Anyone who has driven along US Route 13, anywhere from about Delaware to Virginia, has likely seen the signs. Amidst the miles of asphalt there dotted with advertisements for stands hawking farm-fresh produce and crabs, there are banners that shout “Smith Island Cakes.” They pop up all along the Eastern Shore.
But what is a Smith Island Cake? I recently traveled to visit a Maryland bakery in the town of Crisfield to find out. Aptly named the Smith Island Baking Company, they are bringing this delicious and indulgent Maryland cake to the world, along with the tradition behind it!
What IS a Smith Island Cake?
A Smith Island Cake is an eight-layer cake. Sometimes you’ll see ten layers or twelve, but generally, it’s an eight-layer cake. Each layer is a thin, moist sponge. Between each layer is a coating of frosting. The seemingly sky-high cake is then completed with a frosted exterior.
The “original” Smith Island Cake is a yellow sponge with chocolate fudge frosting. But there are a few other combinations that originated from the island and are considered traditional. Smith Island Baking Company offers the original flavors plus others such as cooked coconut, red velvet, and caramel cream.
The History of the Smith Island Cake
Just twelve miles off the coast of Maryland in the Chesapeake Bay is Smith Island. The only inhabited island in the state, it has had a small but loyal community since the 17th century. Roughly a hundred years ago, the women of Smith Island unwittingly invented the cake which bears the island’s name.
Each year, the island’s watermen would set out to harvest oysters. Each man’s wife would send along a care package of sorts that would usually include cake. But the standard two-layer cake, while tasty, would quickly dry out. So to try and solve that problem, and perhaps as part of a friendly community competition, the women started adding additional layers to the cakes. First a third layer. Then a fourth.
And once it had grown to eight to ten layers, the official Smith Island Cake as we know it was born. Now it’s the official dessert of Maryland!
A Visit to the Smith Island Baking Company
To learn more about the Smith Island Cake and the island itself, the kind people at the Smith Island Baking Company opened their bakery to my husband and me. Located in Crisfield, Maryland, the bakery has a shop where visitors can stop in for a cake.
The Story Behind Smith Island Baking Company
The Smith Island Baking Company is not merely a Maryland bakery company making Smith Island Cakes. The company originally started in 2009 on Smith Island. Seven local women did the baking while Maryland native Brian Murphy handled the business side of the house. But on the isolated island, the challenges were too great. Last fall they moved to their new location in nearby Crisfield. And they’ve continued to grow.
A Story of Community
The Smith Island Baking Company, like the island itself, is all about community. The recipes are based on those being made on the island for generations from family recipes. And the company strives to stay true to the original spirit of the Smith Island Cake.
Floor manager and Smith Island native Donna Smith led us on a tour through the baking process. Smith is one of the original Smith Island bakers who helped make the cakes the phenomenon that they now are. She’s also the only one of the original seven women left working in the company. There’s no one better to explain the process or the story behind the cake. And really, the Smith Island Cake is a story of community.
Inside This Special Maryland Bakery
The bakery and their shop are both run from their new facility and it’s really impressive. From mixing to mailing! They are able to make more than 800 cakes in a single day from start to finish. Not only are they making everything from scratch and largely by hand, but the cakes contain no preservatives. For that reason, they’re sold frozen. It’s an important fact to note considering that Smith Island Cakes have gone international and the Smith Island Baking Company is now shipping these cakes around the globe.
Tasting Is Believing
While you can easily and conveniently have the Smith Island Baking Company mail you a cake, if you’re in the neighborhood it’s worth a visit to their shop. Crisfield is a sleepy waterfront town. The bakery sits in a relatively residential neighborhood. My favorite part of the bakery is the dividing wall window. Visitors can stand in the shop and peek into the bakery where you can watch employees making, baking and assembling those multi-layered cakes.
Tasting is believing. The fudgey original yellow sponge with chocolate frosting is a classic combination. And you can really taste that the moist, thin but fluffy eight layers are homemade. The cooked coconut variety that my husband sampled was full of flavor and coconut. But these cakes aren’t playing around. They’re very rich without being too sweet.
The secret ingredient? Paying tribute to community and baking from the heart.
Getting to the Smith Island Baking Company
The Smith Island Baking Company is located in Crisfield, Maryland, on the state’s Eastern Shore just off of Route 413. The shop has plenty of free parking.
If you can’t make it in person to visit this Maryland bakery, you’re in luck! The company sells cakes on their website.
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Thank you to the Smith Island Baking Company for hosting us! All photos, as well as all opinions, are my own.