stack Cake


  • 1 pound dried tart apples, such as Winesap
  • ½ c. sorghum
  • ½ c. sugar
  • ½ c. buttermilk
  • 1 egg
  • 1 tsp. baking soda
  • 1 tsp. baking powder
  • ½ tsp. salt
  • ⅓ c. shortening
  • Approximately 4 ½ cups of White Lily flour (the brand Nevada Derting preferred), 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 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 ⅛- or ¼-inch thickness. Cut in 8- or 9-inch rounds. (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). (Derting sometimes baked hers 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.

(Jill Sauceman’s paternal grandmother’s recipe is more than 100 years old and is best made with flour made from “soft red winter wheat,” her husband Fred Sauceman said. The recipe has been published in Mastering the Art of Southern Cooking by Nathalie Dupree, and two of Fred’s cookbooks, as well as in various publications across the country including Southern Living, Blue Ridge Country and the New York Times.)

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