Embrace Fall with Appalachian Stack Cake from Must Love Herbs

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For Lauren May of Must Love Herbs, cooking heirloom recipes is all about using what you have. In this case, it's a delicious Appalachian stack cake.

Lauren May got her start in the kitchen working with coffee grounds and eggshells. “To keep me busy as a baby, my grandma would give me all the scraps,” she says.

Now, 32 years later, Lauren is still working with what her grandmother and family have handed down to her: a love of baking, a wealth of foraging knowledge and an abiding adoration for the bountiful Appalachian countryside.

All About Appalachian Cooking & Baking

This appreciation for what eastern Kentucky has to offer is apparent on Must Love Herbs, Lauren’s colorful Instagram feed and blog. On these platforms, Lauren shows how she draws inspiration from the wilds around her. In the springtime, it’s through a red clover-infused cake with cream cheese frosting. During the heat of summer, she whips up fresh blackberry and honey galettes.

When the Kentucky weather cools come fall, Lauren doesn’t slow down. Instead, she fully embraces what she considers to be the basic tenet of Appalachian cooking and baking: “It’s about using what you have.”

Fall Baking in Appalachia

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In autumn, Lauren picks apples. Her favorites are Granny Smith, Rome and June, in addition to the heirloom apples she harvests at home. To keep them all winter, Lauren says, it’s common to dry them. It’s an old-fashioned practice, but one that suits her baking style.

Lauren uses these dried treats in what she calls the quintessential Appalachian dessert: a stack cake. Every family’s take on this regional recipe varies, Lauren says, but for her, it means folding together the best of what autumn has to offer. The batter of this cake is filled with molasses, buttermilk and plenty of spices. Then a cozy apple filling is sandwiched between each layer.

How to Make Lauren’s Appalachian Stack Cake

According to Lauren, “Stack cakes are quintessential Appalachia.” Though she explains that recipes vary from family to family. You’ll find some are more cookie-like, others are baked in cast-iron skillets and some are more like a traditional cake.

Lauren’s version is a riff on her family’s recipe. Her twist: a generous dose of bourbon.

Ingredients

For the cake:

  • 1 cup unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 cup packed dark brown sugar
  • 3/4 cup molasses
  • 2 large eggs, room temperature
  • 5 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1-1/2 cups buttermilk

For the apple-bourbon sauce:

  • 4 cups dried apples
  • 2 cups packed dark brown sugar
  • 1-1/2 cups water
  • 1/3 cup bourbon
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 2 cups apple butter

Go to Recipe

What You’ll Need

  • Heavy saucepan: Make sure you have a pan large enough to make a batch of Lauren’s sticky and delicious bourbon sauce.
  • Maker’s Mark bourbon whiskey: Lauren’s preferred bourbon is Maker’s Mark. She says only cook with whiskey that you’d enjoy sipping on its own.
  • Multiple round cake pans: This cake yields four layers or more (depending on the size pan you choose). Make sure you have a few extras on hand.

Directions

Step 1: Cream ingredients

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This Appalachian stack cake recipe starts as many cakes do: by creaming the ingredients together. Blend the softened butter, brown sugar and molasses together in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment.

Once fluffy (about 5 minutes) add the eggs one at a time. The mix may look slightly lumpy or curdled at this point; this is normal!

Editor’s Tip: This recipe calls for dark brown sugar, though you can substitute light brown sugar if that’s what you have on hand. The cake will be delicious either way!

Step 2: Make the batter

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In another bowl, whisk together the dry ingredients including the fall spices (cinnamon and ginger are a must for cozy bakes!). Alternate adding this dry mix and the buttermilk until you have a smooth cake batter.

Step 3: Bake the cakes

Grease and line the cake pans. You can use nine-inch pans for a four-layer cake or opt for six-inch pans for seven layers (perfect if you want to make a couple of smaller cakes to share).

Divide the batter evenly between the pans. Then bake at 350ºF for 25-30 minutes—until a toothpick inserted in the center comes away clean (or with just a few crumbs).

Let the cakes cool in the pan for about 10 minutes before removing them. Allow the cakes to cool completely on wire racks.

If you’re unfamiliar with this style of cake, Lauren explains: “It will be dense because you’re adding moisture back into it.” So don’t be alarmed if these cakes seem a little hefty.

Step 4: Make the filling

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While the cakes are baking and cooling, work on preparing Lauren’s signature filling. This apple-bourbon sauce uses dried apples, “a practice from the past,” says Lauren.

To make this rich sauce, start by combining dried apples, brown sugar, water and bourbon. Cover the pan and cook over medium-low heat until the apples are soft—about 20 minutes. Make sure to keep an eye on the mixture and stir occasionally throughout the process.

Then add the butter and stir. Cook the mix uncovered until the sauce is syrupy—about 5 to 10 minutes. Remove the saucepan from the heat and let the sauce cool completely.

Step 5: Layer

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With all your components cooled, it’s finally time to get to stacking! Start by leveling off the tops of each layer with a serrated knife if they baked up slightly domed.

Place your first layer on your go-to cake stand; Lauren always serves her desserts on colorful dishware. Then spoon on a portion of apple butter (use homemade apple butter or store-bought). Then spoon on that delicious bourbon-apple sauce. Repeat until your cake is completed.

Be sure to drizzle the top with any remaining sauce and finish off the cake with a few dried apple slices.

Step 6: Wait

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You might think those apple slices on top were the finishing touch, but you’ll have to wait a bit longer. “These cakes are better the longer they sit,” says Lauren.

Once this cake is assembled into a mountain of fall flavors, resist the urge to slice it—at least right away. “Let it sit for two days,” says Lauren, so the sauce has a chance to soak into this decadent and dense dessert.

When it’s finally ready, this is a showstopping cake to savor and share. At her home in Kentucky, Lauren is likely to be found slicing into this cake with friends and neighbors. As she says about Appalachia, “We are a welcoming people,” and with each recipe she creates, Lauren invites everyone into her kitchen.

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Lisa Kaminski
Lisa is an editor at Taste of Home where she gets to embrace her passion for baking. She pours this love of all things sweet (and sometimes savory) into Bakeable, Taste of Home's baking club. Lisa is also dedicated to finding and testing the best ingredients, kitchen gear and home products for our Test Kitchen-Preferred program. At home, you'll find her working on embroidery and other crafts.