When Margaret Smith says she has baked a lot of cakes, it is an understatement. You see, Margaret has been baking for the Maple Festival for over 30 years. Her specialty? Maple Nut Chiffon Cake. She estimates she has baked at least 600-700 of them for the Festival since she started.
All of these cakes are produced in her home kitchen. When she first started, Margaret produced only one cake at a time, but with a new oven, she is able to bake two simultaneously.
She starts making cakes in February and freezes each one until the Festival in mid-March. (Margaret says freezing is important because it helps send that maple and pecan flavor all the way through the cakes.)
Freezing is not the only secret she shared. The first time Margaret baked this particular cake, it was with a neighbor in Churchville, Virginia. The recipe is from the Mill Gap Cookbook, which was published in the late seventies. They followed the recipe exactly, and the cake turned out well.
But, over the years, she has discovered several things that make this frosted confection stand up better when it’s being moved from place to place or waiting for a buyer in a hot room. One trick involves the icing. The recipe calls for powdered sugar, butter, and milk, but Margaret found the frosting slipped and slumped if the cake jiggled too much, so she substituted some cream cheese for part of the butter. She also replaced the milk with water.
Another secret is the way the cake is mixed. “You can’t whip the batter,” Margaret says. “You gotta blend it carefully or it won’t raise very well. You also need to make sure you use really large eggs.” When the cake comes out of the oven, the tube pan is set upside down to cool for at least an hour so the cake will release cleanly.
And that sublime flavor? It comes from the six tablespoons of maple syrup in the recipe. Margaret even tweaks that a bit. “I mix just a little maple flavoring in the frosting,” she says. “It gives it a pretty color and improves the flavor.”
Additionally, she tops each cake with ground pecans, then wraps it well, and pops it in the freezer to mellow with all the others until it’s ready for transport to the Stonewall Ruritan Building in McDowell.
That’s where members of the Hiner Church of the Brethren sell their baked goods and crafts during the Highland County Maple Festival. Past proceeds helped the congregation build an addition and, lately, a pavilion, which came in very handy for recently-required outdoor worship services.
When asked how she decides the number of cakes to bake each year, Margaret replies, “I don’t really have a number in mind. I just quit when I get tired.”
And, if any cake comes out a little lopsided or slumped? “Oh, we sell those by the slice. That goes good, too.”
As far as she can remember, Margaret has not missed a Maple Festival since she began baking. She said she often has many return customers and knows of at least one repeat customer who comes all the way from Northern Virginia to buy one.
Due to COVID-19, we weren’t able to enjoy the Maple Festival (or Maple Nut Chiffon Cakes) in 2020 and 2021, but Margaret was kind enough to share the original recipe, so folks could bake their own cake at home. However, Margaret didn’t share all her secrets, so you’ll still have to visit Highland County in March to experience the real deal.