Smith Island Cake Poised for Maryland Fame

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Smith Island layer cake i

No one can fix the date when the first chocolate layer cake came out of a Smith Island oven, but the recipe goes back at least four generations. Elaine Eff for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Elaine Eff for NPR
Smith Island layer cake

No one can fix the date when the first chocolate layer cake came out of a Smith Island oven, but the recipe goes back at least four generations.

Elaine Eff for NPR
Whereas, Smith Island cake is a unique state tradition...
Jennifer Dize shows pans used to make the layer cake  in her kitchen. i

People frequently assume that the wafer-thin layers of the Smith Island cake are created by slicing up one huge layer. Not so! Here in the island kitchen of Jennifer Dize, the proof's in the pans. John Poole, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption John Poole, NPR
Jennifer Dize shows pans used to make the layer cake  in her kitchen.

People frequently assume that the wafer-thin layers of the Smith Island cake are created by slicing up one huge layer. Not so! Here in the island kitchen of Jennifer Dize, the proof's in the pans.

John Poole, NPR

Kitchen Window

Read about more delicacies of the Chesapeake Bay and try the recipes.

Recommended Reading

An Island Out of Time: A Memoir of Smith Island in the Chesapeake by Tom Horton

Unless you're a big fan of the Chesapeake Bay, it's likely you've never heard of Smith Island, let alone tasted the island's historic layer cake. It's an architectural wonder, with anywhere from six to 12 ultra-thin yellow cakes layered with chocolate, then frosted with the kind of confection some of us consider a reason to live.

"What's the secret?" says Smith Island baker Jennifer Dize with a secretive smile. "The cooked chocolate fudge icing."

I'll say. And that icing's very unforgiving stuff. Like an old-fashioned cupcake, it has the very thinnest glaze. Sneak a finger-full and there's no covering your traces, no swirling it back with a spatula into soft chocolate waves.

Understanding the temptation, the Maryland Legislature wants to make the cake legal. An eight-layer version of the Smith Island cake is likely to soon be designated Maryland's official state dessert. Only two other states have named one: Massachusetts (Boston cream pie) and South Dakota (kuchen).

Should the cake take the honor, it will then join Maryland's many other state symbols, among them the official cat (calico), crustacean (blue crab) and drink (milk).

And milk is just what you'll need to wash down a piece of Smith Island cake, likely too sweet for anyone who didn't grow up in those hard-core, butter-sugar-chocolate days of the 1940s and '50s. And it's probably too sweet as well for anyone who doesn't enjoy the tidal effects of blood sugar rising and falling.

(Who would have thought that white flour and granulated sugar would end up the food stuffs of only those hardy enough to tough 'em out?)

Nevertheless, a taste of Smith Island cake is a valuable clue into the community that gives the cake its name. It's a place where tradition rules — along with the Methodist Church and the no-liquor law — and where the rugged isolation of island life sets a premium on neighborly gestures both simple and sweet.

Recipe: Smith Island 10-Layer Cake

Smith Island layer cake, in progress and complete. i

Smith Island layer cake, in progress and complete. John Poole, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption John Poole, NPR
Smith Island layer cake, in progress and complete.

Smith Island layer cake, in progress and complete.

John Poole, NPR

Frosting

2 sticks butter

2 12-oz. cans evaporated milk

8 heaping tablespoons unsweetened cocoa

2 lbs. confectioners sugar

Melt butter. Stir in evaporated milk (off heat). Whisk in cocoa until smooth, return to heat and cook for approximately 10 minutes. DO NOT BOIL or scorch. Remove from heat and whisk in confectioners sugar slowly. Cook slowly until thickened and will stick to back of a spoon or to the whisk. (It will form a ribbon when you drizzle a spoonful onto mixture while cooking.)

Approx time: 45 minutes.

Cake

2 cups sugar

2 sticks unsalted butter, cut into chunks

5 eggs

3 cups flour

1/4 teaspoon salt

heaping teaspoon baking powder

1 cup evaporated milk

2 teaspoons vanilla

1/2 cup water

Cream together sugar and butter. Add eggs one at a time and beat until smooth. Sift together flour, salt and baking powder. Mix into egg mixture one cup at a time. With mixer running, slowly pour in the evaporated milk, then the vanilla and water. Mix just until uniform. Put three serving spoonfuls of batter in each of 10 9-inch lightly greased pans, using the back of the spoon to spread evenly. Bake three layers at a time on the middle rack of the oven at 350 degrees for 8 minutes. A layer is done when you hold it near your ear and you don't hear it sizzle.

Start making the icing when the first layer goes in the oven. Let the layers cool a couple of minutes in the pans. Put the cake together as the layers are finished. Run a spatula around the edge oft the pan and ease the layer out of the pan. Don't worry if it tears; no one will notice when the cake is finished. Use two or three serving spoonfuls of icing between each layer. Cover the top and sides of the cake with the rest of the icing. Push icing that runs onto the plate back onto the cake.

To Ice the Cake

Take one slightly cooled layer and spread with cooled frosting. Add crushed candy randomly on layer. (Reese's cups, Snickers, Milky Ways or whatever your favorite is — candy is optional as well.) Add next layers, frosting, candy and repeat process till the 10th layer. Do not add candy to final layer. Finish frosting the cake and sides. You may have to wait to ice the top and sides until the icing cools.

From Mrs. Kitching's Smith Island Cookbook by Frances Kitching and Susan Stiles Dowell. Copyright ©1981 by Tidewater Publishers. Used by permission of Tidewater Publishers, Centreville, Maryland (800-638-7641 • www.cmptp.com).

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