Apple Butter, Stack Cakes, and Weddings
(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on October 26, 2008. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questions.)
Every wedding I went to was the same as the next one. The only differences were the numbers of layers on the bride's stack cake, and the brides themselves. I never noticed weddings very much when I was really small, and it could be because I never attended one. I started noticing them sometime around 1950 when my cousin Lucy got married. Living in the foothills of the Appalachian mountains of southeast Kentucky and not having traveled very far, I thought all weddings were like hers. First there was her wedding cake.
I was the one who had to gather all the green apples that fell off our June greenapple tree. I truly don't know what kind of apple tree it was, I had simply grown up calling the old gnarled tree the June greenapple tree. I pronounced it in the same way that my older relatives and neighbors did, "gre-napple", as if it were all one word. The tree was old by the time I was born, and its apples were not very appetizing. They were bruised and wormy and they remained a shade of green even as they lay rotting on the ground, when they were no longer usable.
It was my job to keep them picked up off the ground. I had two bushel baskets for this. Into one basket I dropped all the ripe apples that were not bruised or too wormy, and into the other, I dropped the nasty rotten ones. At the end of the day, my grandmother carried the good greenapples onto the covered back porch, and the rotten apples were taken by my dad to feed the pigs. I didn't care very much for the smell of the pig pen, so I stayed away from it whenever I could.
We did several things with the greenapples. As I grew older I was allowed to help peel, core, quarter, and slice them. That could easily be an all day job, because we were preparing them for drying. At the end of the day, the sliced apples were placed very carefully on one screen, then covered with another. The layered apples and screens then were placed on the backs of two ladder back chairs which stayed on the back porch that was furthest from the kitchen. No one used it very much except my dad because it was attached to his tool room. Sometimes they were put in a sunny place out in the yard, but most of the time they were on the porch. The two screens allowed the air to circulate, and they also kept the bugs off the apples. If we planned to dry apples in the fall, we often did it by stringing the slices on a thread, much in the same manner as making shucky beans. We would hang them in the attic to dry. In either case, the apple slices would shrivel and turn brown. When completely dry, they were usually stored in cloth bags, but sometimes they were placed in glass canning jars with lids. A gift of dried apples for Christmas was special.
The dried apples were used most often in cooking, and my favorite of all apple recipes has to be apple butter. It was common in the mountains to make a stack cake using homemade apple butter as a wedding cake. There were no bakeries, so we made do with what we had. A stack cake was as big as the number of friends the bride had, because it was made by several people. The following is what took place in my family. My favorite cousin, Lucy, was getting married, and to me she was simply gorgeous. She had many friends who lived close by. Each of those friends made one layer of her wedding cake, then all the layers were put together with apple butter in between. Lucy was so popular she had 12 layers in her stack cake. I just knew by the time my nine year old boyfriend Billy and I were married, I would probably have as many as 20 layers in my cake and maybe more.
The layers were not always of the same flavor, because each friend put together whatever was available to season them. They all were made using two constant ingredients though, ginger and sorghum molasses. Sometimes cooks varied the amount of sweetening by adding brown sugar to the molasses, about a half cup of sugar to one third cup of molasses. If they did that the layers were not so bland, but molasses alone only presented a low fat unsweetened layer. The dough was very stiff, much like cookie dough and was flavored by the molasses and ginger plus whatever spices might be available. It was pressed or rolled out into very thin layers and baked in cast iron skillets. Lucy's mother and sisters cooked, sweetened and spiced dried apples to make the filling. But some people used apple butter instead.
I strongly suggested to Aunt Elen, Lucy's mother, that she use apple butter because it was my favorite, and maybe she did because I remember eating so much I very nearly made myself sick enough to miss the big wedding dance afterward. On the other hand, I was mad at Billy, because when I told him that we would have 20 layers in our wedding cake, he refused to go to the dance with me. Maybe that's what made me sick.
Here is Ninna's recipe for Apple Stack Cake and it includes her recipe for Apple Butter. This recipe should make about 7 layers.
Stack cake batter:
1/2 cup shortening
1/2 cup sugar
1 well beaten egg
1/3 cup sorghum molasses
1/4 cup of buttermilk
1/2 teaspoon soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 1/2 cups of flour
1 teaspoon ginger
1 teaspoon vanilla
Cream shortening, sugar, then add beaten egg, molasses, buttermilk, and stir. Sift flour, soda, salt, and ginger into a big bowl, make a hole in the middle of the dry ingredients, then pour in creamed mix. Stir until well blended. Add vanilla and stir again, then roll out dough like a pie crust. Cut to fit a 9 inch cast iron skillet, then bake for 10 to 12 minutes at about 350 degrees until layers are light brown. When cool, stack the layers using apple butter in between.
Quick Apple Butter for one stack cake:
Put 1 pound of dried apples in a heavy pan and cover with water. Cook until the apples are soft enough to mash, adding more water as needed.
Mash, then while they are still hot, add one cup of brown sugar, one cup of white sugar, one teaspoon of cinnamon, one fourth teaspoon of cloves, and one teaspoon of allspice. Ninna also added a mint leaf from any of the members of the mint family, including bee balm (Monarda). If I remember correctly, she did it while the apples were cooking.
Take the first layer of the stack cake and place on flat cake dish, spread apple butter between each layer. I remember that some folks spread the apple butter up the sides of the cake as well, but my family did not, because they kept the cake moist for several days by wrapping it in a large white muslin square, saved just for that purpose.
Canned Apple Butter:
This varied from family to family. but here are some pretty basic directions if you are interested in canning. This recipe will make about two to three pints. I am guessing at some of the measurements also, because Ninna's recipe was for 3 dozen pints.
About 2 pounds of dried apples, 1 quart of sweet cider, 1 1/2 cups sugar, 3/4 teaspoon cinnamon, 1/4 teaspoon cloves. (Approximate measures)
Soak apples covered in water overnight. Pour off soaking water, and replace with sweet cider, cook until tender. Press through a sieve, then measure out about 1 and 1/2 quarts of apple pulp. (There were folks who skipped the straining through a sieve, but that made lumpy apple butter.) Cook the pulp until thick enough to mound up on a spoon, and as it thickens you need to stir it often to prevent sticking. Add sugar and spices and continue cooking slowly for about an hour. Pour hot sauce into hot pint jars, leaving 1/4 inch at top. Seal and process in simmering water bath for about 10 minutes.
Things don't always happen as they are planned. By the time I finished college, my Billy and I had parted ways, and my Ninna was no longer with us. I eventually married, but I didn't have a 20 layer stack cake for my wedding. If there ever is a next time, well then, maybe I will. The taste of that cake is truly a memorable experience. I never forgot Billy either.
Photos of apples are from Morgue Files Public Domain. The photographer is Jeltovski. The photo of the apple stack cakes comes from this article: http://davesgarden.com/guides/articles/view/897