Smith Island Cake

smith island cake

The Spruce / Jessie Sheehan

  • Total: 2 hrs
  • Prep: 60 mins
  • Cook: 60 mins
  • Setting Time: 2 hrs
  • Yield: 1 cake (12 slices)

Ultra thin layers of vanilla cake spread with the fudgiest of chocolate frostings is basically what all cake dreams are made. And this dreamy dessert exists in the form the Smith Island Cake—named for its home off the coast of Maryland. No one knows exactly how the treat—which is officially Maryland's state cake—came to have such an exciting place in mid-Atlantic history. Fudge was used in place of traditional buttercream frosting because it could hold up when shipped off with local oyster fishers. It became a Maryland staple and is still produced today on Smith Island.

The American classic requires that you make nine separate skinny layers of vanilla cake, which sounds a lot more daunting that it actually is. Because the layers are so thin, the fudgy frosting is absorbed by said layers—making for something awfully moist and truly delightful. The frosting for this cake is traditionally made with evaporated milk, as is the cake. In this recipe, just the frosting calls for it. Unsweetened chocolate is also traditional in the frosting, but here we add bittersweet chocolate to the frosting as well.

The cake layers bake quickly which speeds up the whole assembly process—despite the fact that you need to make so many!—and the final result is worth it, we promise. Moreover, the reaction you get when you slice into a Smith Island Cake in front of your guests cannot be beat and the fact that neither the cake nor the frosting requires a stand mixer, is pretty great, too.

Ingredients

  • For the Cake:
  • 2 cups granulated sugar
  • 1/2 cup vegetable oil
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 yolks
  • 1 1/2 cups whole milk
  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon fine sea salt
  • For the Frosting:
  •  2 cups light brown sugar
  • 1 cup evaporated milk
  • 3 1/2 ounces unsweetened chocolate (chopped)
  • 2 1/2 ounces bittersweet chocolate chips
  • 1/2 cup unsalted butter
  • 1 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt

Steps to Make It

  1. Gather the ingredients.

    ingredients
    Image by Spruce/Jessie Sheehan.
  2. Preheat the oven to 350 F and grease three 8-inch pans with cooking spray or softened butter. Line the bottoms with parchment paper.

  3. To make the cake, combine the sugar, oil and vanilla in a large mixing bowl and whisk vigorously to combine.

    vanilla sugar and oil
    Image Spruce/Jessie Sheehan.
  4. Add the eggs and the yolks, one at a time, whisking after each addition to incorporate.

    add the eggs . . .
    Image by Spruce/Jessie Sheehan.
  5. Add the milk and whisk a final time.

    add the milk . . .
    Image by Spruce/Jessie Sheehan.
  6. In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, soda and salt and with a flexible spatula, gently fold the dry into the wet in 3 additions. The batter will be lumpy, but it is forgiving, and you can give it a quick whisk before filling the cake pans.

    add the dry ingredients . . .
    Image by Spruce/Jessie Sheehan.
  7. Pour a scant 2/3 of a cup of batter into each cake pan and bake for about 10 minutes, rotating at the halfway point. The cake layers are ready when a toothpick comes out with a moist crumb or two.

  8. Let cool until the pans are easy to handle and then invert the layers onto cooling racks and repeat twice more with the remaining batter, cleaning, greasing and papering the pans between each round. When you are done, you should have 8 to 9 layers total.

    thin cake layers . . .
    Image by Spruce/Jessie Sheehan.
  9. Make the frosting while the layers bake. In a medium saucepan over medium heat, combine the sugar and evaporated milk and cook until the sugar melts.

    melted sugar
    Image by Spruce/Jessie Sheehan.
  10. Add the chocolates and butter, increase the heat to medium high, and cook until melted.

    melted chocolate and butter . . .
    Image by Spruce/Jessie Sheehan.
  11. Once melted, reduce the heat back to medium and stir occasionally until the mixture thickens, about 10 to 15 minutes. It should resemble hot fudge sauce.

    frosting ready to set up
    image by Spruce/Jessie Sheehan.
  12. Add the vanilla and salt, stir and transfer to a different vessel (to help it come to room temperature more quickly) and set aside to cool and thicken. You may place it in the refrigerator, stirring frequently, to speed up this process.

    all chilled and set up . . .
    Image by Spruce/Jessie Sheehan.
  13. To frost the cake, place a layer on a cake stand and spread a quarter cup of frosting over the layer.

    one layer frosted
    Image by Spruce/Jessie Sheehan.
  14. Place another layer on top and repeat. Continue layering and frosting until you run out of layers.

    two layers!
    Image by Spruce/Jessie Sheehan.
  15. Spread the frosting on the top of the cake and on the sides. Let the frosting set up for about 30 minutes before serving.

    all frosted . . .
    Image by Spruce/Jessie Sheehan.
  16. Decorate with sanding sugar or sprinkles if you wish.

    smith island . . .
    Image by Spruce/Jessie Sheehan.

Recipe Tips

  • The cake will keep up to 3 days on the counter lightly covered in plastic wrap.
  • If the frosting hardens while you are spreading it, warm it up briefly on the stovetop over low heat.
  • If you find yourself with not quite enough batter on the final round of cake-layer-baking, it is okay to make two or three layers of only 1/2 cup batter, for instance, if that is all you have left. Bake layers with less batter for about 9 minutes total.
  • Don't worry if you do not end up with all 9 layers—8 is fine too (or even 7!).
  • Double the recipe for the frosting if you want to thickly frost your cake.

Recipe Variations

  • If you do not have whole milk, you can substitute buttermilk or heavy cream.
  • Decorate with sprinkles or sanding sugar if you so desire.