Position an oven rack in the middle of the oven; preheat to 350 degrees. Use butter to lightly grease ten 9-inch cake pans, or use 2 or 3 cake pans at a time and re-grease them as needed.
Cream together sugar and butter. Add eggs one at a time and beat until smooth. Sift together flour, salt, and baking powder. Mix into egg mixture one cup at a time. With mixer running, slowly pour in the evaporated milk, then the vanilla and water. Mix just until uniform.
Put three serving spoonfuls (about 2/3 cup) of batter in each of ten 9-inch lightly greased pans, using the back of the spoon to spread evenly. Bake three layers at a time on the middle rack of the oven at 350° for 8 minutes. A layer is done when you hold it near your ear and you don’t hear it sizzle.
Start making the icing when the first layers go in the oven. Put the cake together as the layers are finished. Let layers cool a couple of minutes in the pans. Run a spatula around the edge of the pan and ease the layer out of the pan. Don’t worry if it tears; no one will notice when the cake is finished. Use two and three serving spoonfuls of icing between each layer.
Cover the top and sides of the cake with the rest of the icing. Push icing that runs onto the plate back onto the cake.
Put sugar and evaporated milk in a medium pan. Cook and stir over medium-low heat until warm. Add chocolate and cook to melt. Add butter and melt. Cook over medium heat at a slow boil for 10 to 15 minutes. Stir occasionally. Add vanilla. Icing will be thin but thickens as it cools.
Smith Island Cake and Chocolate Icing recipes adapted from “Mrs. Kitching’s Smith Island Cookbook,” by Frances Kitching and Susan Stiles Dowell (Tidewater Publishers, 1981).
Cooked Coconut Icing
Thanks to the delightful ladies of Crisfield and Smith Island for this recipe.
Cook sugar, butter and evaporated milk in a medium pan over medium heat for 10-15 minutes, until mixture begins to thicken (do not boil). Remove from heat. Add coconut and vanilla, stir off heat until stiffens.