Friday, February 29, 2008

Ah, morning. Paula Deen, are you there?

My bouncing baby girl and I have arrived, with a bit less screaming and up-all-night exhaustion, at another glorious North Salem winter dawn. It's hauntingly gorgeous, this part of the world: The lake, the rolling hills of horse farms, the unbelievably over-built homes of new Westchester. It has changed a mite since I rode here as a child, but not enough that I don't recognize it any longer. They have hung on to what they value as a community: open land and green space. Folks around here don't just talk the talk, they anti-up, giving their own land, giving their resources, their time. Thanks to people like this, my daughter will have a little oxygen left at age 50, and I am grateful for them each day that I can walk on the bridle trails here.

Before I got back here though, I was everywhere. I travelled endlessly in my line of work and lived all over. I was lucky to be a witness to many food-related things. I still mull over a lot of articles I encountered, I am still infatuated with some, and driven to near-madness with frustration over others.

Facing the fact that I will have to start a controversy in order to breech this topic, but certain I should regardless, I want to tell you of my red velvet odyssey. This cake is a staple of Southern baking for which there are hordes of recipes. Having read every one I could find, and knowing a little something about cakes, I undertook to find the best one. But this is a troublesome undertaking for someone like me, because I am particular (though, on Josh's advice, trying not to be), about a great many things, but wildly so about cake and icing. I am not like Rose, I am not going to go into some colossal thesis on what makes a good chocolate cake because, I only have one palate: I need butter and chocolate

Cocoa is a thing I have to have on the shelf, apparently at this point I need to have five different types or brands. The cakes I made with them have always been like brown, tasteless, cardboard no matter how much butter was slipped under the beater. Five recipe attempts later, I gave up the ghost on cocoa red velvet cakes, they are for some other, less chocolately girl. And those recipes using oils? Also not passing muster. Buttermilk? Nope.

On Saturday mornings, I make the Sunday dinner cake or dessert. This past Sunday, this cake was slid before my sister-in-law, Amy, who is the cake barometer. This runs in her family, it's a talent, if you ask me. Was she ever tired, just pooped. Because, she had just come home from Italy (!!!!). But she was willing to give it a go, to allow this cake it take its shot at history. She has consumed a small piece each day since (she is about as big as a willow branch) and while it is going to stir a pot of tradition I both respect and adore, it's time we investigate a new turn on an old formula.

Come on, what do you say, Charleston, to leaping off the edge? I know it's not in your blood, but maybe it is in your sense of adventure. It's darker, richer, and more winningly flirty, and it's coming to you from a dedicated southophile (Hello, Websters? New word! Way better than "yummo"!). Even if it is not Paula's, it's still gooo-ood.

Haltingly, nervously, I give you:

Red Velvet Cake
North Salem, February, 2008

2 cups all purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup (2 sticks) butter, softened plus 2 tablespoons (for buttering pans
2 tablespoons cocoa (for dusting pans)
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup light brown sugar
4 large eggs, at room temperature
8 ounces bittersweet chocolate, melted and cooled
1 cup whole milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract (not Imitation)
1 ounce red food coloring

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.Butter cake pans very generously, dust all over with cocoa powder. You could line them with parchment, but I like to take my chances, I use a lot of butter and have had no trouble thus far... place this aside for a sec.

In a smaller bowl, off to the side, sift flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt together. Set aside.

In a large bowl, with an electric or stand mixer, beat together softened butter and both sugars until smooth, creamy, and completely incorporated. Scrape down your bowl to be sure all in combined. Add the eggs one at a time, beat until smooth after each egg. Add the chocolate, mixing until smooth once again. Scrape down your bowl. Add the sifted flour (dry) ingredient mixture in three additions alternating with the milk. ALWAYS begin and end with the flour mixture. Scrape down your bowl again, then add the vanilla and red food coloring. Mix until combined and the color is even. Scrape down the bowl from top to bottom, check to be sure there are no big spots of unincorporated color, mix again to be sure all is combined.

Place half of mixture in each cake pan and level out as best you can. Place in oven and bake for 23 minutes, if the cake nearly bounces back to your touch, but not completely, it is done. If not, put it back for a few more minutes and test again. Just a hair underbaked is best to maintain a moist crumb which can, and should be able to be picked up from the back of a spoon and licked off in the standard cake plate cleaning ritual.

Throw your favorite Buttercream Icing atop and let it roll, this is as good as any. Good baking, ya'll.

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