A Cake for
All Seasons

Toni Tawes' Smith Island Layer Cake

4 sticks (1 pound) butter
8 heaping tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
3 12-ounce cans evaporated milk
2-pound bag confectioners' sugar
2 boxes butter cake mix
8 eggs
1 1/2 to 2 cups milk
2 teaspoons vanilla
optional: candy (crumbled Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, Milky Way bars, peppermint patties, etc.) or chopped nuts

Have all the ingredients at room temperature. Coat ten cake pans (9- or 10-inch) with nonstick cooking spray or a light film of oil. Take out a stand mixer or electric hand mixer, trivets or wire racks on which to set hot cake pans, and a cake stand for assembling the finished product.

Frosting comes first: In a medium saucepan, melt 2 sticks of butter. Off the heat, whisk is 2 cans of evaporated milk and 8 heaping tablespoons of unsweetened cocoa powder. Whisk until smooth, then return to medium heat and cook, whisking constantly to avoid scorching, about 10 minutes. Don't let the mixture boil.

Remove the pan from the heat and whisk in a 2-pound bag of confectioners' sugar. Return to the heat and cook a few minutes more, whisking, before turning your attention to the cake. The frosting will need to cook about 45 minutes total to thicken, but you can take it on and off the heat as needed to finish the rest of the cake.

To make the cake, using a stand mixer: Mix together a 12-ounce can of evaporated milk and regular milk to make 2 3/4 cups. Crack eight eggs into a bowl. Put the oven racks in the two highest positions and preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Put two sticks of butter into the bowl of the stand mixer. Pour in the cake mix, eggs, vanilla and some of the milk. Stir gently to mix the ingredients so they won't spatter when you turn the machine on.

Turn the mixer to speed 2 and mix about 5 minutes. Stop the motor, add more milk and gently stir to incorporate. Mix on speed 2 again. Add as much of the remaining milk as you think you need to achieve a good consistency. Now, mix at speed 6 until the batter has blended for a total of 10 to 12 minutes, growing in size as air is incorporated.

(You can mix the cake batter with a handheld electric mixer and a mixing bowl, following the same steps, but it will take up to twice as long.)

Using a 1-cup measure, pour batter into each pan. To make the thick batter cover the entire pan, pick up each pan and bang the bottom repeatedly to make the batter spread (don't worry about the cake falling -- with each layer less than a half-inch thick, who would know?).

Bake four pans at a time, two on each shelf, for about 12 minutes ( a couple of minutes longer for 9-inch layers). Switch the cake pans from the top to bottom shelf, and vice versa, halfway through the baking time so the layers will cook evenly. The layers will look slightly browned and will have pulled back slightly from the pan edge when done. Remove the pans to trivets and put four more in the oven.

At this point, the frosting should be ready to use and your candy or nuts should be prepared. Set the cake stand next to the frosting pot. Gently free a warm layer from its pan with a flexible metal spatula and center it on the stand. Using a large serving spoon, coat it with a thin layer of frosting and sprinkle on candy or nuts. Continue with the other layers, remembering to remove the four pans in the oven after 12 minutes and replace them with the final two layers. When you set the 10th layer on the cake, do not top it with candy; that way the secret ingredient remains hidden inside.

The frosting can be cooked a little longer, if necessary, to make it thicker. Then, using a knife, spread the frosting on top of the cake and along the side. Fill uneven spaces between layers with frosting. The warm frosting will slip down the sides of the cake, so you will need to go around and around the cake with the knife, pushing up the frosting, until it cools and sets. Setting the frosting takes about 10 minutes.

Slice this rich cake very thinly to serve.

Toni Tawes' recipe was written down by Tracy Sahler. It originally appeared in The Daily Times in Salisbury, Md.

Photos courtesy of Vince Lupo