Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Snacking State-by-State: Maryland IV - Once on Smith Island

Like any other state, Maryland has its own sub-regional specialties, things you will most likely find in one part of the state instead of another.  In Southern Maryland, this is stuffed ham.  In Baltimore, it's the snowball.  And on the smallish Smith Island, the only inhabited island in the Maryland half of the Chesapeake Bay, it is the cake that bears the island's name.

Official Name: State of Maryland
State Nicknames: The Free State; The Old Line State; America in Miniature
Admission to the US: April 28, 1788 (#7)
Annapolis (24th largest city)
Other Important Cities: Baltimore (largest); Columbia (2nd largest); Germantown (3rd largest); Frederick (8th largest)
Mid-Atlantic, South, Northeast; South Atlantic (US Census)
RAFT Nations: Crabcake; Clambake; Chestnut; Maple Syrup
Bordered by:
The Mason-Dixon Line (north and east); Pennsylvania (north); Delaware and the Atlantic Ocean (east), Virginia and the Potomac River (south and southwest); District of Columbia (southwest); West Virginia (west and southwest)
Official State Foods and Edible Things: blue crab (crustacean); rockfish, aka striped bass (fish); Diamondback terrapin (reptile); Smith Island cake (dessert); milk (drink)
Some Famous & Typical Foods: Chesapeake Bay foods, especially based on blue crab, oyster, clam, shrimp & fish; historically, foods of the Upper South (especially fried chicken, stuffed ham, beaten biscuits & Brunswick stew); cuisines that reflect a broad multicultural landscape closer to Baltimore (Italian, Polish, Ukranian, German, etc) and Washington (Latin American, West African, Southeast Asian, Korean, etc)

This is not my first attempt at a Smith Island cake, the official state dessert of Maryland.  I tried it a few years ago, but quickly gave up after destroying the second and third thin layers just by trying to remove them from the cake pans.  For anyone who has never tried to make one, it is a challenge.  In her book Dishing Up Maryland, Lucie Snodgrass discusses the Smith Island cake in a vignette with innkeeper Susan Evans, a thirteenth-generation Smith Islander who has been making Smith Island cakes like women in her family have for perhaps hundreds of years.
Lore has it that the original families baked [the first Smith Island cake], although it only had four layers at the time.  Over the years the height of the cake grew as the women competed against each other to see who could make the most layers.  Today, Smith Island Cakes most commonly vary from eight to eleven layers,, depending on who's making it...  Assembling and icing the cake can be tricky and takes years of practice, Evans says.  She learned to make the cake from her mother, who learned form her mother mother, and so on.  "It's an island thing," Evans says, shrugging.  "They've always been made, and every woman knows how to make one." [Snodgrass 2010: 273]
Instead of using Susan Evans' recipe, I found a very popular printed version of the recipe on the Visit Somerset County website, attributed to Smith Islander Frances Kitching.  This is the version I used.

Recipe: Smith Island Cake

For the Smith Island cake, you will need the following ingredients, plus a lot of patience.

* flour (of course)
* evaporated milk, not the regular kind (don't have enough? just reduce regular milk over a simmer - just below a low boil - stirring constantly, until reduced by about a third)
* baking powder (not pictured - I knew I forgot to include something)
* several eggs
* vanilla
* granulated sugar
* several sticks of butter
* salt
* unsweetened cocoa (squares or powdered)
* water (this is an ingredient in the cake batter, and again i forgot to include it)

You will also need several cake pans.  Don't have ten of them just sitting around?  You will need to reuse the same three or four over and over.  Also, Mrs. Kitching's recipe calls for 9-inch cake pans.  All I had were 8-inch ones, which suited me fine.

First, cream the sugar and butter together.

And add one egg at a time to the mixture.

Sift the other dry ingredients together and add them about a cup at a time to the batter.

Still adding...

Your evaporated milk goes in next.

And then the vanilla and water until you just form a loose batter.

As shown here.

 Now comes the next of several tedious steps: the baking.  Grease the bottoms of as many same-sized cake pans as possible, and fill with a heaping serving spoon of batter.  I'm not sure what Mrs. Kitching meant by that measure, but I took a wild guess and grabbed a large spoon to fill each cake pan.

Plop the batter in the middle of the cake pan...

...and smooth it around the bottom with the spoon.  It is supposed to be this thin.

 Bake at 350°F for 8 minutes, and let cool a bit.  I found that trying to remove it once completely cooled actually made it tear more easily, so I tried to get it out of the pan while it was still warm.  You will need a towel for this, of course.  And these things tear easily, so you must be slow and deliberative.  What I did was take my knife and move it around the edges of the layer (yes, it already has pulled away from the side, but this helps), and slowly and carefully start to work it under the layer.  If well greased enough, the layer should eventually, and slowly, fall out.  Keep your hand over it at all times to prevent breakage or folding over, and either pile each layer by itself or (if you lack the room to do so) separate them with parchment or wax paper.  Please do not stack the steaming layers one on top of each other with nothing in between.  You will end up with one big layer of cake.

While baking your many layers of cake, prepare the frosting - a simple, cooked sugar frosting.  Start with more evaporated milk and sugar, stirring and warming them together.

Next add your unsweetened chocolate: either squares or the equivalent amount of cocoa powder and oil/shortening.
Add to that one stick of butter, and melt it all together, stirring.

When it coats the back of a spoon (okay, this is the front of the spoon.  Use a little imagination here.), set it aside for 30 minutes.  Impatient that I am, I stuck mine in the fridge to cool down a little faster.

Finally, you have your layers ready to assemble.  I found that I had enough batter for twelve layers - ten plus a few extra in case I messed some of them up.

For example...

To assemble the Smith Island Cake, place a layer on your serving plate, and spread some icing on top of it.  I used a spatula at first but eventually I found that a spoon was easier to use.

News flash: some of your layers will break and tear.  One tore into a few little pieces.  Mrs. Kitching tells us in her recipe not to worry about it - when the cake is assembled, no one will notice.  I did, however, try to sandwich the broken layers in between the ones that didn't manage to come apart.

Worry about icing the layers first.  Don't worry about the sides until everything else is stacked and iced together.  I found that I had just enough icing to cover this cake, so if I undertake this again I will make a little extra.

This new attempt at tackling the legendary Smith Island cake worked for me this time.  Though it wasn't as pretty as I had hoped it would be, the spongy layers sandwiched between ganache and all compacted one on top of the other make for a deceptively filling - and I mean "filling" - cake.  I am not sure how I will be able to finish all this, even with sharing it with others.  But at least now I can finally say I have tangoed with the Smith Island cake and survived.  Even if this Western Shore man can't say he's an expert like generations of Smith Island women, at least I came up with a lovely, sweet and dense cake that actually turned out.

- - - - -

And so my culinary tour of my home state is done, and I am more familiar than ever before with some classic Maryland recipes as well as a few that have been added to the state's increasingly varied multicultural landscape.  Now I head up north, back across the Mason-Dixon and up to New England again, for an exploration of that other bay state, Massachusetts.


"Crab Cakes".  Recipe from the author's family.

Fowora, Simbo.  "Jollof Rice".  Featured on the episode "Nigerian Dinner" of the show Sara's Secrets (Sara Moulton, host).  Food Network, 2006.

Gibbon, Ed.  The Congo Cookbook.  1999-2009.  Available as a downloadable book from and reprinted on the website

Hafner, Dorinda.  A Taste of Africa.  Ten Speed Press: Berkeley, CA, 1993.

Kitching, Frances.  "Smith Island Ten-Layer Cake-Mrs. Kitching's Original Recipe". Reprinted on the "Fun Stuff" page at the website (website for Somerset County, Maryland).  2007-2010 Somerset County Tourism.

Shields, John. Chesapeake Bay Cooking. Broadway Books: New York, NY, 1998

Shields, John. "Foreward".  In Dishing Up Maryland by Lucie Snodgrass.  Storey Publishing: North Adams, MA, 2010.

Snodgrass, Lucie.  Dishing Up Maryland.  Storey Publishing: North Adams, MA, 2010.

Walter, Eugene.  American Cooking: Southern Style.  From the series Foods of the World.  Time-Life Publications: New York, NY, 1971

Some information also obtained from Wikipedia's "Maryland" page and other pages, and the Food Timeline State Foods link to "Maryland".


theminx said...

I had a brilliant idea for making a Smith Island cake, bought cake mix to experiment, then promptly forgot about it. Might have to play around with it this weekend!

John said...

You should! It's not that difficult, really. Actually scratch that: it IS that difficult, but only if you try to rush through it like I did that first time. I found that extra icing, wax paper, extra batter and overly re-greased pans all helped me very much.

theminx said...

My brilliant idea doesn't involve pans.... :)