Made in Maryland: Smith Island Cake

To make Maryland's official dessert, no special ingredients or tools are needed -- just time and patience.

If you've ever eaten Smith Island Cake (preferably baked by Sugar Bakers and served at Catonsville Gourmet after shrimp bisque and soft crabs) you probably see it as a daunting dessert.  TEN layers?  It's served lying on its side for a reason.  But what better way to end your Valentine's Day dinner than with the official dessert of our state?  Honestly, it's a long process, but not too tedious or complicated.

This adventure started with a recipe from a cookbook, which supposedly got it from a Smith Island housewife -- but there were so many problems with it that the instructions below bear little resemblance.  

I recommend making the layers and icing one day and assembling the cake the next day, though if you got an early start you could conceivably do it all the same day and eat it that evening.  

Vanilla Cake: I used two cake pans, which means I had to wash them each five times -- no different, really, than washing ten pans at the end. I would recommend nonstick pans and silicone liners, which help the layers to pop out easily and quickly, although a well-greased pan would probably achieve similar results.

  • 2 cups granulated sugar
  • 1 cup butter
  • 5 eggs
  • 3 cups flour
  • 4 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 1/2 cups evaporated milk
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla

Heat oven to 350.  Cream the butter and sugar until fluffy; beat in eggs one at a time until well blended.  Sift together dry ingredients and add a little at a time, scraping down the bowl as needed.  Beat in milk and vanilla.  You should have about six cups of  batter.  

Grease pans and lay liners in them; measure out half a cup plus two tablespoons of batter in each pan.  Use an offset spatula or knife to spread the batter evenly across the bottom.  Bake for 4 minutes, then rotate the pans and change their positions (this ensures even cooking in an imperfect oven.)  Bake for another 4 minutes; meanwhile, cover a counter or table with waxed paper. Check layers: the outermost edges should be browned and crispy in places, and pulling away from the edges of the pan.  If they need more time, give them another minute, but it shouldn't take any longer.  Shake the pan from side to side to loosen the layer, then flip it out onto the waxed paper and peel off the silicone liner.  The cake should be spongy and golden throughout, and about 1/4-inch thick.

Now wash the pans and liners (don't use soap; the accumulated oil means each successive layer will release a little more easily.) and repeat the whole process -- grease, line, bake, rotate, bake, flip -- four more times.  Your kitchen will smell like heaven!

Once all the layers have cooled completely (at least an hour or two) stack them between new sheets of waxed paper and cover with your cake dome or a bowl. They'll be fine overnight.

Note: if you need to take an ant census for any reason, simply leave the original waxed paper, covered with sticky cake crumbs, on your dining room table overnight.  Any ant within 500 yards of your house will report for duty by the next morning.

Chocolate Icing: 

Smith Island Cake uses cooked chocolate icing, made on the stovetop.  The original recipe from the cookbook was unusuable; there was far too much liquid and it simply wouldn't set.  This one, which I found online and tinkered with, works much better.

  • 1 cup butter
  • 1 1/2 cups evaporated milk
  • 1 cup cocoa powder
  • 3 cups granulated sugar

Melt butter in a saucepan over low heat; add milk and cocoa and whisk until smooth.  Cook over low heat, whisking constantly, 10 minutes. Add sugar a little at a time and bring to a boil; boil one minute, then remove from heat and place in a larger pan filled with ice cubes. Continue whisking until mixture has cooled completely; cover and refrigerate overnight or until it has reached spreading consistency.


This part is easy if you take your time and are patient.  Place one layer on your cake plate or stand; cover with a scant 1/2 cup icing.  Spread carefully to the edges, trying not to scrape the bottom of the icing layer and expose any crumbs. Repeat eight more times (by the last layer, you'll be a pro!)  Icing the top and sides of the whole cake is really no different from an ordinary two-layer birthday cake; you can do a crumb coat first if you like (one thin layer that seals in the crumbs, followed by an outer layer that's crumb-free) or just push your luck with one thick layer.  

Refrigerate to set the icing, and when you serve it, be prepared for a lot of dropped jaws.  It really is a beautiful and delicious dessert!

Pat February 14, 2012 at 12:19 AM
Smith Island Cake is awesome!! ButI can't afford Smith Island Cake anymore. Since the Md. government is raping me of my paycheck every time I turn my head. But O'Malley and his cronies will make sure that it will cost so much to transport a Smith Island Cake from Smith Island to Crisfield Md.(toll increases, gas tax,etc....) and then distribute it to other parts of the state, that they will eventually go out of business. Or they can sell their cakes off that little island next to them that belongs to Virginia. Wouldn't surprise me if they don't attach a ''sin'' tax to your Smith Island Cake, as they are that good.
Emily Lowe February 14, 2012 at 01:52 PM
Well, it's about half and half. But the icing is really good -- like chocolate fudge, really -- so I don't mind, even though I'm the person who usually scrapes it all off!
K Q Bankert February 14, 2012 at 07:40 PM
Catonsville Gourmet usually has this cake available by the slice. Try it--you'll love the treat for yourself.
Bob Cross February 14, 2012 at 09:51 PM
One of the top 4 things out of the Bay!
Flyingfish December 30, 2012 at 05:13 AM
I have made this cake on a couple of occasions, 3 cakes total. The cake is tasty although a little heavy. But it makes it easy to move and stack during assembly. It's the same as the Kitchings recipe and so authentic. I too had trouble with the original frosting and had to go to a fall back quick butter cream my mom used to make. The addition of citrus brought some ooohhhhs and aaahhhhs. I want to try the authentic icing again and will reduce the evaporated milk by 50% to see if it will thicken.


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