When I close my eyes, I can still hear my grandmother describe the taste of the spiced layers of her legendary stack cake. Virginia Price had a story to go along with everything in her life, and her stack cake was no exception.
She called it a Kentucky stack cake and, as the story went, when our family would get together for reunions and other gatherings, each family would bring a layer for the cake and a jar of jam, jelly or preserves. All followed the same recipe for the cake layer, and as each new layer came it would be put on the top of the stack. And between each layer were spread the preserves. By the time my brother and I had come along, this tradition only existed in the rich family history told us by my great grandmother as she sat in her favorite chair in her living room.
As a child I never really thought about why that cake seemed to be such an important part of my Grandma Price’s storytelling. At six years old I couldn’t possibly see how my great grandmother living alone on the family farm yearned for a more familiar time.
Sitting in her chair, Virginia Price, would tell my brother and me our family history just the way it had been taught to her, through stories. My great grandmother was like many from Appalachia, growing up so poor that a book was a luxury, yet that was fine because she knew her story and she shared it. Still, it was that cake that became legend to us as we sat in the living room mesmerized by her tales.
Once, she said, so many family members gathered that they had four different stack cakes with 12 layers each – and great uncle Jim stuck his finger in all of them. We asked her all the time to make the cake, but she would always say that the recipe had been lost for years. It seemed strange that after she had passed that I would come across that cake recipe pressed in the pages of the family bible that sat beside her all the time I had known her.
Why had she told us the recipe was lost, when it was right there next to her for years. Maybe she had forgotten, though she had a mind like a steel trap and in all her years I never knew her to forget anything.
And then it came to me the other evening while teaching our German cooking class. As the evening was winding down and I asked, as I do each class, “what is the most important part of the meal,” I quickly answer, “it is the company, it is the conversation.”
I suddenly had a clue. It was the family. As kids the stories of legendary gatherings seemed so unreal, but at fifty I look back at the best moments in my life and they are always connected to shared experiences. By the time Virginia told her stories to us, my great grandfather had passed, as had most of the people in her stories, and other than my mother, brother and I, no one came to the farm anymore. My grandmother was remembering the gatherings, and that cake was the glue that bound.
The recipe that was lost wasn’t an essential list for a cake – it was the people. The layers of cake and the jammy goodness that filled them were made by each family and shared. What was lost were the gatherings of family and friends sharing a sweet treat earned by hard work and effort. All that time, as my grandmother told her stories, it never occurred to me that she had pined for the days when the farm would fill with family, with each bringing a cake layer and a jar of jam.
The Kentucky/Appalachian stack cake is one of those famous recipes from the past that come with many stories. Some claim that the Stack cake was used as a wedding cake in which the bride and groom’s popularity was measured by the number of layers on the cake. And many recipes call for sorghum or molasses and make a much harder layer. Most recipes call for a dried apple filling, but in the Price family they used preserves and jams and brown sugar. Most important to the recipe was the spirit of community it developed as each visiting family added a layer to the cake.
My great grandmother always seemed happy and she loved to share and even as I type I can close my eyes and watch as she tells her story of the fabled cake with excitement in her voice and fire in her eyes. But this time as she finishes the story she reaches into her bible and hands me the recipe. “It is your turn,” she says. – Executive chef Steve Sommers, Culinary Adventure Cooking School
GRANNY PRICE’S KENTUCKY STACK CAKE
Any jam or preserve you like will be excellent in this recipe – it’s old-fashioned, meaning there’s a lot of wiggle room on flavor. We’ve made it with our Whole Lemon Fig Marmalade, Blood Orange Cinnamon Preserves, Smokey Plum Jam, Strawberry Rhubarb Preserves and, of course, The Original Roasted Raspberry Chipotle Sauce.
1 cup shortening
2 packed cups light brown sugar
3 cups sifted flour
2 tsp baking soda
1 cup buttermilk
1 tsp vanilla
Your favorite Fischer & Wieser jam/jelly
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour 9” cake pans. Mix shortening gradually. Add sugar and beat until light and fluffy. Sift flour with salt together. Stir baking soda into buttermilk. To sugar mixture, add buttermilk alternating with the flour mixture a small amount at a time, beating after each addition. Beat in vanilla. Pour batter evenly into prepared pans and bake about 30 minutes, or until toothpick comes out clean. While still warm, with a fine thread or very sharp serrated knife, carefully split each layer in half horizontally making four even layers. Stack each layer spreading each layer with jam and sprinkling with confectioner sugar. Serves about 10.
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