This dish is now designated as the official dessert cake of Maryland. On October 1 2008, the Maryland state legislature passed a proclamation declaring Smith Island cake the official dessert of Maryland. This cake can be made using any number of recipes for cakes. The distinction is made by the number of layers. The cake is made almost the same way as pancakes are made, but instead of using a skillet or flat top, they are baked in cake pans in the oven in small layers.
The process involved in this cake is really the distinctive part of this dish. It is not so much what cake you make, but rather that you have at least twelve layers to it. This cake has long been a distinctive culinary preparation on Smith Island and has placed itself in many distinctive Maryland food traditions such as the crab derby and state fair. Often time’s competitions are held to determine who makes the best or most distinctive versions of this dish, but it is actually more of a technique than a recipe.
There are three towns on Smith Island: Rhodes Point, Ewell and Tylerton.
This recipe is a popular cake made by the devout members of the community of Smith Island. Methodism is the dominant religion on Smith Island. It was converted during the great revival period along the Eastern Shore around the turn of the nineteenth century. Smith Island holds two distinctive messengers of the faith as their own. One is the “Parson of the Islands,” Joshua Thomas, and the other is the legendary” Aunt” Caroline.
The legend of Aunt Caroline is that she is the patron saint of Smith Island. She was a woman who never turned down a neighbor in need and always gave wise counsel to her friend and neighbors. The story goes that one day shortly before Christmas the oyster fleet was returning to Smith Island for the Christmas holiday. A fierce winter storm blew into the Bay and the ships were pummeled by gale force winds. The storm blew itself out and the temperature dropped below zero. The harbors were blocked by frozen ice and the jagged sharp piles of ice surrounded the ships that were held just offshore, unable to move. Ice of this kind can rip into hulls and the freezing temperatures of the water will kill a man quickly in its frigid embrace.
The women were gathered along Rhode’s Point watching the scene unfold, agonizing over the fate of the men, when Aunt Caroline arrived. She knelt down on the frozen ground and raised her voice up to heaven. Soon the other women joined her in her lament and as they prayed, the ice began to crack and rumble upwards zigzagging a path along the ice towards the stranded boats. The oyster boats sailed into the harbor without a single man lost and as they disembarked to a stunned audience the ice behind the ships froze over again after the men had safely returned home.
Her grave is marked still on Smith Island and is carefully tended to this day. She is remembered for her sound advice and good deeds through the legends and stories told about her.
“The memory of the just is blessed to generations following and it becomes a grateful, and a useful task to perpetuate the influence and example of a good life – Such a life is that of Joshua Thomas”
– The Rev. James A Massey
Joshua Thomas is known as the “Parson of the Islands,” He is unique in that he was a native of both Smith Island and the Neighboring Tangier Island across the Virginia line. He was born on Smith Island but after the death of his father he moved to Tangier with his mother and step-father. After that he was apprenticed to a waterman named Captain David Taylor, who although, not schooled in any real sense of religion, lived as a model example of the virtues he did understand. This impressed the Young Joshua as he was sort of adopted by the Tyler family. He spent his time conversing with the people of Crisfield, Tangier and Smith Island about God and all things spiritual.
At the age of twenty three, he got married and bought a small house on Tangier Island. As Methodism spread throughout the Eastern Shore, Joshua was often hired as a guide to help traveler’s transverse the marshes and help carry them to the great revival meetings held on the islands and along the shorelines of the eastern Shore.
At first he stayed back, watching and listening to the meetings and the preachers who led the bush meetings, but eventually he was caught up in it and set out to embrace the teachings on his own. He traveled between the islands bringing the word of God to the people directly. In his log canoe, “The Methodist” he would transverse the small streams and rivers of the eastern shore and come right up to the houses to bring his message of redemption and one by one the islander’s came to believe.
His story does not end there; the legend was yet to be born. After the conversion of the region to Methodism, the plots of foreign lands brought war to the shores of the United States. The War of 1812 had begun. The British navel fleets moved in, and in preparation from the revolutionary war, they came experienced and weary of the New World and were better prepared to enter into armed conflict. They set up an armed base on Tangier Island and used it as a stronghold to terrorize the Bay region, burning and pillaging everything in sight. Their greatest moment of triumph came with the burning of Washington DC.
At this time Joshua was there on Tangier Island held as a prisoner or war by the British occupation. He continued to lead his congregation in their daily faith and was even respected by his British captors. He pleaded directly with Admiral Sir George Cockburn to preserve the prayer grove on Tangier and the British Naval officer gave his solemn word to spare the sacred place.
In August of 1814, the British were going to advance on the city of Baltimore.
“I warned them of the danger and distress they would bring upon themselves and others by going to Baltimore with the object they had in view. I told them of the great wickedness of war, and that God said ‘Thou shalt not kill!’ If you do he will judge you at the last day, or before then, he will cause you to perish ‘by the sword.’ I told them it was given me from the Almighty that they could not take Baltimore, and would not succeed in their expedition. I exhorted them to prepare for death, for many of them would, in all likelihood, die soon, and I should see them no more till we meet at the sound of the great trumpet before our final judge.”
– Joshua Thomas
The English listened to him speak, but they proceeded on to Baltimore. It was the decisive battle of the war and the final defeat of the British. On board a British ship as a prisoner of war, another Marylander, a poet, upon seeing the American flag flying above Fort McHenry penned the words that would become our National Anthem.
Orange Cream Layer Cake (Smith Island Style)
For the Filling:
2/3 Cups Sugar
3 Tbsp. A.P. Flour
1 Cup Orange Juice
2 Large Egg Yolks
2 Tbsp. Butter
1 Tb. Vanilla Extract
For the Cake:
2 ¼ Cups A.P. Flour
2 ½ Tsp. Baking Powder
1 Tsp. Salt
1/3 Cup Butter
1/3 Cup Shortening
1 Tsp. Orange Extract
2 Tsp. Orange Zest
1 ½ Cups Sugar
1 Cup Orange Juice
For the Frosting:
6 Oz. Butter (At Room Temperature)
4 ½ Cups 10X Sugar
1 Tsp. Orange Zest
5 Tbsp. Orange Juice
1 Tb. Vanilla Extract
1 Tsp. Orange Extract
Make the Filling: -) Combine the sugar and the flour. Whisk just to mix. Add orange juice and egg yolks and whisk to combine. Place over medium heat and cook, whisking constantly until the mixture boils. (3 – 4 minutes) Cook another minute, stirring constantly until it thickens. Be sure it boils for 1 minute. Remove from heat and stir in butter. Transfer to a bowl and cover with plastic wrap, (Lay directly on the surface of the filling mix to avoid a skin forming.) Chill Thoroughly.
Make the Cake: -) Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Sift together flour and baking powder and salt. Grease the bottom of two 9 by 1 ½ inch cake pan and line with a parchment paper round. Lightly flour both sides of the paper. In a mixer, cream together the butter and sugar until the mixture becomes light and fluffy. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and add eggs one at a time. Mix in well before adding another. Add sifted dry ingredients alternately with the orange juice one third at a time. Pour an equal amount of batter into each of the 12 pans. Tap pans to release air bubbles. Bake until a toothpick comes out clean, about 5 minutes. Cool the cake layer in the pan and then loosen the cake and cool completely on a baking rack.
Make the Frosting: -) Cream the butter in the mixer. Add confectioner’s sugar and salt and combine thoroughly. Add zest and mix to combine. Add orange juice and mix on high speed until well blended. It will be light and creamy Refrigerate.
Assemble the Cake: -) When all the components are cool, put one cake layer on a stand. Spread the filling over the top and place the second layer on top, repeat for remaining layers. Frost the cake with a thin layer to stabilize the crumbs and then apply the remaining frosting. Garnish with Orange slices or wedges.
My version of the cake is based on a cake recipe I got from Ris Lacoste at 1789. The orange vanilla flavor combination is my own addition. I added vanilla extract to two of the components and made the cake a little different. I have also done this same recipe in a different way and placed the batter in a Twinkie mold and then injected the filling into the middle.
The dish is really about the presentation of multiple layers. There are even devices now on the market which act as guides for cutting a cake into multiple layers. The traditional method is to bake several small layers in a cake pan and putting them all together much like a traditional Crepes Au Chocolate.
Old Smith Island Recipe
“Behold! There was a cake baker”
Judges 5:25 – 1 Cup Butter
Jeremiah 6:20 – 2 Cups Sugar
First Kings 4:22 – 3 ½ Cups Flour
First Samuel 31:12 – 2 Cups Raisins
First Samuel 31:12 – 2 Cups Figs
Genesis 43:11 – 1 Cup Almonds
Genesis 24:25 – 1 Cup Water
Isaiah 10:14 – 6 Eggs
Leviticus 2:3 – A Little Salt
Exodus 16:34 – A Large Spoon Honey
First Kings 10:2 – A Sweet Spice To Taste
First Corinthians 5:6 – 2 Teaspoons Baking Powder
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Grease and flour a large tube pan. In a bowl, sift together flour, salt, baking powder, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and allspice. In a large mixing bowl, blend together butter, brown sugar, honey and eggs. Beat until light and fluffy. Dredge dates, raisins and walnuts in ¼ cup of the flour mixture; set aside. Alternately add the remaining flour mixture and the milk to the butter mixture; beat until smooth. Add raisins, dates and walnuts. Spoon batter into prepared pan. Bake 1 ½ hours or until a cake tester comes out clean. Cool for 10 to 15 minutes before removing from pan.
Note: cover and refrigerate after serving.
Yield: 8 to 10 servings
This is an old classic recipe which is based on biblical scripture. The recipe is taken from various mentions of food and ingredients in the Bible and actually makes a good cake.
Seven Layer Chocolate Cake
1 Box Yellow Cake Mix Chocolate Icing:
5 Eggs 2 ½ C. Sugar
½ C. Butter, Softened ½ C. Butter
1 C. Sugar 1 C. Evaporated Milk
1 ½ C. Flour 3 Blocks Baking Chocolate
2 C. Water 1 Tsp. Vanilla
1 Tsp. Vanilla
Combine all cake ingredients in a large bowl. Mix until well blended. Put 2 heaping tablespoonful into each of the 7 greased 9” cake pans and spread evenly. Bake at 350° until golden brown. Cool. Spread chocolate icing between each layer, top and sides.
Icing: in saucepan, combine sugar, butter, evaporated milk and 2 or 3 blocks of chocolate, according to your taste. Stir well over low heat. Simmer until sugar is dissolved and starts to thicken. Add vanilla. Remove from heat and beat until spreading consistency. Spread on cooled cake.
This is a recipe for the traditional Smith Island Cake. It is a yellow cake with a chocolate frosting. This is the recipe which is considered the official dessert of Maryland.
Smith Island Fig Cake
1 C. Sugar ½ C. Margarine + 2 Rounded Tbsp. Crisco, Melted
2 ½ C. Flour 1 Pt. Preserved Figs, Mashed
Dash Salt Chocolate Icing:
1 Tsp. Soda 2 – 1 Oz. Unsweetened Baking Chocolate
1 Tsp. Baking Powder ½ C. Butter
1 ½ Tsp. Cinnamon 1 Box 10X Sugar
1 ½ Tsp. Cloves 1 ⅓ C. Evaporated Milk
1 ½ Tsp. Allspice 1 Tsp. Vanilla
1 C. Water
In a bowl, mix flour, salt, soda, baking powder, spices and sugar. Add eggs and figs. Add water a little at a time. Add cooled margarine and Crisco last. Stir until well blended.
Chocolate Icing: Melt chocolate and butter in 1 ½ quart saucepan over low heat. Add 10X sugar. Add milk a little at a time and stir until lumps are out. Turn heat on high until chocolate starts to bubble up, stirring constantly. Lower heat to medium, stirring 2 to 3 times. Let cook for about 3 minutes. Remove from heat and add vanilla. This recipe will frost a 5 to 7 layer cake.
This is a variation on the cake incorporating figs and is more closely aligned to the biblical cake list above.
SMITH ISLAND POEM
There’s a beautiful little island
Between Tangier Sound and Chesapeake Bay
It is called Smith Island
It is part or our good old U.S.A.
There are three parts of this island
We’re proud of them as can be
Ewell, Rhodes Point and Tylerton
Each a separate community
We have three lovely churches
In which to sing and pray
And a wonderful pastor whom we all love
To keep us from going astray
At Ewall there is a sacred spot
Which everyone holds dear
That spot is the old camp ground
Meetings are held once a year
It’s sort of like a homecoming
Where old friends meet once more
And our voices blend together
In the gospel songs of yore
Visitors come from far and near
Our island for to see,
They enjoy a style of cooking
And our hospitality
Our livelihood comes from the water
But we don’t plant the sea
God dose all the plantings
And he supplies all our needs
Some folk think us peculiar
To live in this isolation
But to us who live here
It’s the best place in the nation
We’re all god fearing people
Our standard of living is high
It’s a heritage left by our forefathers
And it’s something money can’t buy
We live like one big family
We love our fellow man
When anyone is in trouble
We lend a helping hand
I’m proud to live on this island
Between the sound and Bay
This little bit of heaven
Smith Island, U.S.A.”
This poem about says it all about Smith Island. It is a refuge for a culture which no longer exists in the world. They are proud of their traditions and their home. Smith Island has long been known for its fierce independence, brought about from its isolation. The modern world has now encroached on the inhabitants of the Island and have changed their way of life, so once again our desire to experience the past has destroyed the very thing we seek to experience.
This recipe has become a swan’s song for a way of life which is slowly eroding away in the modern world, much like Smith Island itself. We should hold onto this recipe to help us remember what was once a great way of life, in the land of pleasant living.
 The Smith Island Ladies Aux. Cookbook: Printed by G & R publishing Company 1987
 The Smith Island Ladies Aux. Cookbook: Printed by G & R publishing Company 1987
 Smith Island, Chesapeake Bay By Frances W. Dize, 1990 Tidewater Publishers, Centerville MD.
- An Island Trapped In Time (stilllifeprojects.com)
- Cakes Throughout U.S. History (Infographic) (friendseat.com)
- A New Food Quest! Maryland! (changeforbetterme.wordpress.com)
- 24 Hours on Tangier Island (thebittenword.com)