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Three Recipes: Crab Imperial, Crabcakes, Smith Island Cake?

My partner is a Baltimore native and for the years we have been together, there are three foods that he's talked about missing since he first moved south and then to the West Coast:

* Crab Imperial
* Crabcakes
* Smith Island Cake

For his birthday this year, I'm saving-up to order some real blue crab meat. But I need recipes! I've been looking online (and here on CH, of course) and found some that look good, but I don't know what is / is not traditional. Also, with the two recipes involving crab, do I want jumbo lump, regular lump, or claw meat?

(I also looked at having steamed crabs shipped, and am still considering that option, but can't see having to pick them once they arrive in order to make the two dishes.)

With the Smith Island Cake, I want to stay with the yellow cake with chocolate frosting, I think, but keep coming across variations. Any recipes you'd recommend?

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  1. Ok, I'll weigh in on 2 of them, because I think crab imperial is sort of creamed crab served over a starch, & I like crabcakes more-I think backfin is fine, as long as you use mostly crab, & minimal binder, you need egg, & a touch of cracker crumbs or panko, & what makes it good- fresh herbs-basil, thyme, lemongrass, a little green onion, panfry in a bit of olive oil & finish in the oven.

    I haven't ever tried Smith Island cake, but I'd do a standard pound or yellow cake, freeze it, slice the layers thin, & do a chocolate-cappuccino icing in between all the layers...or you could just take a trip back to the east coast & try it there. It's nice of you to try & cook things that your partner will like.

    1 Reply
    1. re: thistle5

      thank you, thistle. Unfortunately, the crab imperial is a very specific dish, near as I can tell, and I want to get it as close to his memory as possible.

      As for the Smith Island Cake - my favorite cake is a yellow cake with chocolate-cappuccino icing, so I thank you for that reminder that it's about time to bake a cake to celebrate me *grinning*.

    2. My Family's Recipe for Crab Cakes

      M.D. Crab Cakes

      1# Lump Back Fin Crab
      2 T Chopped Parsley
      3 T fresh Bread Crumbs
      1/4 cup Mayo
      1 tsp Old Bay (opt.)
      2 Eggs beaten
      2 tsp Worcestershire

      Crab with Parsley and Bread Crumbs ( do not break up lumps)
      Combine remaining ingredients and mix.
      Add Egg- Mayo mixture to Crab Mixture and fold together, try not to break up lumps of crab.
      Scoop mounds of the mixture in a large saute pan on med heat ( do not try to form cakes)
      Pan fry till the bottom is golden brown and the mix has started to set then turn and brown the other side.

      Here are a bunch more from an older thread,

      Crab imperial is not creamed and should be baked either in an Crab Back or a Gratin Dish not usually served over anything.

      3 Replies
      1. re: chefj

        Thank you for sharing that recipe, chefj. Is there a reason why you prefer lump back fin to jumbo or claw? (I know little of crab.) Also, do you add any sort of oil or butter to the saute pan?

        1. re: ElsieDee

          The recipe works with any Crab Meat. we use Lump because of price/effect ratio. If you want to use Jumbo Lump go for it
          Yes you need a bit of fat in the pan not very much though, what kind is up to you, Bacon fat is nice. You can also broil them.

        2. re: chefj

          This is the recipe I use as well, well sort of. I usually skip the crumbs if I can and less mayo but it's great, fragile but great and tastes of crab rather than filler.

        3. I've made this Crab Imperial recipe for years. Very simple and tasty. Crab Imperial is a baked dish and never served over anything. The crab cake recipe is a recent find. I like that they're broiled, and not fried. I leave out the herbs. I don't go for red pepper, shallots, etc. either in my cakes. I like the crab to stand on its own! Whether you use jumbo, or lump is up to you. I prefer the jumbo lump. Less shell to pick. And... it's the best!

          1 lb Jumbo Lump Crab meat
          1 beaten egg
          2 tbsp mayo
          1-2 tsp Old Bay (or to taste)
          1 tbsp parsley
          1 tsp dry mustard
          1/2 cup cream or half & half
          a few grinds of black pepper
          panko bread crumbs for topping

          Mix all ingredients (except crab meat & panko) together, first. Then GENTLY fold in the crab meat, being careful not to break up the large lumps. Bake in a buttered casserole dish or small ramekins. Top with panko crumbs. You can place a few "dots" of butter on top too, if you like.

          Bake @ 350* for 30 minutes, or til bubbly.

          Here's the Crab Cake recipe:


          3 Replies
          1. re: Phoebe

            Oh, Phoebe, that crab imperial recipe looks so simple and perfect! And I'm leaning toward a broiled crab cake because my SO thinks that his fondest crab cakes of yesteryear "were not greasy or crunchy" which makes me think they weren't fried or sauteed (though I know sauteing might not end up with a "crunch," too).

            1. re: Phoebe

              We always had our Crab Imperial served in clam shells. Made a nice presentation! We would find the shells on the beach in the summer, clean them up, and use them for the crab.

              The recipe was:
              1. Make a white sauce (4T butter, 2T flour, 2/3 cup milk)
              2. When thickened, stir in 2 tsp. lemon juice, 1 tsp. Worcestershire sauce, 1 tsp. yelow mustard and 1 tsp. mild horseradish
              3. Put in shells or casserole dish.
              4. Top with a spread of Miracle Whip (don't laugh...it's really good!)
              5. Bake at 350 about 30 minutes (until bubbly and nicely colored)


              1. re: Seeker19104

                Ah, this is the one I was thinking about making! Have you baked it, Seeker? I'm wondering about the (paraphrasing here) "a layer is done when you hold it near your ear and don't hear sizzling" instruction.

              2. If you live on the west coast, why not use dungeness crab? During the winter, when I can't go crabbing on LI, I've made crabcakes from live dungeness. I get 1 or 2, depending on the size. Steam them, serve the legs separately and make crabcakes from the body meat. My recipe is similar to the others, but I add some corn and a few capers to the mix, along with a minced small hot pepper. I go very easy on the Old Bay, as I find the flavor overpowering.

                3 Replies
                1. re: EricMM

                  As a Native MD'er, Dungeness is just not the the same thing and does not fill that want for Blue Crab.
                  Dungeness Crabs are great in their own right just a very different thing.

                  1. re: chefj

                    Absolutely correct. And, given the OP's stated intention of preparing foods from home to please her Baltimorean partner, no way that the crab cake should include corn, hot peppers or capers.

                  2. re: EricMM

                    Eric, what you're describing - your recipe, I mean - is very close to how my west coast family makes crab cakes. And they always use freshly caught dungeness (we go crabbing on family vacations), too. However, with the rather different taste of blue crab and dungeness, I'm going to have to go with the blue crab and a more East Coast-ish / Baltimorian style of crab cake.

                  3. For the Smith Island Cake, check out the Saveur Magazine
                    recipe site. They have a doozie..about 6-8 layers tall and with a burnt/caramelized sugar frosting. I used chocolate
                    frosting when I last made it and it worked well with the ganache I usually make.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: amazinc

                      Could you tell me more about the ganache, amazinc? Did you use chocolate frosting and a ganache?

                    2. For the crab recipes, you definitely want crab meat vs steamed crabs. Steamed crabs are only good if you do a crab feast, where everyone is picking their own and you don't want to make additional work for yourself.

                      Crab cakes are good made with either jumbo lump or regular lump (special) crab meat. The jumbo lump is more expensive and I don't know that it adds anything other than wow factor. I have an easier time getting the regular to form crab cakes than the jumbo lump. Claw meat has a particular consistency and flavor that wouldn't lend itself to either dish other than as an accent.

                      Whichever you choose, just make sure to check the meat thoroughly for small bits of shell. If it comes to you frozen, thaw it out under running water in a colander (don't put it in standing water, you'll use flavor). Make your crab cakes up about about a half an hour before you cook them so they have a chance to set and will hold together while cooking. You have a great recipe when it uses very little or no bread as a binder. Then, just before you are ready to fry them, lightly coat the outside with cracker crumbs (crushed or pulverized ritz or club crackers work best because of their buttery taste).

                      You can find Mrs. Kitching's scratch recipe (from the stump in Island speak) here: http://visitsomerset.com/printables/S.... Originally printed in Mrs. Kitchings Smith Island Cookbook.

                      Saveur does have a great recipe from Island native Mary Ada Marshall. It uses Duncan Hines cake mix as pre-sifted ingredients for a time saver, but doesn't follow the directions on the back of the box. If you're looking for the yellow cake/chocolate icing version, just omit the peanut butter cups. You can find that here: http://www.saveur.com/article/Recipes...

                      Just make sure to pay attention to how much the recipe says to put in the pan. It isn't a lot, but you really only want it to cover the bottom of the pan so you get the traditional thin layers and you don't get a cake that's two feet tall.

                      I hope he has a wonderful birthday. Good luck!

                      2 Replies
                      1. re: freckles0026

                        Thank you so much for the detailed information, freckles. When you say to make the crab cakes 1/2 before cooking so they can set up, do you mean at room temp. or in the fridge?

                        I'm really wondering about the cake from scratch vs. the cake from Duncan Hines approach. As of late, I've not had a deft hand with cakes (lots of leaden results).

                        1. re: ElsieDee

                          I put crab cakes in the fridge to firm up before cooking, it really makes a difference in them staying together.

                      2. This might not be that helpful, but if you can get steamed crab shipped in why not do a crabfeast? Add some corn on the cob and some corn bread and coleslaw and you're set. With a bucket of Natty Bohs you've got yourself a Bal'mer party.

                        And I agree with others, if you make crab cakes, stick with lump crab meat. And I'd stick with the traditional chocolate frosting for the Smith Island cake. It's what I get for my birthday every year :)

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: momnivore

                          Ah, then the Smith Island cake will have the chocolate frosting, momnivore!

                          I had thought about the crabfeast option ... he has mentioned them as being a part of his childhood (family on the water and all) ... but I think I'm going to save that and suggest we do it for his parents for their anniversary. I think it'll be an interesting project to pull off!

                        2. Make sure you know whether or not he wants broiled or fried crab cakes. hUGE difference!

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: melpy

                            *laughing* melpy, you are so right with reminding me of this: never even occurred to me that he might have a preference. I did ask him, in a passing manner, and he thinks that he remembers them "not being oily or crunchy" which leads me to believe that they weren't fried. But when I talked with his mother, she said that she always pan fried them and didn't even have a broiler. Of course, his father contradicted this and said they were almost always broiled, except at the one apartment that was without a broiler (and that was before my SO was born.) (It was actually a funny series of conversations.)

                          2. This may be way off base, but if baking hasn't been your thing lately, you know they ship their cakes, right? Smith Island cakes are very distinct, I'm not sure recreating them would offer the same experience. Of course crab cakes and imperial are a little more open to interpretation and change ever so slightly among maryland residents. Just an idea!


                            Also, crab imperial is also very yummy stuffed in shrimp or fish. In Maryland, it's often rockfish! :)