Monday, March 7, 2016

"The Secret Lives of Baked Goods - Sweet Stories & Recipes for America's Favorite Desserts" - Smith Island Cake (8 layers of decadence for my husband's birthday)

Date I made this recipe:  March 1, 2016 – my husband's birthday!          

The Secret Lives of Baked Goods – Sweet Stories & Recipes for America's Favorite Desserts by Jessie Oleson Moore
Published by:  Sasquatch Books, Seattle
ISBN:  978-1-57061-853-6
Recipe:  Smith Island Cake – p. 45-48

People my age often bemoan the fact that cursive – a/k/a handwriting – is a dying art.  These days, you can't walk two feet without seeing somebody punching out a message with their thumbs on the world's smallest keyboard ever, contained in a Smartphone.  Frankly, I don't know how they do it because I'm all thumbs myself (pun intended) and so when I send a message, I type it out with my finger.  Takes longer but there are fewer errors.

Yet even with fancy technology with my fingertips, I still take notes in cursive, in pen, on a pad of paper, rumors of their impending demise be damned!  And I still like to use a paper daily planner rather than electronic to note different events such lunch appointments, due dates for library books (it follows that I like actual books as well) and birthdays like the one my husband celebrated on March 1st.

This year, I didn't just mark down my husband's birthday, I left myself a note about what to make for that day.  In cursive.  But kids, just because I wrote it myself, doesn't mean I had an easy time translating it, especially since I penciled it in way back in January when I got the calendar.

And so it took me a minute to figure out what this notation "Mke Smith Island Lake from the Secret Liver of Bakel Goods" meant and it was...drumroll...  "Make Smith Island Cake from The Secret Lives of Baked Goods."  Oh so close, right?

You should know that I got consistently "C's" in penmanship when I was in grade school.

And so it came to pass that Andy's birthday cake this year was a Smith Island Cake from this newly-purchased cookbook.  I'm not sure why I selected it although I'm guessing it was because of the photo of this 10-layer cake, all bathed in chocolate frosting.  Well that, and the challenge of making something so tall and so "fancy." 

Still, every single recipe in this book was pretty much mouth-watering, even the "Toaster-Style Pastries" on p. 158 or the "Animal Crackers" found on p. 141.  Both of these recipes prompted a fond walk down the memory lane of my childhood.  I remember well when Pop-Tarts®(a/k/a "Toaster-Style Pastries") came on the market.  When I was younger, we traveled a lot and to save money, had breakfast in our room.  Pop-Tars® could be eaten warm or cold and so we often snacked on them before hitting the road.

And although I have very fond memories of one of my grandmothers giving me money so I could buy "Animal Crackers" (or whatever other sweet treat I could afford with a dime or a quarter), my best memory is a photo of my dad when he was about three, circa 1927, clutching the string from a box of "Animal Crackers" while posing for a formal photo.  I think that is just the coolest thing and might have to make the crackers "just because."

If you are craving "Whoopie Pies," you'll find the recipe here.  If you want to attempt "Girl Scout Cookies," look no further than p. 143.  And if you are feeling really daring (I wasn't), then try your hand at a "Baked Alaska" on p. 89.

All in all, this is a very fun cookbook and I'm glad someone (not me) took the time to unearth these classic favorites and publish them.  There was just one teensy, teensy problem with the recipe I selected and that was that the author left out instructions on how and when to incorporate the milk listed as a frosting ingredient.  She also did not designate a measure for the cocoa used in the frosting; all it said was 2/3 but 2/3 what?  Teaspoon?  Cup?  Other?

[Insert gasps of horror here!]

Faithful readers of this blog know that I am never amused when instructions are missing and/or unclear.  And really, there's no excuse for a modern day cookbook (or any book, really) to leave out something so critical; this is what editors are for!  So for that one tiny error, I have to ding the author and yesterday, I emailed her regarding the omission and that is all I have to say about that.  Well, not all...keep reading.

So the Smith Island Cake is a thing of beauty what with its 10 layers and all.  Or, if you are me, 8 layers.  Do know that I put all the batter into a measuring cup and then divided it by 10 so I knew how much to measure out for each layer and yet, 8 layers was the best I got.  You should know though, that I got about the same grades in math that I got in penmanship so...

Also?  Some of the layers needed extra baking time and I don't know why because they all had about the same amount of batter but such is life—the "secret life" – of baked goods.  At any rate, plan on baking them for a couple more minutes and just know that you'll still come away with moist layers. 

Okay, so let's turn our attention to the Smith Island Cake Frosting Debacle of 2016.  The ingredients were:  1 cup butter; two 12-ounce cans evaporated milk; 2/3 (cup?  All it said was "2/3") and 8 cups confectioners' sugar.  Easy enough, right?

Sure.  So I started making the frosting, as directed, melting the butter and cocoa powder in a pan but then the recipe unraveled.  After whisking that mixture until smooth, I was to return it to the stove to cook for about 10 minutes.  Then I was to add the confectioners' sugar.  As to the milk, your guess was as good as mine.  I read and re-read and re-read the instructions some more and could not see where I was to add the milk.  And so I scanned the page and sent it to my birthday-boy husband asking him to find the milk instructions.  He could not.  They were not listed. He suggested looking on the internet to see if I could find a similar recipe for the frosting and I did and then ended up using that...but more on that in a bit.

Okay, so...punt, right?  So I decided to add the milk to the melted butter and cocoa powder mixture then cook that for 10 minutes and then add the confectioners' sugar because that just felt right to me.

And it might have been right had not the entire mixture boiled over when I glanced away for a second.  A second!  And I didn't even have the chance to cook it on medium-low as directed.

Excuse my language, but this was a total WTF moment for me.  I rarely have something go wrong but now I had the cake frosting go wrong in such a way that I spent a half hour just cleaning the junk off my stovetop.  You should know that when sugar contacts a gas burner, it basically turns the mixture to brittle and it was a bitch to clean!

At this point,  Andy came home from work and I wished him a happy birthday, got on my coat, got my car keys and told him I'd be back soon as I had to make another grocery run because I used up every ingredient I needed for that freaking frosting!

And so onward to Rainbow (grocery store) it was but this time around I Googled "Smith Island Cake Frosting," found two recipes, one from the source itself – Smith Island – ( and purchased the ingredients listed there.  You should know that Smith Island Cake (and frosting) is the "official" dessert for the state of Maryland.  The things I learn....

At any rate, the ingredients of the "official" frosting recipe were a little easier to work with but I was still not satisfied with the appearance of this frosting.  It tasted great (as did the cake) but it was very grainy.

In the end, all that mattered was that Andy liked his birthday cake and he did and so that's all there is to that.  And okay, so I would have been bounced from a CIA (Culinary Institute of America) test kitchen because my god, the mess these recipes made was unbelievable but all we care about is the end result.  And given that Andy spent last year's birthday stuck overnight in Newark's airport with me due to a snowstorm, a little cake batter here and a little (read: lot) of boiled-over frosting there still made for a most-excellent birthday. 

Please note, I'll list both frosting recipes below and if I hear from the author, I will post a correction.

Smith Island Cake – makes one 9-inch 10-layer cake (16 servings)

As the author notes, this cake takes some time to bake and assemble so gird your loins, bakers!
Cake Batter
3 ¼ cups cake flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
1 ¾ cups sugar
5 large eggs
1 cup evaporated milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
½ cup whole or 2% milk
6 ½ cups Chocolate Frosting
Chocolate Frosting
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter
Two 12-ounce cans evaporated milk
2/3 [cup?] unsweetened cocoa powder
8 cups confectioners' sugar

*Ideally, you would use 10 separate 9" cake pans to make these recipes but if you don't have 10 (and really, who does?), then let the cake layers cool then remove them and clean the pans to reuse.

Position a rack in the center of the oven; preheat the oven to 350F.

Grease then line with parchment paper all the cake pans you have gathered. 

In a medium bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt.  Set aside.

In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter and sugar on medium speed until light and fluffy, about 3 to 5 minutes.  Add the eggs one at a time, pausing after each addition to scrape down the sides of the bowl.  Beat until smooth.  Add the flour mixture, 1 cup at a time, to the butter mixture.  Beat on low speed after each addition just until incorporated.  With each addition, scrape down the sides of the bowl.

With the mixer running, pour in the evaporated milk, then the vanilla and milk.  Mix just until incorporated.  Pour 1/10 of the batter into each of your prepared pans, using the back of the spoon to spread the batter evenly so that it covers the entire bottom of the pan.  If you run out of batter before you've made 10 layers of cake, do not despair; you can just make thicker layers of frosting between the cake layers.

Ann's Notes:  1) most recipes that use evaporated milk call for one cup and yet the can size is 12 ounces.  I hate that. 2) The easiest way to pour 1/10 of the batter into each pan is to pour all the batter into a large measuring cup and then divide that by 10.  Plus, it's easier to pour that way.  That said, and despite my best math skills, I only got 8 layers. 3) The author said not to despair if we got 8 layers and I did not "despair" that I only got 8 layers but still, when a recipe says 10, I planned for 10!

If you have room in your oven, bake several layers at a time for 6 to 8 minutes.  (Ann's Note:  more like 8-10 minutes.)  You're looking for a dull finish on top and just slightly golden edges – not golden brown or crispy.  Let the layers cool for a couple of minutes in the pan before removing them; then run a spatula around the edge of the pan and gently transfer the layers onto sheets of parchment paper.  If it tears slightly, don't panic: you can cover up a lot with the icing.

To assemble, set the first slightly cooled layer on your serving plate and spread it with a thin layer of frosting, covering the entire surface of the layer.  Add the next layer, frost, and repeat the process until the batter is gone (hopefully, you'll have 10 layers!).  Finish by frosting the sides and then the top of the cake; I find that starting on the top, and smoothing the frosting that has dripped down the sides, is the way to go with frosting this cake.

Let the finished cake chill in the refrigerator for about 30 minutes before serving, so that the frosting can set.  Slice while still lightly chilled.  Store in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.

Smith Island Fudge Frosting, Part 1 (NOT the one I ended up making but it came with the cake recipe) – makes about 6 ½ cups frosting. 

Ann's Note:  as a reminder, here are the ingredients:  1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter; two 10-ounce cans evaporated milk; 2/3 [cup?] unsweetened cocoa powder; 8 cups confectioners' sugar.

Melt the butter over low heat in a large saucepan.  Remove from the heat, and add the cocoa powder and whisk slowly until smooth.

Return to the heat, this time on medium-low, and cook for approximately 10 minutes, but don't let the mixture come to a boil.  Stir continuously so that it doesn't scorch.  Once warm and just beginning to thicken, remove from the heat.

Whisk in the confectioners' sugar 1 cup at a time, until it's all incorporated.  Return the pan to low heat, stirring constantly until it has thickened to the point that it forms a ribbon when you drizzle a spoonful back onto the mixture.  The mixture may bubble, but don't let it boil.  You want to keep the frosting slightly warm to keep it from setting in the pan; it is OK to return to low heat or add a small quantity of water to the mixture to keep it spreadable.

Ann's VERY IMPORTANT Note:  For 10 points and the win, please tell me where you see instructions to add the two cans of evaporated milk.  I'll wait.  Can't?  Told you so.  I added it to the butter/cocoa mixture and then cooked that for 10 minutes and then added the confectioners sugar but given that it all boiled over, I had to start from scratch and when I did so, this is the recipe I used:

***Smith Island Cake Frosting from – This is the one I used.
2 cups sugar
1 cup evaporated milk
5 ounces unsweetened chocolate, chopped
4 ounces (1 stick) unsalted butter
½ to 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Combine the sugar and evaporated milk in a medium saucepan over medium-low heat.  Add the chocolate and butter; warm through, stirring, until both have melted.  Increase the heat to medium and cook, stirring occasionally, for 10 to 15 minutes.  Remove from the heat and add the vanilla extract, stirring to combine.  The icing will be thin but will thicken as it cools. 

Ann's Note:  this icing was thin but because it was, it made it easier to spread around the sides of the cake.  Basically, just "scrape" excess frosting from the very top layer over the sides and frost!

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