Smith Island has its own region-specific traditional cuisine. The most famous dish is a locally produced cake featuring 8 to 15 thin layers filled with creme, frosting and/or crushed candy bars. The cake is iced with a cooked chocolate icing. The cake is often made using a commercial cake mix but with unique additions such as condensed milk. It can also be made from scratch using flour. The most common flavor is yellow cake with chocolate icing but other flavors such as coconut, fig, strawberry, lemon, and orange are also common. Known simply as the Smith Island Cake, the dessert is baked for any occasion and not reserved only for holidays.
The cake is also baked as the feature prize for a local fundraising tradition called a cake walk which is a game played like musical chairs where donated cakes serve as the prize. Great attention is paid to the perfection of the layers and form of the cake. Before each round, the prize cake at stake is cut in half and shown to the players who pay to participate in the game. A poorly stacked cake may not attract many players and as a result, not raise as much money as a more perfectly executed cake.
On April 24, 2008, Smith Island cake was designated as the official dessert of the state of Maryland.
Some folks believe it was the late Frances Kitching, an innkeeper on the island, who called for the cake to be 10 layers, as it is in this recipe.
Smith Island Cake Recipe
For the cake
- 8 ounces (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature, cut into chunks; plus more for greasing the pans
- 3 cups flour
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1 heaping teaspoon baking powder
- 2 cups sugar
- 5 large eggs
- 1 cup evaporated milk
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 1/2 cup water
For the icing
- 2 cups sugar
- 1 cup evaporated milk
- 5 ounces unsweetened chocolate, chopped
- 4 ounces (1 stick) unsalted butter
- 1/2 to 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
For the cake: Position an oven rack in the middle of the oven; preheat to 350 degrees. Use butter to lightly grease ten 9-inch cake pans, or use 2 or 3 cake pans at a time and re-grease them as needed.
Sift together the flour, salt and baking powder.
Combine the butter and sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer or hand-held electric mixer; beat on medium speed until light and creamy. Add the eggs one at a time; beat until smooth. Reduce the speed to low and add the sifted dry ingredients 1 cup at a time; beat until incorporated. Still on low speed, add the evaporated milk, then the vanilla and water, beating until well combined.
Place 3 serving spoonfuls of batter in each of the cake pans (about 2/3 cup); use the back of the spoon to spread it evenly. Bake 2 or 3 layers at a time on the middle oven rack for 8 to 9 minutes. (A layer is done when you hold it near your ear and do not hear it sizzle.)
While the cakes are baking, make the icing: Combine the sugar and evaporated milk in a medium saucepan over medium-low heat. Add the chocolate and butter; warm through, stirring, until both have melted. Increase the heat to medium and cook, stirring occasionally, for 10 to 15 minutes. Remove from the heat and add the vanilla extract, stirring to combine. The icing will be thin but will thicken as it cools.
As the cake layers are done, run a spatula around the edge of the pan and ease out the layers. Let them cool. Place the bottom layer on a cake plate; spread 2 or 3 spoonfuls of icing on each layer. (Don’t worry if a layer tears; no one will notice when the cake is finished.) Cover the top and sides of the cake with the remaining icing; push any icing that runs onto the plate back onto the cake.
Adapted from “Mrs. Kitching’s Smith Island Cookbook,” by Kitching and Susan Stiles Dowell (Tidewater Publishers, 1981). Used by permission of Cornell Maritime Press/Tidewater Publishers, Centreville, Md.