How to Make a Smith Island Cake

Meet Smith Island Cake—a beloved Maryland dessert that's rooted in community and coated in chocolate.

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Across America, almost every state has a signature food or dessert that residents enjoy. In Maryland’s case, that recipe is the iconic Smith Island cake.

What Is Smith Island Cake?

This recipe dates all the way back to the 1800s, when women on Smith Island would bake cakes for their husbands to enjoy during the island’s autumn oyster harvest. The cakes were intended to serve as a symbol of togetherness, and remind the oyster hunters of their loved ones waiting for them to return home. Today, the cake is famous in Maryland, especially along the Eastern Shore.

At its core, a Smith Island cake is a cake made of many thin, pancake-like layers of yellow cake separated by decadent fudge icing. It’s somewhat like a crepe cake but with fewer, thicker layers. While this flavor combination is considered the original, bakeries on Smith Island and along the Maryland coast have begun deviating from the classic recipe, offering flavors such as coconut, double chocolate, red velvet and lemon.

How Many Layers Does a Smith Island Cake Have?

Unlike traditional layer cakes that have only two or three layers, a Smith Island cake has anywhere from eight to 13 layers of moist, yellow cake. Ultimately, it’s up to the individual baker to determine exactly how many layers to use in their cake. In our recipe, we’re following the guidance of Brian and Joy Murphy, owners of the official Smith Island Baking Company in Maryland. Their famous cakes feature eight layers of fluffy, moist cake.

What Type of Frosting Does a Smith Island Cake Have?

Another key element of a Smith Island cake is the frosting. Instead of buttercream, it uses a rich, fudge-like frosting. Historically, this type of frosting was used because buttercream did not hold up as well while being transported on the annual oyster hunts. Today, the use of this type of frosting is simply a matter of tradition.

How to Make Smith Island Cake

a close-up photo of a slice of smith island cake on a plate with a forkLauren Habermehl for Taste of Home

Ingredients

Yellow Cake

  • 1-1/2 cups butter, softened to room temperature
  • 2-1/4 cups sugar
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1-1/2 cup buttermilk
  • 1-1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 3-3/4 cups cake flour
  • 1-1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 2-1/4 teaspoons baking soda
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt

Fudge Frosting

  • 3 cups sugar
  • 1-1/2 cups evaporated milk
  • 8 ounces unsweetened chocolate, roughly chopped
  • 3 tablespoons cocoa powder
  • 1-1/2 sticks (3/4 cup) unsalted butter
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Tools You’ll Need

  • If you’re in need of cake pans, look no further than our Taste of Home 9-inch nonstick cake pans. They have an embossed design that not only strengthens the pan but also increases airflow for even baking.
  • Anyone who bakes on a regular basis should invest in a quality stand mixer like this KitchenAid Artisan stand mixer.
  • An offset spatula like this 13-inch version by Wilton will make icing cakes a breeze. Its angled design helps spread frosting evenly over a cake for a clean look.

Directions

Step 1: Mix the cake batter

smith island cake batter mixedLauren Habermehl for Taste of Home

In a bowl, blend flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt together. Set aside. Next, in a stand mixer, cream together butter and sugar until fluffy; about 3 minutes. Add the eggs and vanilla and mix on low until combined. Next, gradually incorporate the dry ingredients, mixing on low until everything is moist; about 1 minute. Finally, add in the buttermilk with your mixer on its lowest speed until the batter is smooth and no lumps remain.

Step 2: Bake the layers

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Then, prepare two 9-inch cake pans by greasing them with butter and lining with parchment paper. We will be baking two cake layers at a time—we’re going to assume you don’t have eight 9-inch cake pans in your cupboards!

weighing smith island cake batter for even layersLauren Habermehl for Taste of Home

Add about 3/4 cup (212 grams) of the cake batter to each pan and then spread into an even layer using the back of a spoon.

identical layers baked for smith island cakeLauren Habermehl for Taste of Home

Bake for 10-12 minutes or until the cake is slightly golden and set in the middle. Remove from the oven and let cool in the pan for 5-10 minutes, then carefully remove the cake layers and transfer to a wire rack to finish cooling. Repeat until all eight layers are baked.

Get our best cake baking tips we learned from Grandma.

Step 3: Prepare the fudge frosting

making fudge icing for smith island cakeLauren Habermehl for Taste of Home

In a medium saucepan over medium heat, whisk together the sugar and evaporated milk and cook until the mixture is warm. Reduce the heat to medium-low and then add the chocolate, cocoa powder and butter. Stir the mixture until the chocolate and butter have melted and the mixture has warmed through. Continue to cook the frosting until it has thickened, about 6-8 minutes. Remove from heat and then stir in the vanilla. Let cool to room temperature.

Editor’s Note: The fudge will be thin at this stage. Don’t worry, it will continue to thicken as it cools.

Step 4: Assemble

layering fudge between each layer for smith island cakeLauren Habermehl for Taste of Home

Begin by placing the bottom layer of cake on a plate or cake stand. Then, spread a generous, even layer (2-3 tablespoons) of fudge frosting over the cake. Top with the next layer of cake and then repeat.

a finished smith island cake covered in homemade fudge icingLauren Habermehl for Taste of Home

When you reach the final layer, spread the remaining fudge frosting on the top and down the sides of the cake. We recommend using an offset spatula to get the frosting nice and smooth.

Editor’s Note: Don’t be too concerned if you get a few tears in your cake layers along the way. Even once sliced, these imperfections will not be noticeable on the finished cake.

Next, plan to make more classic recipes from Maryland.

How to Store Your Cake

Store leftovers of Smith Island cake in a covered cake carrier at room temperature for up to 2-4 days. If you live in a warm climate or your kitchen runs hot, you may also store the cake in the refrigerator to prevent the fudge from melting. If stored in the fridge, be sure to store the cake in an airtight cake dome to prevent it from drying out.

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Lauren Habermehl
Lauren Habermehl is a recipe developer, food photographer and creator of the blog, Frydae. She is a prolific quoter of FRIENDS, lover of weekend DIY projects and procrastinating fitness enthusiast who enjoys exploring the Milwaukee-area with her husband, daughter and ugly mutt named Tyson Doodles.