A VIEW from LICK SKILLET: Dr. Rywell’s Tenn. apple stack cake re-visited

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By Gerald Largen

Gentle reader, there comes a time when repeating oneself is no longer repetition but a tradition.

Thus it is with our annual holiday column about our beloved Tennessee Apple Stack Cake, also known in this area as “Fruit Cake.” As we have said many times before, what is being offered in some grocery stores as apple stack cake is not our Tennessee Apple Stack Cake.

Although we have never met a cake we didn’t like; and although the cake masquerading as apple stack cake probably tastes good, it just isn’t the real thing and we wouldn’t want some young person, or some newly arrived “come-here” to be led astray so, once again we revisit the column that first appeared on 23 November, 2007, and each year since.

“Let us confess up front that there are numerous minor variations depending upon the upbringing of the baker, the particular geographic locale, and personal tastes as to spices, sweetness, etc., but the basic item is always essentially similar,- a stack of thin, crisp “tea cake” layers interspersed with layers of spiced, sweetened cooked dried apples. One variation that the reader may be aware of is the difference in dough sweetener used by Roane County cooks on the north side of the river, and those south of the river. Most of those on the north side have always used granulated white sugar, while those on the south side have more often than not used molasses or brown sugar.

“In appearance, the cake resembles some of the German or Austrian Tortes being composed of several very thin layers of what was once known as Tea-cake dough, baked until lightly brown, cooled, and then layered with cooked dried apples. We have heard and read of dried peaches or apricots being used for the fruit filling, but have never tasted this version. In the days of our youth, this cake was known as “Fruit Cake”, and if someone said they had “Fruit Cake” this was what they meant, not the heavy dark cake with raisins, currants, and glace cherries, pineapple, citron, and nuts, which most people now know as “Fruit Cake”.

“We would love to give the reader the recipe, or receipt as they were formerly called, for our grandmother’s Apple Stack, or Fruit Cake, but, unfortunately, it was never written down, and since she prepared it from memory and habit, she found it difficult to tell just how she did it. Our mother tried to duplicate it by watching her make one of the cakes, but she finally gave up and devised her own version which was almost identical in taste and texture.

“Some time after she had devised this version of the cake, Bert Vincent, beloved local columnist for the News Sentinel published the following item shortly before Christmas one year, probably in the 1960s. This is what appeared in Bert’s Strolling column:

“The Christmas season is near and if you want a cake to make your friends ooh and aah when they see and taste it just try and (sic) old fashioned Tennessee stack cake. I have the recipe here from Martin Rywell’s Tennessee Cook Book.

“1 cup sugar, two eggs, 3 cups flour, 1 teaspoon baking soda, 1/2 cup butter, 3/4 cup buttermilk, 1 teaspoon baking powder, 1/4 teaspoon salt, 1 teaspoon nutmeg.

“’Now, for the filling: 1 pound dried apples or peaches, 1 cup sugar, 1 teapsoon (sic) allspice. Place dried fruit in pan. Cover with cold water. When boiling add sugar and allspice. Cook about 20 minutes. Mash fruit with potato masher. Let cool.

“To make the cakes: Mix and sift flour, baking powder, soda, salt and nutmeg. Add beaten eggs, cream shortening and sugar. Add alternately with milk to the mixture. Makes a stiff batter. Knead to a cookie dough. Pinch off a small ball and roll thin as a knife blade. Cut to fit 8-inch pan. This dough should make eight layers. Bake in hot oven, around 375 degrees. Spread layers or cakes, out to cool.

“OK. Now lay out one cake and spread it with the filling.Lay on another cake and spread it. And so on until you have your stack of eight cakes all filled between with delicious filling’”

“We have a few comments about this recipe: If using self-rising flour/ omit the baking powder and salt. As to the filling, our family most often used cinnamon rather than allspice in the apples. The dried apples should preferably be home or country dried, but if one must use commercially prepared apples, which are treated so as not to discolour, our mother would always mix them with dark brown apple butter from the store, such as that labeled “Whitehouse”. This produces an acceptable substitute for the home-dried apples. Finally, the top layer should not get the fruit topping.

“As to the instruction to cut the dough to fit an 8-inch pan, one should first consider how one is going to store the cake to age it, as it improves greatly with a day or two’s aging under a cover. We traditionally used a large kettle, so the layers could be larger than 8-inches. And most often our cakes were more than eight layers high. In fact our mother and our grandmother for some years engaged in a friendly rivalry to see who could make the cake with the most layers. After constructing cakes of more than twenty layers (twenty-two, if we recall aright), they finally had to terminate the contest since the cakes had grown so high that neither could find a pot or kettle tall enough to cover them to age!

“Older readers will no doubt recognize the identity of Dr. Martin Rywell, the source of this recipe. He lived in Harriman, and was married to one of the Stone girls, of the Stone’s Department Store family, and they had an apartment over the store. Dr. Rywell’s Tennessee Cook Book was no doubt published by his own private press - Pioneer Press - through which he published numerous books which he authored on assorted topics, including firearms, timepieces, and many others. He was a devoted Democrat, and with the late Paul Easter with whom he worked closely, for a time constituted a force in the local party.”

In recent years, after giving this recipe, we have received complaints about the scarcity of dried apples, especially the sun-dried dark brown kind, but even those dried in “evaporators” have become hard to find.
It occurred to us that those exponents of old-fashioned, hand-crafted items, the Amish, might be a good source, so last week we hied ourself westward to the Muddy Pond Community in search of dried apples, and sure enough we found them at the Muddy Pond General Store on Muddy Pond Road.

Although not the dark brown colour of sun-dried, they are a rich tan in colour, and ought to serve our purposes adequately.

If you want to try this source you might want to telephone to be sure of availability at (931)-445-7829.

This is an interesting store, and you may buy several things, just as we did.
“If you really want to show off with traditional confections in addition to stack cake, get you a fresh coconut and make a good, heavy, moist, gooey coconut cake with seven minute, or divinity icing. Remember to save the coconut milk to use in the batter, and grate the coconut meat coarsely and pile it on thickly.

Mmmm Good!

“As the late Julia Child used to conclude her show, The French Chef: “Bon Appetit!””