Not far from the nation’s capital where governmental transitions and hand-offs are in full swing--preparing moving vans and measuring drapes--is a place where another political cake is being baked.
Smith Island, Maryland’s only inhabited island in the Chesapeake Bay, is located 12 miles west of the mainland near Crisfield, Maryland. The 4.5 square mile island, accessible only by boat or ferry, has a total population of just under 300 people living on the barely high ground nestled among the large estuarine marshes characteristic of the beautiful Chesapeake Bay.
Here, the ingredients of the eponymous cake came together. The Smith Island Cake is thought to be either a relative of the Hungarian Dobos Torte or perhaps a Welsh confection brought in by the earliest settlers. Regardless, this impressively tall layer cake has earned its stratified stripes as a boon to the local economy, as fishing and crabbing industries--once a mainstay on the island--have ebbed.
This decadent cake sometimes known as “frosting with cake” is usually composed of at least six but as many as twelve pencil-thin layers of buttery yellow cake. Rich chocolate fudge icing is slathered in between each layer and over the whole, ensuring that the cake will remain moist and decadent to boot. Other less traditional flavors such as coconut, fig, strawberry, lemon, and orange are also common. Local lore claims the original cake was a mere four layers high, but the ladies of Smith Island began to stack the layers as a form of friendly competition during local fundraisers.
Many residents of Smith Island credit the late Frances Kitching, doyenne of island hospitality, with popularizing the treat and in October 2008 then-Governor Martin O’Malley and The Maryland State Legislature established the Smith Island Cake as the "Official Maryland State Dessert".
The residents of Smith Island successfully campaigned that their beloved treat be given perpetual recognition. While the nation once again approaches the eve of another patriotic happening, this is a cake all can take a bite of, pleasing to any constituency.
Bill Hogan, Chicago Tribune
Smith Island Cake Recipe
yield: 16 servings
For the cake:
8 ounces (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature, cut into chunks; plus more for greasing
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 frosting:
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
1. Position an oven rack in the middle of the oven and 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.
2. Sift together the flour, salt, and baking powder.
3. Combine the butter and sugar in a large mixing bowl and beat on medium speed until light and creamy. Add the eggs one at a time and beat until smooth.
4. Reduce the speed to low and add the sifted dry ingredients 1 cup at a time, beating well after each addition. Still on low speed, add the evaporated milk, then the vanilla and water, and beat until well combined.
5. Using a large serving spoon, place about 3 spoonfuls of batter in each of the cake pans (about 2/3 cup each); 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.)
6. While the cakes are baking, make the icing. Start by combining the sugar and evaporated milk in a medium saucepan over medium-low heat. Add the chocolate and butter and warm through, stirring often, until both have melted.
7. 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.
8. As the cake layers are done, run a thin rubber spatula around the edge of the pan and ease out the layers. Let them cool completely.
9. Place the bottom layer on a cake plate and gently 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.) When all the layers have been stacked and iced, cover the top and sides of the cake with the remaining icing, and serve.
Recipe Source: Adapted from “Mrs. Kitching’s Smith Island Cookbook,” by Kitching and Susan Stiles Dowell (Tidewater Publishers, 1981).
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