July 30, 2014

Maryland's Smith Island Cake

The fishing community of Smith Island, Maryland is the namesake of the state's official cake.Maryland is one of only a handful of states that have passed a legislative bill nominating a state dessert. The honor went to Smith Island Cake, a traditional dessert named for one of the few inhabited islands in the Chesapeake Bay. The pastry stands out for its unique composition, made out of anywhere from six to 12 wafer-thin cake layers stacked with a cooked chocolate icing that is more similar to fudge than frosting.

The cake is steeped in the tradition of the small island community. Smith Island has been home to watermen(Maybe define watermen for those of us who aren’t from Maryland) for over 400 years, resulting in a very tight-knit fishing community. Almost all of the island’s 250 inhabitants made their living off the Bay as fishermen and crabbers. However, as the health of the Chesapeake declined, the tiny tract of land accessible only by ferry began to be known more for their cakes than their seafood.

While the exact date of the cake’s creation is unknown, residents can remember it being around for generations. It is said that the dessert used to be the main attraction in a community fundraising event known as a cake walk. At these gatherings, participants would pay to play a game resembling musical chairs, the winner receiving a cake. Often, to entice participants, the Smith Island Cake that was to be given to the winner would be sliced in half, to demonstrate how well the multiple layers were stacked.

The key to making your own Smith Island Cake at home is to cook each of the many layers individually. Many wrongfully assume that the cake is made simply by slicing up one large layer into several smaller layers. In fact, tradition dictates that each of the many thin layers be baked individually, then assembled using a thick frosting.

A traditional Smith Island Cake is made with yellow cake and chocolate fudge frosting. However, many flavor variations are widely available. The thick, fudgy consistency of the chocolate frosting was first used because it was more resilient than thin icing. The cake needed a sturdy exterior because the wives of Smith Island often sent the cakes away with their husbands when they embarked on the fall oyster harvest. As a result, a tradition was born.

The Smith Island Cake joins other national dessert staples such as Boston creme pie and wild Maine blueberry pie as an official state dessert.