July 31, 2012

Smith Island: Layers of Tranquility and Cake

The journey to Smith Island began the moment we climbed aboard the ferry from Crisfield to Tylerton, the smallest and least populated village of the island. An admirably tan and unfussy man named Larry guided us on to the rustic vessel filled with locals carrying supplies from the mainland, and bags of expensive camera equipment belonging to a photography workshop. The Chesapeake can be as violent as the sea with high winds and variable waters. There are only a handful of ferrymen that go back and forth to the island, which is a 45 minute ride, taking passengers deep in to the Chesapeake just out of view from the modern world and pleasantly tranquil for a weekend getaway.

When we stepped on to the dock at Tylerton, we were immediately taken back in time. Smith Island is a close knit community of watermen, their hardworking crab picking wives, and a few outsiders who were seduced by the island’s charm. Smith Island is tenderly poetic yet disarmingly poignant due to its dwindling dimensions and population. While I watched waves chop up against the shore line, I felt how special this island is for its inhabitants and tourists, and how difficult it must be to make a living from the precious and susceptible waters of the Chesapeake Bay.

We stayed at the Inn of Silent Music, one of the only bed and breakfasts in Tylerton. The innkeepers, Rob, Linda, and Jasmine the dog, were more than friendly. Rob and Jasmine greeted us at the ferry with a golf cart to pick up our bags. Rob described the hand painted map of the village, pointed us in the direction of the only store/restaurant on the Island called Drum Point Market (which serves giant crab cakes, soft shell crabs, corn fritters and much more) and guided us to the Inn.

The Inn of Silent Music is attractive, wonderfully decorated in seaside trinkets and old school appeal. It has a completely decked out country kitchen for Linda to work her culinary magic.We had a filling breakfast every morning of nutmeg and honey yogurt, homemade granola, fresh fruit, corn cakes, frittata, crab cakes, and special foods for special people like me (including gluten free/dairy free biscuits that were to die for). In the evenings, we enjoyed gently pan fried local soft shelled crab, a crab dip using freshly picked crab, rockfish baked in parchment topped with delicate olive tapenade, and fresh corn succotash. Dessert was baked fruit over ice cream or Smith Island Layer Cake, the newly appointed state dessert of Maryland. I would not and cannot say anything unpleasant about our stay at the Inn of Silent Music. Linda and Rob are a magical addition to this enchanting island.

The Inn of Silent Music also provides kayaks, canoes and bikes to help visitors enjoy all Smith island has to offer. The winding marshes are a kayaker’s dream with places to come ashore and artfully dig through the wet earth to find trinkets from the past.

We spent the weekend talking to our fellow inn-mates, kayaking, walking, biking, eating, gazing at the endless water views, and reading Tom Horton’s novel about Smith Island called An Island Out of Time. We were also lucky enough to meet Tom since he was guiding the photography workshop, and doing his best to help them capture the natural essence of the island. Like many who have spent time there, he is in love with the island and it shows.

The culinary highlight of our trip was spending the afternoon at Mary Ada Marshall’s house where she exploited her unreserved charm, local accent, and spitball sense of humor to make us feel at home while she showed us how to make an eight layer Smith Island Cake. Mary Ada is the Cake Lady herself, and takes great pride in her towering sugary creations. She is the trust worthy keeper of Smith Island traditions and a Jack-of-all-trades. She wakes at 3:00 am every morning to help her waterman husband Dwight. Then she takes care of her beautiful home, picks crabs at the Co-Op, builds giant crab cakes for the Drum Point Market, and pumps out perfect Smith Island layer cakes like nobody's business.

For many Marylanders, a slice of this decadent layer cake is the only piece of the island they know. After spending a long weekend basking in the island’s glow, I can without a doubt say they make the best cakes, I made many new friends, and my heart is that much more filled because of them.

Mary Ada Marshall’s Classic Smith Island Cake
Transcribed by Zoe on July 28, 2012

  • 1 box of Duncan Hines classic “Yellow Cake” mix. (Do not substitute with “All Butter” and do not use Betty Crocker brand)
  • a pinch of salt
  • 4 large eggs at room temperature
  • ¼ c. Carnation evaporated milk (use the “good stuff”)
  • ¼ c. tap water
  • 1 c. water
  • 1/3 c. vegetable oil – “any kind of oil except peanut”

  1. Preheat oven to 350.
  2. Use cooking spray to coat the bottoms and sides of 8 aluminum 8” cake pans. Do not flour the pans. Mary Ada hints: do not use butter because that makes the cakes porous, and they would suck up the liquid, which you do not want to do in this cake.The butter would also make the cakes pull away from the sides. The cake pans must be identical so that the cakes are the same dimensions.
  3. Put the eggs into a bowl of your electric standing mixer. Mix up the eggs for a minute. Combine the ¼ c. evaporated milk and the ¼ c. water together and then add to the bowl. Add the 1 c. water. Add half the box of cake mix, then the other half after a minute. Let it mix for 8 - 10 minutes.
  4. Using her mother’s silver berry spoon, she spooned 1 ½ spoonfuls of batter into each pan. Then she went back and “steals from one to another” until they are all equal. “Make sure you push the batter out to the sides of the pan.” The first one has a little more than it needs, the last 2 have a little less than they need. “I always go back to the first one and steal a little for the last one.”
  5. Put the cakes into the oven all at the same time. Bake for 8-10 minutes until you see “a little brown edge.”
  6. Take the cakes out of the oven and let them cool.

 Mary Ada Marshall’s Chocolate Cooked Frosting

  • Into a large sauce pan add the following:
  • 1 lb. 10X confectioner’s sugar
  • 3 heaping spoonfuls “plus a tad more” of Hershey’s dry powdered cocoa
  • ½ c. Carnation evaporated milk

Mix it until well blended and consistent in color and texture – about 5 minutes.

Add the:
6 T. or ¾ stick of unsalted butter
Turn on the stove on High and start stirring, and keep stirring
“Let ‘er rip” til the butter is melted, with no visible streaks of butter.

Then “2-3 whips extra”. Turn off the heat, but leave the frosting in the pot. Stir it occasionally while you are in the process of assembling the cake, once a minute or so, so that it doesn’t start to harden up.


First, put a tiny bit of frosting on the plate or whatever you are putting the cake on. This is “Baker’s Glue.”

“Walk your hand under it” around the edge of the cake until you have your whole hand under it, and pick it up and put center it on the plate. (As each of the layers 2-8 is added, it must be centered on top of others perfectly).

Spread a modest and equal amount of frosting on each layer, keeping enough to use for the top and the sides which should be a slightly thicker layer than the frosting in between layers.

Spread frosting with a firm hand, and spread frosting all the way out to the edges all the way around.Use a firm hand to push down and around on the cakes. Spin as the frosting is added to the sides.

Mary Ada Marshall’s Cream Cheese Frosting
Mix an 8oz block of cream cheese with
2 lbs. 10X sugar
No vanilla extract unless you don’t care about keeping it white. “Vanilla extract turns the color.”

Flavors Mary Ada Bakes and Ships:
  • Classic Chocolate “State Dessert”
  • Oreos (her favorite pictured above) using cream cheese frosting, and sprinkling crushed oreos, “these are crushed in food processor”
  • Peaches and Cream (the hardest one) using Cream Cheese frosting recipe with pieces of fresh fruit
  • Strawberries and Cream using the Cream Cheese frosting recipe, with pieces of fresh fruit
  • Orange Glazed (use real OJ) it is a clear glaze
  • Lemon Glaze
  • Lemon Cream
  • Peanut Butter Fudge with Yellow Cake, use creamy JIF
  • Devil’s Food cake with Peanut Butter whipped
  • Banana Cream
  • Caramel
  • Caramel Apple
  • “Chocolate Lovers” devil’s food cake and chocolate cooked frosting
  • “Almond Joy” devil’s food cake and coconut icing “Nut’s the one that eats it.” Almonds go on top.
  • Smith Island Fig or Fig Preserves: the island has 5 trees, and you need a whole pint of figs put into the cream cheese frosting.
  • Cherry – use one whole can of cherries in the cream cheese frosting
  • Bailey’s
  • Kahlua
  • Carrot Cake
  • Pumpkin cake
  • Chocolate Peanut Butter Banana Cake using whipped cream cheese frosting
Other ideas:
  • Peanut Butter and Jelly, alternating peanut butter and grape jelly in between the layers with peanut butter frosting on top and sides.
  • Turtle – using caramel and chocolate and pecans
  • Different color layers using food color or gelatin
  • German chocolate, using coconut and pecan frosting on the top and sides, and chocolate cooked frosting in between the layers
  • Hazlenut and milk chocolate, praline
  • Crème de menthe or Andes candies in the chocolate frosting
  • Cream cheese frosting with crushed candy canes in it, and chocolate frosting in between the layers


  1. Woweee. I want some of that cake! When is my Birthday?

  2. I want a fork and a plate for you so I can cut a little piece for you and eat the rest all by myself. YUM!

  3. Wow.. that is one serious cake!! It looks amazing. :)

  4. What a fantastic, classic cake. I love your description of the space. :)

  5. I am completely green with envy. What a fabulous-sounding trip ... cake and all!

  6. You obviously have great affection for the island - it comes through in your writing and your photos. I can imagine, as you point out, that island life can sometimes be difficult despite the beauty of the place.

    That cake is a stunner!

  7. The island looks uber-charming. The cake looks fabulous!

  8. Wow, what a cake!!! I might have to tackle this one...or at least try :)

  9. Just spent the weekend at the Smith Island Inn and ate delicious cake made by Bev in Ewell, truly amazing! Great place to visit and enjoy the peace and quit.....

    1. We must have been there at the same time! We can't stop thinking or dreaming about our time on the island. Everyone there is truly a special breed of human. Loving and hard working. We can't wait to go back.

  10. What a great escape you had! And how fun to learn how to make that cake!! Now if it would cool off we could all try to make it for ourselves ; )

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  12. I have heard legend of this cake! All the tiny layers frighten me a little, but yours looks awesome. Thanks for the tutorial!

  13. Wow, I am so jealous of your weekend trip, it sounds like a blast. What a charming little town. The cake is gorgeous, I adore all the delicate layers and I bet it tastes delish!!

  14. That cake is amazing! And your trip sounds absolutely delightful. Makes me yearn for that same sense of peaceful satisfaction with people.

  15. Thank you for sharing your pictures and experience - I love this beautiful inn! And my goodness, this layered cake looks super gorgeous!

  16. Replies
    1. LOL. Agreed! However, Mary Ada had a very good reason behind it. She just likes it better ;-)

  17. This cake is amazing! Lovely post.


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