I came to know my mother-in-law, Mary, through the recipes she gave to me. In my memory, I always see and hear Mary in the kitchen of the two-story brick house my father-in-law built after he retired from the Norfolk and Southern Railroad, in the mountain town of Bluefield, Virginia, where Mary had lived all her life, and raised all five of her children. When my husband, Rick, and I went back to Virginia for a visit, Mary and I often woke before dawn and sat across from each other at the kitchen table, waiting for the sun to rise, and for the rest of the house to wake. Sometimes, we peeled apples together. Rick’s grandmother still lived back on the family’s home place, on a ridge between a limestone quarry and the town’s cemetery. Below the grandmother’s house was a green apple tree that continually dropped spotted, lopsided apples onto the gravel drive leading to the grandmother’s house. Rick’s father wouldn’t throw any of the fallen fruit away. Summers, he brought home a bushel basket full of bruised and torn apples every evening, after he’d been up to check on his mother.
Mary and I would stand in the morning quiet of her kitchen, peeling and discarding the damaged spots off each apple, dropping the good slices into a pot of water, sugar, cinnamon and cloves, boiling this mixture into dark brown apple butter. While the apples simmered, Mary baked six thin layers of a gingery molasses cake, three at a time, in three well-seasoned cast iron skillets. When the cake layers cooled, she stacked them, frosting each layer with the apple butter. The cake was supposed to “age” for a day, so that the apple butter could soak into the spiced layers until they became sweet and delicate. Nobody in the house ever waited for this cake to age. They ate it young, right after supper, which was always served at midday at my in-law’s house.
Mary called this dessert molasses cake, or apple stack cake. Though she made this cake for all kinds of family gatherings, it was once the traditional wedding cake at Appalachian weddings. The brides who lived on the remote sides of these Southern mountains relied on their guests to bring a thin layer of molasses cake when they arrived at the wedding, and the brides’ family members would assemble the cake, spreading apple butter between the layers. It is said that the popularity of the bride determined the final height of the cake.
This is a humble-looking cake that most women of this region make without a written recipe. It’s not difficult. It requires only the patience for simmering a bushel of apples into butter, and waiting for six layers of cake to bake. While we waited for the cake layers to cool, Mary often told stories about her family. She’d grown up in a trailer on the other side of Bluefield, on a ridge known locally as Dump Hill. My father-in-law always said that Mary’s early upbringing was so rough that the details of what happened to her as a child on Dump Hill could not be repeated. Though she hardly ever spoke of herself, Mary told stories about the women of her family. These women married young and faced almost unendurable hardships—poverty, abandonment, violence–and endured.
Perhaps the bitterness of Mary’s past was what prompted her to adore anything sweet. Perhaps her hardscrabble childhood and early marriage made her into the genuinely kind mother woman who readily adopted me as her daughter-in-law, and taught me how to make the Appalachian wedding cake recipe she’d learned from her own mother-in-law.
When Mary passed away from cancer, Rick’s father began making all of Mary’s dessert recipes—brown sugar fudge, chess pie, and banana pudding—for the family. The last time Rick and I visited Virginia, I woke early and found Rick’s father in the kitchen. The whole house smelled warmly of the ginger and molasses cakes that he’d been baking while the rest of the house slept. As he assembled and iced the cake layers, his grizzled face softened, turning almost boyish. I could tell he was remembering Mary, perhaps recalling her as a young wife, still healthy enough to stand in that kitchen for hours, peeling those homely apples, baking those humble layers of cake. Larry had baked his cake layers in different sized skillets, and he’d iced the layers with cooked apples rather than apple butter. The finished cake looked a bit like a lopsided beehive, but there was no mistaking. It was an Appalachian wedding cake. We ate it “young,” drizzled with caramel, and dusted with powdered sugar.
Here is the recipe for Appalachian Wedding Cake. I use 3 9-inch cake pans instead of 3 cast iron skillets—mainly because I don’t own 3 cast iron skillets that are the same size. If I don’t have the time to make my own, I use apple butter that you can find at produce stands or at church bake sales. I pretty up the cake a little, dusting the assembled layers with powdered sugar, drizzling the top and sides with caramel sauce, garnishing it with a few slices of dried apples.
Appalachian Wedding Cake
1 cup sugar
1 cup unsalted butter, room temp.
1 cup molasses
4 cups all purpose flour
1 tsp. baking powder
½ tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. ground ginger
1 tsp. cinnamon
½ tsp. ground clove
1 cup buttermilk
1 tsp. vanilla extract
2 ½ cups apple butter, preferably homemade
powdered sugar, for dusting
Dried apples and caramel sauce for decorating
Method: Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Grease 3 9-inch cake pans. Combine all dry ingredients and sift. Cream butter and sugar together. Add molasses and eggs and mix until combined. Alternating dry and wet, add in sifted flour mixture and buttermilk. Stir in vanilla extract and divide half the batter among the three greased cake pans. Bake for 8-10 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean when tested in the center of a cake. Let cool for a few minutes, then invert cakes onto paper plates. Bake the other half of the batter.
When all cakes have cooled, spread several tablespoons of the apple butter on each layer—stacking as you go. Wrap cake tightly and let “mature” for a day. Or, if you can’t wait that long, dust finished cake with powdered sugar and serve.
Winner of the South Carolina First Novel Prize in 2012,In the Garden of Stone by Susan Tekulve is a multi-generational tale about the nature of power and pride, love and loss, and how one impoverished family endures estrangement from their land and each other in order to unearth the rich seams of forgiveness. Bleak, harrowing, and beautifully told, In the Garden of Stone, is a haunting saga of endurance and redemption. Visit her website http://susantekulve.com/