Monday, October 21, 2013

Apple stack cake with innovative syrup

I saw an absolutely nauseating commercial for DirecTV during the Ohio State game on Saturday, featuring some guy stuck in a shack with an extreme caricature of a "hillbilly" family. As long as that kind of crap is acceptable, don't expect me to shed tears over the Washington Redskins.

With that out of the way, I'd like to show off some real hillbilly culture. When my dad was in his final illness (really, it was his only illness; the guy had the constitution of a battleship), we asked him if there was anything we could get him, and he only had one request. He said, "My mother used to make a spice cake with apples between the layers..." Unfortunately, I had no idea what he was talking about, and couldn't make it for him. But some years later I ran across a great book, Appalachian Home Cooking by Mark Sohn, which has a recipe for the apple stack cake. Apparently it is considered one of the most authentic Appalachian foods, right up there with sausage gravy, cornbread and soup beans.

The stack cake is made of layers of dense, gingerbread-like cake with an apple filling in between. Some versions call for more than 10 layers, but it's a very heavy and rich cake, so 4-6 layers are enough. You can glaze it if you want, but the cake is plenty sweet and moist without it.

I conjecture that this recipe is descended from the German dish Apfelpfannkuchen or "German apple pancake". Like a lot of Appalachian recipes, it was modified by the addition of a whole lot of sugar. Dad's mother probably learned how to make it from her mother, who was from a cluster of German families on the Virginia-Tennessee border. People usually think of mountaineers as Scots-Irish, but there were quite a few Germans, too.

You can get the recipe from Sohn's book or in many other versions on many other sites. In the most traditional version, the filling starts with dried apples, and the cake is sweetened with sorghum syrup rather than sugar or molasses. You end up reconstituting the apples anyway, so I don't feel too bad about using fresh apples. (Don't take the applesauce shortcut; it's too bland and runny.) The sorghum syrup is a tougher problem. I've only ever found it once, at a fruit stand, and the jar I found looked like it had been on the shelf for years.

I looked for a creative but authentic substitute for sorghum. I've made the stack cake with molasses, and it is very good. But this time I tried something new. I reasoned that maple syrup is just boiled-down sugary water, so why can't I make syrup from apple juice? If I used apple syrup instead of sorghum, the cake should be extra appley.

But I needed a full cup of syrup, and it would have taken a couple of gallons of expensive cider to make that. Plus, it's hard to find cider that isn't preserved with benzoate. Benzoate ruins the taste of cider, so if I boiled it down, the concentrated benzoate would probably be disgusting. The solution? Frozen apple juice concentrate. The only preservatives it has are a couple of weak acids, and it already has 75% of the water taken out!










Boiling down the apple syrup

So I emptied six cans of apple juice concentrate into a stockpot and boiled it down. After an hour, I had about three cups of deep red syrup thick enough to coat a spoon, so I turned off the heat and let the stuff cool overnight, which thickened it to a molasses-like consistency. Like molasses, you wouldn't want to eat this stuff straight. It's very strongly flavored and sour (which I guess explains why fruit has never been a viable source of cooking sugar.) Into the cake batter went one cup of this concentrated apple syrup.

The apple syrup. Don't drink it!

It turns out that I rediscovered something called boiled cider, which apparently is a traditional way of preserving cider in New England. Anyway, back to the stack cake.

I peeled, cored and sliced a bunch of smallish McIntosh apples for the filling.

Should have used bigger apples - less peeling!

Then I put some nutmeg and ginger on them and dried them in the oven for about half an hour. In hindsight I think this was a waste of time, because the next step is to boil them in cider. But starting with really dry apples might give you a more intense flavor. I had to cheat a little and put some cornstarch in to get the filling to thicken up.

Drying the apples. Could have skipped this.

The cake layers I made by pressing about a quarter-inch-thick layer of batter (really, it's more like cookie dough) into the bottom of a greased, no-stick round cake pan. 10 minutes in the oven and it's done, plus I did two at a time, so I had the four layers done in less than half an hour.

Two of the four cake layers

Then you just lay down the layers one at a time, and spread the filling between them. Keeping the layers in one piece is easy as long as you grease the pan ahead of time and let the cakes cool a little and harden up before flipping them out. I forgot to re-grease the pans for my second round of cake, so of course the fourth layer, which is the only one that shows, got a rip in the middle when I flipped it out. But I just stuck it back together.

Two layers stacked and filled


At this point in every cooking blog, it is obligatory to say how well it turned out. So...it turned out very well! The cake had a really intense, almost tart apple flavor from the syrup - it probably tasted more appley than the filling, which is mostly actual apples! Next time, I'll probably use half apple syrup and half molasses. You can only take a small slice at a time - it's like eating a very rich cookie instead of a cake. A little slice of this with a glass of milk and you're back in the holler in 1892 - although I am not sure where they would have gotten vanilla extract and ground spices back then.    

 

It should probably be eaten off a tin plate for increased authenticity

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