A favorite Old Mill recipe is for Tennessee Chess Pie, a simple southern classic made with just eggs, butter, and sugar, with the addition of cornmeal and vinegar. In parts of the South, and certainly here in the East Tennessee mountains, lemon juice was a scarcity in baking, so vinegar was substituted for flavor. And when thickening was needed in cooking and baking, cooks turned to what they had on hand – cornmeal. So chess pie is a little different than other custard pies, and we love to bake it with our freshly stone-ground yellow cornmeal.
2. Place the sugar and butter in a large bowl and beat until creamy. Add the eggs, vinegar, cornmeal, salt, and milk and stir to combine well. Pour the batter into the pie crust, and place in the oven.
What’s a crumble? Sort of a crisp, but with bigger, crunchier, more crumbly pieces of oats and brown sugar topping. The cherries and sugar in this crumble cook down to sweet, delicious goodness.
When fresh cherries are not available, canned or frozen ones can easily be substituted. And, Anne Byrn suggests that to kick up the cherry flavor, even more, add a quarter cup of dried cherries. That’s a little trick that has carried over from some early settler’s of our area, for baking in when fresh ingredients were not available. Dried fruits and berries are full of intense flavor!
1. Place a rack in the center of the oven, and preheat the oven
to 375 degrees F. Set aside a 9-inch deep-dish pie pan.
2. Drain the cherries and place in a large bowl with dried
cherries and sugar. Toss to combine, and set aside.
3. For the topping, place the flours, brown sugar, cinnamon, and
salt in a large bowl and stir to combine. Or, place in the bowl of a food
processor fitted with a steel blade and pulse to combine. Cut the butter into
1/2-inch size pieces and distribute over the top of the bowl. Cut the butter
into the flour mixture with two knives or a pastry blender until the mixture
resembles a coarse meal. (Or, if using a food processor, pulse until combined.)
Stir in the oats and pecans. Work the mixture with your hands until it comes
together into loose pieces. Set aside.
4. Turn the cherries and any juice that might have seeped from
them into the reserved pan. Cover the cherries with the topping, using your
hands as needed to distribute it over the top. Place the pan in the oven.
5. Bake until the crumble is golden brown and the filling is
bubbling around the edges, 38 to 42 minutes. Remove to a rack to cool 20
minutes before serving warm in bowls with ice cream.
If you were invited to a wedding in the Appalachian mountains, you might be asked to bring a cake layer. For generations, a wedding cake has been constructed from these spice cake layers and filled with a thick and fragrant apple butter made from dried apples put up from the fall harvest. The more layers to the cake – 12 to 16, perhaps – the more popular the bride, or so the story goes. Stack cakes may contain other fillings, often lemon or coconut, but the original was and still is apple. Not calling for fancy and expensive ingredients, stack cakes use what people have on hand – modest baking staples like sorghum, flour, and vegetable shortening, and you could bake the cake in a cast iron skillet. Or you can use 9-inch round cake pans. The secret to a great stack cake is to bake it a day in advance and cover it so that the apple filling slowly seeps into the cake. To save time, use apple butter, such as the Old Mill Apple Butter, instead of making the filling.
15 to 16 ounces dried unsulphured apple rings (4 to 5 packed cups)
1 cup light brown sugar, firmly packed
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
4 cups water
5 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
2/3 cup vegetable shortening
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup sorghum or molasses
2 large eggs, at room temperature
1 cup low-fat buttermilk, at room temperature
Powdered sugar or sweetened whipped cream
1. For the filling, place the apples in a large non-stick skillet over medium-high heat. Sprinkle the brown sugar, cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg over the apples. Pour in the water, which should half-cover the apples. Bring the mixture to a boil, and once boiling, reduce the heat to low and allow to simmer, covered, for about 1 hour, or until the apples are soft and the mixture has thickened. Add a bit more water if needed. Remove the apples from the heat and let them cool. When cool, place them in thirds in a food processor and pulse until smooth but some chunks of apple remain. Or mash the apples by hand with a potato masher. You will have about 5 heaping cups of apples to spread between 6 cake layers. Set aside.
2. Meanwhile, for the cake, place a rack in the center of the oven, and preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Cut six pieces of parchment paper to fit in the bottom of six 9-inch round pans. Smear a bit of vegetable shortening on the bottom of the pans to hold the parchment in place, and set the pans aside.
3. Place the flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt in a large mixing bowl. Whisk to combine, and set the mixture aside. In another large bowl, place the shortening, sugar, and sorghum. Beat with an electric mixer on medium speed until the mixture is creamy and smooth, about 2 minutes. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating just until blended. Scrape down the sides of the bowl. Add the flour mixture alternately with the buttermilk, beginning and ending with the flour, and beating until smooth, 1 to 2 minutes. The batter will be thick, more like a cookie dough. Use a strong rubber spatula, if needed, to facilitate mixing.
4. Divide the batter into 6 equal parts. Each part will be about 10 ounces. Spread the batter out into the pans, using the rubber spatula or a flexible metal spatula. Place 2 to 3 pans in the oven at a time, depending on the size of your oven. Bake until the cakes are a light golden color and spring back when lightly pressed in the center, 14 to 16 minutes. Remove the pans to a wire rack to cool 3 minutes, then run a knife around the edges and turn out the warm layers onto the rack. Immediately spread 1 heaping cup of apple filling over the top of the warm layer. Top with a second layer, spread on filling, top with a third, and so on. Repeat the process for the rest of the batter until you end with the 6th layer on top.
5. Place the cake in a cake saver or under a cake dome for 1 to 2 days before serving. Before serving, sprinkle the top of the cake with powdered sugar or pile on whipped cream.
– Used with permission from Anne Byrn, author of American Cake. This recipe appears in American Cake (Rodale Books, 2016).
Start with fresh apples and an iron skillet and you wind up with an irresistible cobbler!
Old Mill Apple Skillet Cobbler
Makes 8 to 12 servings
2 9-inch pie crusts (see recipe below)
8 medium apples, peeled, cored and sliced 1/3-inch thick
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
4 tablespoons butter, cold, cut into pieces
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
Place a rack in the center of the oven, and preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Roll the pie pastry out to two 9-inch rounds. (Or use two pre-made crusts.)
Place one of the pastry rounds in a 10-inch cast iron skillet. Pile the apples into the skillet evenly. Sprinkle the 1/2 cup sugar over the top. Sprinkle on the cinnamon. Distribute the cold pieces of butter across the top.
Cut the remaining round of pie pastry into 1-inch strips. Lay 4 to 5 strips across the top of the apples, leaving a couple inches in between each one. With the remaining strips weave them in an over-and-under fashion to create a lattice pattern. Pinch the edges of the lattice strips to seal them to the bottom crust. Tuck any excess crust under to finish the edges. If desired, scallop the edges or press the edges down with the tines of a fork to create a finished look.
Brush the egg on top of the pie crust. Sprinkle the top of the crust with the tablespoon of sugar. Place the cobbler in the oven.
Bake the cobbler 10 minutes, until golden brown, then reduce the heat to 350 degrees and bake until the filling is bubbly and the apples are soft, about 45 to 50 minutes. Cover the cobbler lightly with foil if it starts to get too brown. Remove from the oven, and let it rest for 30 minutes. Spoon warm into serving bowls and serve with vanilla ice cream.
Place the flour and salt in a large mixing bowl, and stir to combine. Cut the shortening into small pieces and distribute over the flour. Cut into the flour using a pastry blender or two knives until the mixture looks like coarse meal. Sprinkle water over the mixture and stir with a fork until the mixture holds together. If still crumbly, add a little more water. Divide into two balls and place each on a sheet of plastic wrap or waxed paper. Press down on the balls to flatten, wrap securely, and chill 1 hour.
When ready to roll, place the dough rounds on a lightly floured board and roll to 1/8-inch thickness.