Prior to moving to Maryland, I had never heard of Smith Island cakes. Once here, I had the chance to visit Smith Island with my husband, on a photo assignment for his work. We visited a baker’s house and watched her make an original in her kitchen, then we meandered around the quaint island village before closing our day with a trip to an incredible bakery on the island that makes the cakes for pick-up or mail orders. (Check out their story and shop with them at this link http://smithislandcake.com/ .) If you ever have a day to make the boat trip to Smith Island, I encourage you to go.
As you might imagine, I was enchanted with the cakes, the people, and the island. Smith Island cakes have 10 layers, each filled with various icings, and some are topped with ganache while others are traditionally iced. As soon as I returned from my day with the SI bakers, I tried my hand at some flavor combinations I personally enjoy: chocolate peanut butter and white chocolate apricot, just to see if I could make the cakes and have them look and taste even half as lovely as the originals. Though I wasn’t blogging at the time and therefore have no picture evidence of those attempts, I remember that that were really good (how could I go wrong with those combinations, frankly??), they looked fine, and everyone enjoyed them. That being said, they weren’t nearly as pretty or as tasty as the originals. These bakers spend their days making the cakes, and they have perfected the art.
Here’s something interesting, though. Obviously, I’m not a trained pastry chef or baker. Every success I have is by trial and error. The upside of this news is that I have tremendous kitchen baking fails almost every day. Pinterest-fail worthy fails. And that’s okay. It’s real and funny and quite the learning experience when things go wrong in the kitchen. I’ve learned to embrace the imperfection of my self-taught baking and to keep plugging along. My Smith Island-inspired cakes are no exception. They slope too much; they are a touch wavy; some layers break apart too easily.I’m working on those minor problems. I say minor because the cakes are good. They are moist and rich and decadent, and gone as quickly as they are placed on the serving table. That’s the only kudos I need. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve ordered a dessert cake in a restaurant and was handed a lovely slice that was dry and not even worth the calorie count. Who wants that? When I order cake or make cake, I want a melt-in-my-mouth dessert that tastes as good or better than it looks. You get where I’m going with this. It’s just not worth it, otherwise.
I say all of this to encourage you to try the cake and to be kind to yourself if it’s not gorgeous, but still tastes great. That’s the most important part, of course! Tonight, I’m making my daughter’s birthday cake; she requested her favorite: coconut. I think I’ll try to make it into a Smith Island cake, just for fun. And if it’s ugly, we’re still serving it, maybe with blindfolds. ;)
The cake I’ve chosen to showcase here is a real, decadent, sweet lover’s delight. The cake itself is rich in coffee flavor, the filling, a creamy caramel, and the ganache, a bittersweet chocolate to cut some of the richness. I think you’ll like it, so give it a try. You’ll notice that I use a cake mix. Gasp. Hey, it’s easier for the recipe because this is an intense prep, and I promise you won’t be able to tell the difference.
Smith Island-Inspired Caramel-Coffee Cake with Chocolate Ganache
Ingredients for the cakes:
2 boxes butter yellow cake mix
1½ cups buttermilk
2 sticks butter, softened, minus 2 tbs. (save those for greasing pan)
1 tbs. instant coffee
2 tsp. vanilla
Ingredients for the caramel filling:
2 sticks butter, softened to room temperature
2 cups packed dark brown sugar
2/3 cup heavy cream, plus more if needed
2 tsp. vanilla
32 oz. confectioner’s sugar (2-16 oz. boxes)
Ingredients for the chocolate ganache:
16 oz. bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
2 cups heavy cream
Plan on making the caramel filling a bit ahead so it has time to cool completely on the counter while you bake. To make the filling, melt the butter in heavy-bottomed sauce pan. Add the brown sugar and cream. Cook over medium-low heat until sugar is dissolved (about 2-3 minutes). Remove from heat, add vanilla, and transfer to a large glass mixing bowl. Using a mixer with the batter attachment or a hand-held mixer, beat in confectioner’s sugar until smooth and creamy. Add 1 tbs. of heavy cream, as needed, to get the right consistency for spreadable icing.
For the cake, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour 5 8-inch round cake pans (I use disposable pans for this cake since I don’t have 5 8-inch metal pans; any dollar store has them, FYI, so I just stock up).
Beat butter until smooth. Add buttermilk, coffee, vanilla, and eggs, one at a time. Add the cake mixes and beat just until smooth.
Measure about ¾ cup of batter (maybe a little less) in each pan, and use a spoon—or a crepe spreader if you have one— to carefully even out the batter. It’s better to be heavier on the edges than in the middle.
My oven fits 5 pans at a time, so I do this in batches of five. Bake for 7-10 minutes, or until cakes are done. They have a light spring to their centers when ready. Remove from oven and carefully transfer to wire cooling racks. They are delicate!
Repeat with next set of 5. There might be some batter left over. I usually bake it in one cake pan and make a mini-cake to freeze and later use in trifles or parfaits.
Once cakes are cool, they are ready to layer and ice.
Go ahead and make the ganache before layering. That will give it the time it needs to rest before pouring over the cake.
To make the ganache, put the chopped chocolate in a food processor. Heat the heavy cream until it simmers, but doesn’t boil. Pour the hot cream over the chocolate and allow to rest for about 2 minutes. Pulse several times until the mixture is smooth. Allow to rest for about 10 minutes before pouring over entire layered cake.
To layer the cake, place the first layer on a flat plate. (A tip: I usually cover just the edges of the plate with wax paper, all around, so that it can be pulled from under the cake once the ganache has finished running. This prevents a lot of chocolate pile-up on the plate’s rim. That’s up to you. Too much chocolate certainly never hurt anyone, so don’t stress over that part.)
Carefully spread the caramel filling over the cake layer. The filling should be thin, and half-to-almost as thick as each cake layer. Repeat with 9 layers, then place the 10th on the top, without icing. Gently take your hand and press the cake together, at the top center to stabilize a bit more.
Begin pouring ganache on the top center and allow it to run down the sides. Fill in where needed, or leave in a rustic presentation. I immediately refrigerate, uncovered, so the ganache will set. Remove from fridge once set and slice to serve. This is a top-heavy cake, so slice with care.
For the caramel filling, I used (and doubled) the wonderful Paula Deen’s recipe, found at this link: http://www.pauladeen.com/caramel-frosting
For the ganache, I used the ever-trustworthy Alton Brown’s recipe, here: http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/alton-brown/ganache-frosting-recipe.html#!