Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Baker's Instincts

This weekend I tried to make a Red Velvet Cake for a friend's birthday. It was not very successful. In the end, the entire experience taught me that have some fledgling baker's instincts, and that next time around I should trust them.

When I started my search for a recipe I had the idea that I should find the most authentic recipe out there. I don't know why exactly, but it seemed like such a specific cake steeped in tradition. I didn't want to make a simple knock off. I was going to go for the glory. After looking some recipes over, I found the more traditional versions had some ingredients I was unsure of. The idea of adding vinegar to a cake just seemed unappealing. I also saw that the older, more traditional recipes called for only two tablespoons of cocoa powder, while the newer ones had a quarter cup or more. Here's where those instincts made their first appearance. Just looking at the recipes, the newer versions looked better to me. My instincts said, "Just go with what looks better." But, I ignored them and continued down the path of tradition and authenticity.

As I continued to read about Red Velvet Cakes, I learned a bit of lore about them. There are plenty of stories about how the red cakes came about, but the one that stood out to me as the most likely was one about poor folks in the South. In the 1940's when chocolate cakes were in fashion, but cocoa powder was expensive and hard to come by, some creative bakers came up with a colorful alternative to a white or yellow cake. With couple tablespoons of cocoa and a bunch of food coloring, a new tradition with just a dash of the coveted cocoa was born. It sounded like a beautiful tradition of folks making the best of what they had, but again my instinct came into play. They whispered to me, "If this is true, that Red Velvet was the cake you made if you couldn't afford chocolate, and I CAN afford chocolate... Why not just make chocolate?"

"Shut up," I said to my instincts. "Surely Red Velvet (the poor man's chocolate cake) is a special cake that is just as good as chocolate cake (the rich man's chocolate cake)." Why? Why would I say that to myself? The poor man's anything is never as good as the rich man's something!

I settled on a recipe that seemed authentic and was detailed and easy to follow. I went out and bought some really choice ingredients and got to work. I carefully measured, sifted and mixed. It was really a fun project to work on. The cakes turned out a brilliant shade of red. I felt at this point very successful.

I let the cake cool overnight. I decided not to go with the traditional roux icing (all of a sudden tradition wasn't important?) and made a cream cheese frosting that was highly recommended on a well respected food blog. The frosting was delicious, however, it was a tad soft. I had followed the recipe carefully, that must be how it's supposed to be, right? Well, I frosted the cake and it looked great for a minute. But only moments later my cake was nearly naked again, sitting in a puddle of frosting. It was just way too soft! I still had plenty of frosting so I added a couple of cups of powdered sugar to the frosting to stiffen it up. I also turned on the air conditioner (it was a little warm in the kitchen) and frosted the cake a second time then quickly put it in the fridge to set. I peeked in after five minutes to check on it and my heart fell. The frosting was still oozing down the side of the cake.

It was such a frustrating experience! I had imagined this creamy, white frosting hiding away a stunning, deep red cake. I kept ending up with a puddle of frosting! After the second frosting attempt, I threw in the towel and made a chocolate ganache that I KNEW would stay on. However, all the frosting drama had left the cake a bit disheveled and I couldn't bring myself to present a messy cake to my friend. I cut him piece and left the rest in my fridge. Finally, three days later, I was able to bring myself to taste it. I let it rest on the counter to come up to room temperature, poured myself a glass of milk, and dug in.

It was surprisingly good! Not great, certainly not as good as a chocolate cake, but good. The cake was a bit grainy, like a corn cake, and not very sweet, but the remnants of the cream cheese frosting and ganache were a nice sweet balance.

In the end, I'm glad I had this baking experience. I learned that, even though I still so new at this, I can trust myself and my instincts.

Here's a picture of the cake.

I'm not going to link to the recipe this time, because I really can't recommend it, especially the frosting. If you're interested in baking a Red Velvet cake, you'll have to do your own search. Just remember to trust your instincts!

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