Some recipes just aren't worth the time, too many steps, too many ingredients. Some just aren't worth the calories either! They might look good enough to cause one to salivate but they don't taste as good as they look - a waste of calories for sure! But this recipe...this is worth making. It's worth taking the time to bake 8 very thin cake layers and definitely worth the calories. Plus, this cake is not just dessert, it's a conversation piece...you will talk about this cake as you eat - it has a history and thousands if not millions of fans - not all cakes can say that!
The Smith Island cake originated on the island it was named for, Smith Island, Maryland, a 400 year old fishing village about 10 miles off the coast of the Chesapeake Bay. There are 250 residents on the island and it is only accessible by ferry. The island community was known as a "waterman's" home, so I suppose that would mean fishing and such. It was back in the 1800's that this recipe first appeared, and bakers took pride in making these cakes with the thinnest possible layers. The watermen would leave their homes to go do whatever it is watermen do and their wives would send along a piece of cake with them as a special treat. They began using fudge as the frosting between the layers instead of another type of frosting because it would last longer and the Smith Island Cake was born! It's been a favorite on the Eastern Seaboard for years and years and I finally decided it was time we found out why this cake is so loved and why it holds the distinction of being named the State Dessert of Maryland!
Of course you will discuss all of this when you serve the cake, but mainly you will discuss the fudge frosting. Oh my stars, it's decidedly different and delicious! As you can see, the cake layers are very, very thin and there are EIGHT of them...so unless you have eight 9-inch cake pans stacked up in your kitchen and a humongous oven or two, you will need to bake and repeat until all the layers are done...which is why this takes a while.
This is my sous chef Katie's arm in action...I let her assemble the first Smith Island Cake I made, it was fun for her and fun for me to watch, as she kept asking, "Should I put on more fudge?" More is always better but when it comes to this cake, more is a mess! So we tried to follow the recipe and just use what it said even though we both wanted more!
We didn't decorate the top of the cake, we were in too much of a hurry to get to the tasting...and once the first sliced was removed, we were treated to the most beautiful buttery-yellow layers that had us oohing and aahing...this is one dang pretty cake! We were hoping it would taste as good as it looked...and it did!
Just a week later I needed a birthday cake for some special birthday girls - the Smith Island Cake was the perfect choice - they all loved it! I tried to find 3 candles, that's all I needed but I could only find those two huge things...nothing ever seems to go according to plan but no one seemed to mind. You'll notice I didn't frost the sides of the cake - I used more frosting on the layers and didn't have enough for the sides...again, no one seemed to mind! Also, it is important that the fudge frosting is chilled and set before decorating the top of the cake...I didn't do that, I put the strawberries on the cake and then put it in the fridge to set but when I opened the door to get the cake out, the strawberries had slid off of the top of the cake! I carefully put them back into place, some were covered in frosting and once again, no one seemed to mind!
There isn't a short-cut when it comes to baking the layers - you'll just have to spend the time. If you baked one or two larger layers and then tried to cut them into smaller ones, you would end up with a crumbly mess and the layers wouldn't have the right texture, being just a teensy-bit crisp on the outside while spongy-soft on the inside. So don't waste your time trying that - it won't work and it won't taste the same. 'Nuff said!
Smith Island Cake - Adapted From Saveur Magazine
For the Cake:
24 tablespoons butter (3 sticks), melted, plus more for pans
3 1/2 cups flour, plus more for pans
4 teaspoons baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
2 1/4 cups sugar
2 cups milk
1 tablespoon vanilla
For the Fudge Icing:
2 oz. unsweetened chocolate, chopped
2 oz. semi-sweet chocolate, chopped
2 cups sugar
1 cup evaporated milk
6 tablespoons butter, melted
2 teaspoons vanilla
Optional: strawberries, raspberries, chocolate shavings to decorate top of cake
Make the cake: Heat oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour four 9-inch cake pans and set aside. (If you don't have four pans, use what you have and repeat as necessary to make 8 layers. Also, I lined my pans with parchment circles which made the layers really easy to remove and I highly recommend you do the same!)
Whisk together flour, baking powder and salt in a large bowl, set dry ingredients aside. In another bowl whisk together butter, sugar, milk, vanilla, and eggs. Pour wet ingredients over dry ingredients, and using a whisk, stir together until just combined; let batter sit for 15 minutes. Stir batter again until smooth, and then add 1 cup of batter to each prepared cake pan, smoothing with a knife until evenly spread. Bake cakes, rotating pans halfway through baking, until barely lightly browned, about 15 minutes. Let cakes cool for about 5 minutes, if you lined with parchment, if not, then let cakes cool for 10 minutes before removing and then invert onto wire racks to cool completely. Clean and dry pans, grease and flour again and repeat with remaining batter and baking process.
Make the fudge icing: Bring both chocolates, sugar, milk, and butter to a boil in a 6-quart saucepan over medium-high heat; cook, stirring often, until sugar dissolves, chocolate melts, and mixture is smooth and shiny, about 8 minutes. Remove from heat, and stir in vanilla; let icing sit until almost cool and thick enough to spread, about 30 to 45 minutes, depending on the temperature of your kitchen. (Frosting will thicken as it cools, if it gets too thick you can rewarm slightly until it is a spreadable consistency.)
To assemble cake: Place one cake layer on a cake stand and using an offset spatula, or a knife, spread the layer with 1/4 cup of icing or just a bit more; repeat with remaining layers, spreading icing over each layer before adding another. Before frosting the top and sides, refrigerate the cake for about 30 minutes, until icing is set, this is important to do (especially if the icing was on the warm side when you put it on the layers), to keep the layers from shifting. After the cake has set, if the icing is too thick to spread, rewarm slightly and then spread over top and sides of cake. Return cake to refrigerator for 30 minutes to let it set. Remove and decorate if desired and serve. Serves 10 to 12. This is a very rich cake so smaller slices are advised!
While totally NOT necessary, I decided the birthday girls needed to have their cake slices decorated just a bit more so I added a few tablespoons of smashed and sweetened strawberries...dang delicious my friends! This is truly a special cake - one that should grace your Easter table or your Christmas table and should definitely be made as a birthday cake for those people in your life that you love the most - it's that special!