fig. a: pretty on pink
When a certain someone requested a Smith Island Cake for a certain special occasion, Michelle rolled up her sleeves. She consulted a number of recipes, including one she found on Saveur.com, and what she found was that it was not uncommon to build Smith Island Cakes out of thin layers of cake-mix cake. Now Michelle being Michelle, she decided to try to create her own yellow cake from scratch because, well... Just because.*
But the problem with making your own yellow cake is that it's tough to create one that's capable of being baked in a thin layer and then moved. All those fancy ingredients in a box of Duncan Hines mix (emulsifiers, etc.) give cake-mix cake properties that are difficult to duplicate without being a molecular gastronomist. What Michelle determined was that it would take a yellow cake batter that was something like pancake batter to get the right architecture.
In the end, however, Michelle decided that it was a whole lot easier and not at all inauthentic to fall back on the expertise of Duncan Hines and the food empire he brought into being. In the end, Michelle followed Saveur's recipe (which is based on a recipe from Smith Island native Mary Ada Marshall) to a T.
Saveur's recipe calls for the cake to be constructed out of eight layers--a nice even number. Traditional Smith Island Cakes have been known to have been constructed out of twelve layers or more. Michelle being Michelle, she built hers out of nine. Nine fun-loving layers of cake. Count 'em. She also used really good cocoa. On its own, Michelle's three-flavor, nine-layer Smith Island Cake was an out-and-out sensation. With the addition of a scoop of vanilla ice cream, it got pushed into the fourth dimension.
So what exactly is Smith Island Cake? Well, in case you haven't figured it out, it's a tall, traditional, Southern layer cake that's composed of ultra-thin layers of cake (not unlike a torte) and that hails from Smith Island, Maryland. Icings and fillings can vary, but many feature chocolate icing and a combination of chocolate and peanuts as the filling (hence the Reese's peanut butter cups). Smith Island is located in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay, and it's famous for its cake--in fact, Smith Island Cake became Maryland's state cake (!) just a couple of years ago--but it's also famous for its dialect. Smith Island was settled in the seventeenth century, but existed in relative isolation well into the twentieth century. More regular contact with the mainland has eroded Smith Island's rather distinct culture, but a dialect with strong roots in seventeenth-century English is still spoken there.
You could just click on the link above to access Saveur.com's original recipe, but with Carpal Tunnel Syndrome rampant, we decided to save you any unnecessary clicking.
Smith Island Cake
8 large Reese's peanut butter cups, frozen
nonstick cooking spray
1/4 cup flour
1 x 18 1/4-oz. box yellow cake mix, preferably Duncan Hines
2 cups plus 3 tbsp. evaporated milk
16 tbsp. butter, softened
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1/2 tsp. salt
6 cups confectioners' sugar
1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa
Pulse 4 peanut butter cups in a food processor into small chunks; transfer to a bowl. Pulse remaining peanut butter cups into a fine powder; transfer to another bowl. Chill both until ready to use.
Heat oven to 350°. Grease four 8" round cake pans with cooking spray, dust with half the flour, and knock out any excess. Set aside. Put cake mix, 1 1/2 cups evaporated milk, half the butter, vanilla, salt, eggs, and 1/3 cup water into a large bowl; beat with an electric mixer until light and fluffy, 10–12 minutes. Divide half the batter between prepared cake pans. Set remaining batter aside. Using the back of a spoon, spread out batter so that it covers the bottom of each pan, making it slightly thicker around the edges than in the middle. Bake until cooked through and golden around edges, 12–14 minutes. Set aside to let cool slightly, then loosen cake layers with a knife and invert onto cooling racks. Wash and dry cake pans. Repeat process a second time with cooking spray and remaining flour and batter.
When all 8 cake layers have cooled, make the icing. Combine remaining milk, sugar, and cocoa in a medium pot; stir well, then add remaining butter. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until butter is melted and icing is shiny, 4–5 minutes. Let cool for 5 minutes. Stir well.
Spread a cake layer with about 1/4 cup of icing; sprinkle with about 1 tbsp. powdered peanut butter cups. Top with another cake layer and repeat process to make 8 layers in all. Frost outside of cake with remaining icing; sprinkle top with peanut butter cup chunks. Let sit for 2–3 hours before serving. The cake can be stored for up to a week refrigerated in an airtight container.
Makes one beautiful 8" Smith Island Cake.
* The Saveur recipe, like many others, also called for the use of Reese's peanut butter cups. As far as I know, Michelle didn't attempt to make those from scratch, but don't push her...