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March Cake: Dan’s Birthday

28.March 2010

There’s something you may not know about me. I am a very selfish sleeper. I hog the covers. I flail around and sprawl diagonally across the bed. I throw elbows and kick randomly in my sleep. Also, I snore and I drool and I sometimes talk in my sleep. I always said that if I ever got married, (which was such an improbability that surely I needn’t even worry about it) I would want my own bedroom. We’d just be one of those (highly hypothetical) couples that didn’t always sleep in the same bed and that would be fine!

Fast forward and suddenly I find myself married. When Dan and I began cohabiting I was very, very worried about the sleeping situation. I was horrified to discover that he’s also a selfish sleeper. Nightly bouts of sleep tug-of-war over the covers and many bruised shins (and chins) ensued. I thought we’d either rip the covers in half in our sleep or inadvertently beat each other to a pulp drowsily vying for the perfect pike position. (And I’m not talking about diving – I’m talking about the most efficient way of utterly hogging the entire bed and ensuring your co-sleeper’s discomfort.)But the strangest thing happened. Somehow it stopped being an issue; now we sleep in synchronized, parallel pike positions, one of us wrapped around the other. We still tug over the covers, but now I know to start the night with the covers pulled almost all the way over to my side to ensure that I’ll still have some when I wake up in the morning. I still occasionally elbow him in the face and it turns out that he also occasionally talks (or grunts) in his sleep and somehow despite all this nonsense we sleep just fine, thank you very much. He must be a great guy (and handsome too!). After all, I wouldn’t have adjusted my sleeping style for just anyone. I’m not that kind of girl.

Things you should know about Dan: He’s a seriously talented writer, and rather fantastic at singer-song-writer-ing. Also, he has a way with finger pistols.
He’s also just about the kindest, warmest, loveliest guy you could ever hope to meet. And he likes chocolate as much as I do.

When I asked Dan what kind of cake he’d like for his birthday (which was last weekend) he said “Well, probably Red Velvet or Chocolate.” (A wholly unsurprising answer.) I thought and thought about which to make, knowing that Red Velvet would crop up at some point in this year’s cakestravaganza. I had a crazy idea and, despite hearing my mom saying in my head (as she does every time I express incredulity at the small amount of cocoa powder in our traditional Red Velvet recipe) “People always think Red Velvet Cake is a chocolate cake, but it’s not,” I decided to buck tradition, to flout Red Velvet orthodoxy and make a Red Velvet Fudge Cake. I also skipped the traditional cooked frosting recipe and topped it with Cream Cheese Frosting. The result was not your everyday Red Velvet Cake, but damn, it was a good cake.

A note on recipes: There are more different recipes for Red Velvet than you can shake a stick at. I’ve tried a LOT of them, but honestly, none beats the one I grew up on. The cake recipe I use comes from the East Columbus United Methodist Women’s Cookbook (late 70s-early 80s), which was, I believe, a gift to my mom from my dad’s mom. This cookbook is full of gems, but the Red Velvet recipe is clearly the best loved. In fact, when looking for the recipe, you can actually spot the page by looking for red stains. Not blood, but food coloring.
This is, in my opinion, the Definitive Red Velvet Recipe. Others contain more butter or more flour, less salt, more vinegar, less food coloring (I actually caved to this impulse and was NOT happy with the resulting color), and (sin of sins!) more cocoa. This is not, after all, a chocolate cake. Just trust me, here. Jean Wagner (East Columbus, ca. 1970) knew what she was talking about. It’s a tangy, light, airy, perfectly-crumbed beaut.

This recipe has, incidentally, been the cause of much consternation for me – once I tried to ice a warm cake with the traditional cooked icing recipe, but the frosting melted and left clumps of the flour/milk paste sticking all over the cake (my mom’s generous response: “I think you’ve got the cake texture down, but the icing could use a little practice.”) Another time, I baked one of these for a boy I was desperately infatuated with and brought it to school for his birthday. On my way from the car to our lockers, the bottom of the container caved and the whole cake slid out and squished against my belly. Our school uniforms were white shirts and khaki pants, both of which show up red food coloring spectacularly.

But I come by it honestly! On another occasion that has since gone down in the family history books, my grandma was baking a Red Velvet Cake and left the vanilla out of both the cake and the icing. It was wretched.

For Frosting, I turned to Nancie McDermott’s Southern Cakes. Her Cream Cheese frosting is gorgeous and her Old-Fashioned Chocolate Fudge Frosting seemed like a good fit for the fudge filling I desired. I’ll admit, I had issues with the fudge. (See recipe below.) It didn’t work the way it was meant to. So I slapped in some cream cheese and that did the trick.

With no further ado, here’s what you need to do next time someone near and dear has a birthday.

Red Velvet Cake

  • 1/2 c. butter, softened
  • 1 t cocoa (I think I put 2 t because surely, 1 can’t be enough – sorry mom)
  • 1 1/2 c sugar
  • 1 t salt
  • 1 t vinegar
  • 1 t baking soda
  • 2 oz. red food coloring (you can use 1 oz, but it won’t be nearly bloody enough)
  • 2 whole eggs
  • 1 t vanilla
  • 2 1/4 c sifted flour
  • 1 c buttermilk
  1. Preheat oven to 350.
  2. Mix vinegar and baking soda and let settle.
  3. Beat butter, cocoa, sugar, salt, and vanilla until light and fluffy.
  4. Add eggs and beat until incorporated.
  5. Add food coloring and mix until incorporated. (A note, if you’re doing this with a mixer – either hand or stand – be VERY careful to begin mixing at a low speed. Otherwise you’ll have a red-splattered everything.)
  6. Add flour and buttermilk alternatively, about a third each time.
  7. Fold in the baking soda and vinegar.
  8. Divide between two 9″ round pans and bake for 30-35 minutes.
  9. Let cool in pans for about ten minutes, then invert onto racks to cool.
  10. When thoroughly cooled, use a long serrated knife to divide each layer into two.
  11. Assemble using desired frosting.

Cream Cheese Frosting (adapted from Southern Cakes)

  • 8 oz cream cheese, softened
  • 1 lb powdered sugar
  • 2 t vanilla
  1. Beat until combined and fluffy.

Chocolate Fudge Frosting (adapted from Southern Cakes)

  • 1 1/2 c sugar
  • 1/4 c cocoa
  • 1/4 t salt
  • 1/4 c butter (1/2 stick)
  • 1/2 c evaporated milk or half-and-half (I used Heavy Cream – was this my mistake?)
  • 1 t vanilla extract
  • ~3 oz cream cheese (my addition)
  1. In a heavy saucepan, combine sugar, cocoa, and salt. Mix well.
  2. Add butter and milk (cream) and heat to melt. Mix into smooth brown sauce.
  3. Stir well and bring to lively boil.
  4. Maintain gentle boil for five minutes. When frosting begins to thicken, remove from heat.
  5. Stir in vanilla and set aside to cool for 20 minutes.
  6. Beat the frosting until it thickens and looks shiny. This never happened for me – it was a little grainy. Maybe the sugar didn’t completely dissolve or something?
  7. I beat it until it was entirely cool and slightly bigger in volume than before. Then I beat in the cream cheese until it was fluffier and spreadable and went to town.

Cake Assembly:My cake went, from bottom to top: cake, fudge, cake, cream cheese frosting, cake, fudge, cake, cream cheese frosting on top. Top with candle, sing, and make a wish!
**The fudge did make the cake a lot uglier, but it also make it taste spectacular.

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