Brushy Mountain Apple Butter

Think of spring. What comes to mind? Old oaks in the yard, the breeze shifting over rolling grasslands, shrills of joy peppering young faces during a game of hide-and-seek, a pitcher of crisp tea to commemorate the new year on the porch. What could be better?


How about a rich apple butter?


Apple butter, despite its name, is not necessarily a dairy product. It is characterized by a long, slow cooking of apples with cider or water until the apples caramelize, turning the sauce a deep brown color. The high concentration of sugar allows the preserve to maintain a long shelf-life, popularizing the product over the centuries.


Apple butter enjoys a rich history that spans the American South. Orchards occasionally yielded excesses of fruit–apple butter allowed families a substance that would hold over seasons.


Apples hold a special significance to the residents of Wilkes County, home of the Brushy Mountain Apple Festival. For over forty consecutive years, the festival has been a cornerstone celebration of Wilkes County culture and community. This is in part documented by the 1970s text Second Dinner Bell: From The Brushies, a collection of recipes and interviews from festival-goers, which documents a refreshing desire to capture and re-tell historic foodways.




The apple butter recipe, pictured here, stands out.



The recipe simply calls for “Apples, Sugar, Flavoring,” beckoning the chef to employ their own personal touch on the butter. Lee Calhoun’s letters document the popularity of the Brushy Mountain Limbertwig in the region, crediting their tangy flavor and ability to store well over time–however any firm, tangy apple could fit the bill.



We attempted to follow a similar recipe from chef Sara Lynn (albeit with more detail), which is documented below.


Yield: 1 Serving
Prep Time: 15 min | Cook Time: 10 hrs | Total Time: 10 hrs 15 min
3 lbs apples, peeled, cored, and diced
½ cup brown sugar
½ cup white sugar
1 cinnamon stick
¼ tsp salt
1 bunch sage
1 tsp vanilla
1. In a small bowl, combine the brown sugar, white sugar, and salt. Place apples in a slow cooker, sprinkle with the sugar, and mix. Place the cinnamon stick and sage in the slow cooker. Set to low for eight hours.
2. After about eight hours, check the apples. They should be broken down and releasing juices. Remove the sage leaves and cinnamon stick. Discard the sage and set the cinnamon stick aside. Using an immersion blender (or regular blender), puree the apple butter. If you’re doing this in a regular blender, be sure to leave some space so it doesn’t explode. Place the apple butter back in the slow cooker.
3. Add the vanilla and cinnamon stick, stirring well. Cook for another two hours on high until dark brown and thickened. You can cook it longer for thicker apple butter. Remove the cinnamon stick and discard. Cool the sage apple butter and store in jars for up to a week.

Apple Stack Cake

Apple Stack Cake  

Can’t afford a wedding cake? An Apple Stack Cake might be the solution! According to legend at least, apple stack cake originated as an affordable alternative to a wedding cake. Friends and family would each bring a single layer of cake, which was assembled at the wedding. The taller the cake, the more beloved the bride was. While this is a somewhat charming recipe myth, there is no evidence it’s true. However, apple stack cake has historically been a widely popular recipe throughout Appalachia, including Western Carolina.

This is a recipe that is strongly suggested one make ahead up to a week in advance. Between each stack cake layer is a spread of apple butter or applesauce, which over time sinks into the cake, creating a rich, moist dessert. Recipes vary greatly, as some use dried apples to make the spread. Drying apples, making applesauce, and canning apple butter is a great way to preserve excess apples from family orchards, and the apple stack cake is a great example of the reconstitution of these ingredients.

Here are a few recommended Old Southern Apples for making apple butter or applesauce, straight from Calhoun’s letter binder.

“Old Yellow Sour Apple,” grown in Laurel Springs, NC. Letter from Hiram Bare. “There is one other apple specimen that we know of; “Old Yellow Sour Apple” (one tree left around here that we are aware of). These apples make about the best apple butter anyone could stand.”








“Hicks” apple, grown in Spruce Pine, NC. Letter from Frank Edwards. “The old apple I named “Hicks” for the old man Sparks. We bought this property from Hicks in ‘49 the old apple tree was growing in the field, and still is. The tree is more than 100 years old now. The fruit is not pretty, dull red mix with green… The flavor can’t be beat. Very good for cooking, apple butter, etc.”

“Wolf River” apple, grown in Avery County, NC. Newspaper article by Doug Hundley– “…one good for apple butter… All are great apples, serving different purposes, but there still are so many more great old time apples in Avery County.”


Sherri Castle’s Recipe for Apple Stack Cake

Yields: 12 to 16 servings.

Dried Apple Filling

1 pound (4 to 5 packed cups) dried unsulphured apples
1 cup firmly packed brown sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
½ teaspoon ground mace or nutmeg
4 to 5 cups water, divided

Cake Layers

5 cups all-purpose flour, plus more as needed
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
⅔ cup vegetable shortening
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup sorghum molasses
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1 cup well-shaken buttermilk

For the filling: Place the apples, brown sugar, cinnamon, ginger, and mace in a large saucepan. Add enough water to cover. Bring to a boil over high heat, reduce the heat to low, and let simmer, stirring frequently, until the apples are tender and the filling is very thick, about 1 hour. If the mixture gets dry, add more water. If it is soupy, continue to simmer until the excess cooks away. Use a potato masher to break up the apples into chunky sauce. Set aside.

For the cake layers: Preheat the oven to 350°. Grease and flour two 9-inch cake pans. You will be baking the layers in batches, for a total of six layers. (Alternatively, you can bake the layers one at a time in a greased and floured, well-seasoned cast-iron skillet, which is the traditional technique. Yet another option is to pat the dough into six 9-inch rounds and bake them on cookie sheets lined with parchment paper.

Whisk together the flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt in a large bowl.

In another large bowl, beat the shortening, sugar, and molasses with an electric mixer set to medium speed until the mixture is smooth and creamy.

Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition.

Add the flour mixture in thirds, alternating with half of the buttermilk. The mixture should be the consistency of cookie dough, so knead the dough together with your hands if that works better than the mixer. Add a bit more flour if needed.

Pour the dough onto a lightly floured work surface. Divide the dough into six equal pieces. Wrap each piece in plastic wrap so it won’t dry out. Use lightly floured hands to pat a piece of dough evenly into the bottom of the prepared cake pans. The dough should be about ½-inch thick. Lightly prick the dough all over with a fork, making a pretty pattern if you wish. Bake until the layers are firm when lightly pressed, about 15 minutes. The layers do not rise as they bake.

Turn out the first layer onto a large cake plate. Immediately spread it with one-fifth of the apple filling (about 1 heaping cup). Continue baking, stacking, and topping the warm layers. Leave the top layer bare.

Cover the cake with several layers of plastic wrap and then tea towels, or store it in an airtight cake carrier. Let the cake rest at room temperature for at least two days before cutting.