The Real Deal
Original recipes often read like poetry, revealing much about the creator of the dish and the larger community they come from. Many of the signature recipes of my native southern Appalachia, for example, are inherently simple. They rely on the high quality of products that were necessarily home-grown or produced, depend on slow simmer cooking to accommodate cooks who had to labor in the garden as well, and make clever use of on-hand implements and ingredients. And many of them use time as a seasoning. All of these seemingly small details nevertheless reveal profound glimpses of the integrity, wit and hard-working spirit of the people I come from.
Translating such a recipe can be terrain delicate to tread, especially when it seems necessary to update a technique or eliminate an ingredient to make a traditional dish more available to the contemporary cook. If it's done delicately and conscientiously, maintaining the voice and the spirit of the original, the recipe becomes not only a thing of beauty, but also a living, usable piece of history. But if the translation is done carelessly - with more attention paid to the vision of the translator or the intended audience - the resulting recipe becomes something quite other.
One of the most iconic and poetic recipes of my region is Apple Stack Cake, and Jill Derting Sauceman makes a fine one. Jill lives in Johnson City, Tennessee, but was born at the base of Clinch Mountain in southwest Virginia. Jill and I differ in some of our techniques for turning out this plain and tall multi-layered cake - I come from into-the-frying-pan-patters, she from rolling-pin-layer-makers who bake on cookie sheets - but we recognize one another's recipes as "the real deal," in large part because of their simplicity. They depend solely on the complex, aged nuance of the dried apples that make up their filling, the buttery umami sweetness of sorghum syrup in the cake, and the passage of about three days of time in a cool, dark place to marry these elements into an unforgettable alchemy.
"My grandmother, Nevada Parker Derting, lived right across the road from me, and I was at her house almost every day, watching her cook and bake," Jill said. "I was there for the conversation and maybe some leftover cookie dough, but I didn't realize I was absorbing how she made everything. She passed away in 1976, and for years the family went without having dried apple stack cake. I decided to give it a try and in 1989, I made my first cake and have been making them ever since. I am the only grandchild who has attempted to carry on this family tradition."
In The Southern Foodways Alliance Community Cookbook (University of Georgia Press, 2010), which contains her family recipe, Jill noted, "The recipe is very basic. It doesn't use spices in the cake or in the dried-apple sauce. Most recipes call for spices, but during the Depression, spices weren't readily available. My grandmother just let the apple and sorghum flavors come through. My family likes it this way."
My family did, too, choosing to add a very little fresh grated nutmeg or mace to the apples, but nothing more. Virtually all the genuine apple-stack cakes I've encountered were similarly light on spice, as is most of the cooking of the region. It's a matter of taste that developed in response to the particular realities of living in an area where store-bought goods were scarce and people relied on the flavor of local produce (the exquisitely nuanced heirloom apples of the Appalachian south, for instance) for flavor.
Needless to say, there is something in these traditions that is as important to Jill as the taste of the cake. Her husband, Fred Sauceman, an imminent historian of Appalachian foodways who teaches at East Tennessee State University, invites Jill to bring stack cake to his students on the final day of class - not only as a gustatory treat, but also as a way of reminding his students how food can illuminate culture.
Photos by Larry Smith, ETSU Photo Lab
Jill Sauceman's Apple Stack Cake, in the tradition of the southern Appalachian region
1 pound dried tart apples
˝ cup sugar, plus 1 to 2 tablespoons for sprinkling
4˝ cups all-purpose flour, plus more for rolling
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
˝ teaspoon salt
1 egg, lightly beaten
˝ cup sorghum
˝ cup buttermilk
1/3 cup shortening
Place the apples in a medium saucepan and cover with water. Cook over medium-low heat until most of the water is absorbed and the apples break up when stirred. If the 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 the apples through a sieve or food mill to produce smooth, thick sauce. Set aside to cool.
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Lightly grease as many cookie sheets as you have. You might have to cook the cake layers in batches.
Stir together ˝ cup of the sugar, the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, egg, sorghum, buttermilk and shortening to make dough the consistency of stiff cookie dough. Divide the dough into 5 to 7 equal pieces.
On a very lightly floured surface, use a very lightly floured pin to roll each piece of dough into an 8- or 9-inch round that is between 1/8-and1/4-inch thick. Use a plate as a template so that the layers are the same size and perfectly round. (Sauceman's grandmother used a pie pan with a scalloped edge to cut out rounds with a decorative edge.)
Transfer the rounds to the prepared cookie sheets, making sure there is a little space between the rounds. Prick the top of each round with a fork, making a nice design. Sprinkle with sugar. Bake until the dough is golden brown and dry to the touch, 5 to 8 minutes, depending on the thickness. Cool the layers to room temperature on a wire rack.
To stack the cake, place the first layer on a cake plate. Spread a coating of the cooked applesauce over the layer to within a ˝-inch of the edge. Continue stacking, alternating cake and applesauce, ending with the prettiest cake layer on top. Store covered in a cool place for at least 2 days before serving.