Layered cake breathes life back into tiny US island
Sunday 20 December 2009
To be authentic, a true Smith Island cake -- a famous family recipe passed down generations -- must be baked on this tiny Chesapeake Bay island, its most die-hard bakers say.
To be authentic, a true Smith Island cake - a famous family recipe passed down generations - must be baked on this tiny Chesapeake Bay island, its most die-hard bakers say.
Brian Murphy and his team got the idea six months ago, launching a traditional bakery dedicated to making the unusually large, multi-layered cake and sending them by mail throughout the United States ever since.
The move has breathed new life into Maryland's only inhabited island.
The eastern state's official dessert is "certainly not low fat," acknowledged Kristen Manzo, manager of the Smith Island Baking Company. A 28-year-old native of Baltimore, Maryland, she moved to the isle after falling in love with the region.
Not for the faint of heart, the confection entails a generous stack of 10 layers of sponge cake, coated with thick frosting of sugar-sweetened cocoa, vanilla, condensed milk and melted butter. Different flavors are available, including peanut butter.
Overfishing, pollution and erosion have taken a toll on this once-thriving fisherman's hamlet know for its crabs and oysters, whose local economy has been destroyed in recent years and only counts a handful of yearlong residents.
"It's hard to get people to stay and live here. When I grew up, we were 700 (residents)," lamented Cynthia Bradshaw, manager of the island's only grocery store. "It's a dying culture."
But the huge, delicious cakes seem to be changing that downward trend.
"We are bringing jobs and awareness to the island," said Manzo, who heads the eight-strong baking team here that produces up to 30 cakes a day. "We do what we love and we do it well."
The bakery plans to rake in half a million dollars in profits for its first year in business.
- 'We work around the ferry schedule' -
A traditional family favorite for dessert during the Thanksgiving holiday, Smith Island cakes are also devoured at Christmas. In the weeks leading up to the festive season, orders piled up and the pace almost doubled to a daily production of 53.
"I had to turn down an order," an embarrassed Karla Graham, the bakery's marketing and sales director, whispered to her boss. "At some point we have to say no. There's got to be a limit."
Running a bakery in the middle of this bay southeast of Washington certainly requires overcoming some big challenges.
"The only obstacle logistically to be on an island is getting our supply. We have to work around the ferry schedule," Manzo noted, stressing the hardships of "operating a bakery in the middle of nowhere." The island's only ferry runs only once per day, with a 45-minute ride across the bay.
Not only do the cakes have to be baked as fresh as possible but 44-pound (20-kilogram) bags of flour must be transported on the ferry decks.
"Flour and water don't get along very well together," said Manzo. "If the flour gets wet, it dissolves and it becomes a pasty mess, and we don't want any of that."
Even baking the cakes themselves is a labor-intensive affair that takes nearly an hour a piece.
Standing before a map of the United States holding pins in some 20 states and Canada where the desserts have been shipped, she pledged her goal was "to have every state, at least a family in every state, eating Smith Island cake."
The bakery has become a common meeting point for people across the island.
"Everybody is very supportive," said Graham.
While the bakers are optimistic about the effect on the island, they are dreaming of bigger opportunities yet - they want to see their dessert on perhaps the most famous dining table in the land, at the White House.
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