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Recipe Makeover: The Smith Island Cake slims down

By Leeann Adams, The Baltimore Sun

It was no surprise when Health Magazine rated the Smith Island cake as one of the 50 fattiest foods in the United States. After all, the cake is mostly just a frosting delivery system.

In traditional versions, the layers of yellow cake are about as thin as John Waters' mustache. Between these eight to 10 layers is a smear of fudgy frosting. With 4 sticks of butter, 4 cups of sugar and five eggs, Maryland's official state dessert might be a good reason to keep your cardiologist on speed-dial.

The original recipe from the Smith Island Cultural Alliance weighs in at a hefty 708 calories and 30 grams of fat. But with a few substitutions, we were able to take that down to 415 calories and 12 grams of fat per slice without sacrificing what makes the Smith Island Cake special — the frosting.

Instead of relying on butter, the lighter icing uses reduced-fat cream cheese as its base, retaining a smooth texture and spreadability without compromising the chocolaty richness of the original.

Mary Ada Marshall, 63, who's been making Maryland's official state dessert since she was 11, warns that the icing can be a challenge: too thin, and the layers slide every which way. "It takes practice and a lot of patience," she said.

When it comes to the cake, things get trickier. There are pitfalls in substituting lower-fat ingredients for the artery-clogging kind. Baking is partly a science, so taking something out, such as an egg, can change the chemistry of the batter. Registered dietitian Jodie Shield, author of " Healthy Eating for Kids," said eliminating too much fat in a recipe changes the "mouth feel" and integrity of the final product.

Too little fat can make cake dense and spongy. Shields suggested cutting the butter down to a quarter of the original amount as a reasonable goal in baked goods. We reduced the butter down to 1/2 cup and also used fat-free sour cream and low-fat buttermilk.

Cakes by David in Salisbury offers gluten- and sugar-free versions of the Smith Island Cake, but not a low-fat variety. Barbara Wharton, owner of the bakery, offers another bit of advice for bakers up to the challenge of making those skinny layers: Be sure that the batter is spread evenly in the pans. "That's the hardest part," she said.

Also, allow the layers to cool slightly in the pan, but don't wait too long, or they'll get hard and crispy. "The first time around, you swear you'll never do it again. It takes a lot of getting used to, handling [the layers] when they're warm," Wharton said.

There are a number of theories as to why the dessert is so frosting-heavy. According to some, husbands and children kept asking for more icing, and cooks obliged. Another version has it that the layers needed to be thin because only small ovens could be transported to the island since everything came via boats. There wasn't room to bake a high-rising cake.

Another version attributes the extreme frosting-to-cake ratio as a request from fishermen so the confection wouldn't dry out during long days on the water

"The fishermen are out there all day long. Unless you're fishing like that, all day long, doing manual labor, … it should be a treat. Have it on your birthday," said dietitian Shield. "Food is tradition, and you can have fun with it. But somewhere along the line, we've lost that luster, that beauty of the treat that's just for special occasions," she said.

Marshall doesn't seem concerned about the cake's newly acquired bad reputation. She enjoys it in moderation. "It's portion control. It's a little treat. If somebody comes to visit, are you going to serve them two or three slices? No. You cut them one slice," she said. Plus, she says, her husband's mother lived to be nearly 100, and she ate plenty of the fatty dessert.

Short of that, the only sure way to enjoy a Smith Island Cake without clogging your arteries is to limit yourself to one slice and split it with the island's 300 inhabitants.

Lower-fat Smith Island cake

Makes: 16 servings

Cake:

Cooking spray formulated for baking

1 tablespoon all-purpose flour

1/2 cup butter, melted

1 (8-ounce) carton fat-free sour cream

1 1/2 cups granulated sugar

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1/2 cup egg substitute

2 cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

3/4 cup low-fat buttermilk

Frosting:

16 ounces 1/3-less-fat cream cheese (can also use fat-free cream cheese)

2 tablespoons light butter

3 cups granulated sugar

1 cup unsweetened cocoa powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line bottoms of 8-inch cake pans with parchment paper cut to fit. Coat parchment and sides with cooking spray. Set aside.

Combine butter and sour cream in a large bowl. Add sugar and vanilla. Beat with a mixer at medium speed until well blended. Add egg substitute and beat 2 minutes.

In a small bowl, whisk together flour, baking soda and salt. Add flour mixture and buttermilk alternately to sugar mixture, beginning and ending with flour mixture. Mix well after each addition.

Place 1/2 cup of batter into each cake pan. Spread evenly with the back of a spoon or small spatula. Bake in 350-degree oven for 8 minutes. Let cake cool slightly (between 5 and 10 minutes). Remove from pan and carefully peel off parchment paper. (The parchment can be reused to bake the next layers.) Cool completely on a wire rack. Repeat until there are 8 thin layers of cake. Stack layers between additional parchment or waxed paper until the cake is ready to be assembled.

For frosting: Beat with a mixer at medium speed the cream cheese and butter until smooth. Add sugar and mix well. Add cocoa powder, salt and vanilla and beat until smooth.

Assembling the cake:

Top the first layer of cake with about 1/4 cup of frosting. Top with another cake layer and repeat, using remaining layers. Frost top and sides of. You may have some frosting left over. Store in refrigerator but serve at room temperature.

Cake batter recipe adapted from Cooking Light

Nutrition information

Per serving: 415 calories, 12 grams fat, 7 grams protein, 7 grams saturated fat, 75 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams fiber, 34 milligrams cholesterol, 406 grams sodium

Healthier alternatives

Jodie Shield offers some easy ways to swap higher-fat ingredients for healthier alternatives. You can find her recipes at healthyeatingforfamilies.com/blog.Instead of: Try: Save:1/2 cup butter 1/2 cup applesauce 808 calories and 92 grams fat2 oz chocolate 1/3 cup cocoa powder 215 calories and 25 grams fat1 cup chocolate chips 1/2 cup mini-chocolate chips 300 calories and 29 grams fat1 egg 2 egg whites 41 calories and 5 grams fat1 cup heavy cream 1 cup evaporated skim milk 621 calories and 87 grams fat1/2 cup oil 1/2 cup applesauce 911 calories and 109 grams fat1 cup peanut butter 1 cup reduced-fat peanut butter 380 calories and 32 grams fat1 cup sour cream 1 cup nonfat plain yogurt 360 calories and 47 grams fat1 cup whole milk 1 cup skim milk 64 calories and 8 grams fat

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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