[Red velvet birthday cake, November 2008.]
The other night when I went running — for the first time in the dark after months and months of post-work light, alas — the moon rose out of the west very pale and bright, just a shimmering sliver. I thought about what would or wouldn’t happen the next day as I passed by a few other intrepid souls braving the forecast to log their miles (we thankfully got a break, and the sky was swept clean of rain clouds). I remembered how exactly four years ago right around now I got laid off from my first real job just days after Kerry lost the election and how strange and difficult a time that was. I took a deep breath and set my feet straight ahead on the path and tried not to think very much at all. I knew I would get up early to vote on my way to work, and I knew I was full of hope, though I tried to keep my mind very clear and calm. I ran, and I still hoped anyway, and then I came home and baked a cake (cookies, too, but I already told you about those).
Election night was also my friend’s birthday, and as I mentioned the other day when I went on my long run last weekend I was struck with a bolt of inspiration out of the blue — or, rather, red. A red velvet cake, to be precise. Since Tuesday was a day to do my civic duty, and I have no little amount of gratitude that I live in a country where I can not only wear what I want every single day but get to vote my conscience (or as well as my party lets me, anyhow), I thought I’d celebrate by making something that reflected the colors of the country (and I just really like to do things festively; this cake would also work for a celebration of, say, Bastille Day — same colors!).
Red velvet cake is pretty much a devil’s food cake: it’s deep, rich, and smooth although not quite as chocolate-y. It contains a bit of cocoa powder, buttermilk, and cake flour as many cakes do, but the addition of red food coloring turns the sweet layers a bright maroon that’s anything but ordinary. Red velvets usually are filled and frosted with either a white butter cream or a butter-cream cheese frosting, and I decided to go with a light, very sweet, cream cheese variety. After frosting, I liberally shook blue sprinkles over the top of the cake so when we cut into it later on in the evening the red-white-and-blue theme was well represented.
[Election cake, November 2008.]
Tuesday night was a blur (and not just because of all the wine and champagne we drank) — a happy, ecstatic one, to be sure, but still a blur. However, I do remember the moment the election was called and I do remember, and very well, this delicious cake. I’d made red velvet cakes before but somehow they were never quite as good as this one — and I can’t just blame the drinks. Or the euphoria. Maybe it was because I actually did some research and decided to go with a recipe featured over a year ago in the New York Times which described the cake as one that “can stop traffic. The layers are an improbable red that can vary from a fluorescent pink to a dark ruddy mahogany. The color, often enhanced by buckets of food coloring, becomes even more eye-catching set against clouds of snowy icing, like a slash of glossy lipstick framed by platinum blond curls. Even the name has a vampy allure: red velvet.”
Whatever, it was fantastic.
The last time I made a red velvet cake I was in Rochester, NY, for my best friend’s birthday. It was a typical upstate weekend — or, typical in the way that weekends were when I visited him once or twice a year, always in the winter: full of food, cold, and lazing about. A bunch of the ‘family’ — the close friends in our group — made the trek up there to celebrate his birthday during a snowy, frigid February stretch of days. I decided that I wanted to roast a chicken for the first time for his birthday dinner and I also baked two cakes (because clearly one wouldn’t have been enough): a chocolate cake, and a red velvet cake. Who knows why I fixed on the red velvet, but I just did and when I fix on something, that’s pretty much it. And so I did bake it and it was OK — not great but fine enough. We nibbled at those cakes throughout the icy days spent mostly inside, and I kept my mild disappointment to myself. Huh, I thought. Red velvet cake. Wish it’d been better.
Now, it would make sense that I’d be put off to baking another red velvet cake — and it’s true I hadn’t in over three years. But for some reason I couldn’t help but want to try it again. How could I not, when there was a birthday and a long-awaited election to celebrate?
I think we were all glad I did. The cake’s tender crumb was, yes, quiet velvety and smooth and the icing was sweet but not too (one might say it went absolutely wonderfully with the champagne). I could taste a hint of chocolate but it wasn’t too cloying, and the layers rose up beautifully light. Tuesday may have been a bit of a blur, but it was anchored, happily, by good news and a slice of cake. I’ll definitely be making this again — birthdays or elections aside, it’s just that good.
Red Velvet Cake, for the 2008 election and a birthday (adapted from “The Confetti Cakes Cookbook,” by Elisa Strauss via the New York Times)
3 1/2 cups cake flour
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
2 cups canola oil
2 1/4 cups granulated sugar
3 large eggs
6 tablespoons (3 ounces) red food coloring
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
1 1/4 cup buttermilk
2 teaspoons baking soda
2 1/2 teaspoons white vinegar.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease 3 round 9-inch layer cake pans and line bottoms with parchment paper.
Whisk cake flour, cocoa and salt together in a bowl.
Place oil and sugar in a large bowl and whisk or blend until well-blended. Beat in eggs one at a time. Add red food coloring and vanilla and mix carefully. Add the flour mixture alternately with the buttermilk in two batches. Scrape down bowl and beat just long enough to combine.
Place baking soda in a small dish, stir in vinegar and add to batter with machine running. Beat for 10 seconds.
Divide batter among pans, place in oven and bake until a cake tester comes out clean, 40 to 45 minutes. Let cool in pans 20 minutes then remove from pans, flip layers over and peel off parchment. Cool completely before frosting.
Cream Cheese Frosting
Makes 6 cups
10 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter room temperature
3 cups confectioner’s sugar, sifted
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Place cream cheese and butter in a medium bowl. With a handheld electric mixer, beat until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add sugar and vanilla. Beat, on low speed to combine. If too soft, chill until slightly stiff, about 10 minutes, before using.