James Felder Makes Black Velvet Cake

And now from my classmate, peer and contemporary James Felder—proprietor of the snazzy photoblog Snapshot Artifact—comes an entry about velvet cake. Red velvet cake? No no. This velvet cake is black. Enjoy!

After a somewhat lackluster attempt at making a Red Velvet cake in early December from a decent, but outdated, recipe in the James Beard Cookbook, I decided to try baking the cake again from a different recipe. I got this Red Velvet recipe out of the More From Magnolia cookbook. I usually like to bring to parties vanilla cupcakes with chocolate frosting that I make from a recipe in the first Magnolia book. It’s a real winner. Easy to make, foolproof recipe, happy partygoers with sticky fingers (hehe).

The Magnolia Red Velvet recipe was okay, but I encountered a few problems.

The first difficulty I ran into was that my friend Gregg’s New Year’s Party I was making the cake for had a “black & white” theme. All food had to be black and white. At this point let me explain for those who don’t know out there, that a Red Velvet cake is a white trash specialty which is a a bright red cake (food dye enhanced) with white frosting. [As a sidenote, Val and Darren in our program at NYU inform me that in the African-American community this dessert is known as “Sock It To Me Cake.”] My solution to the black & white theme was to take the cocoa mixture that is normally dyed red, and dye it black before adding it to the batter.

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(the dye mixture in progress, 3 parts cocoa, 6 parts dye)

This raises another problem specific to the Red Velvet world. The cake is a sugary concoction that is very moist and vaguely chocolate-flavored. Its main flavor, to our primitive animal brains, is “red.” But as you can see, a black-dyed Red Velvet Cake (which I was foisting off as a sensuous Black Velvet Cake), really is a sugary chocolate cake. The red color is like the “red-flavored” punch you get in pizza parlors –– a delicate deception between the eye and the palate. This cake, while tasty, tasted just like a normal chocolate cake.

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(thinking of Mickey Mouse for some reason…)

The next problem was the frosting. I will admit upfront that a) I stink at anything that involves a sugar thermometer and b) my childhood ideal of frosting is that sugary stucco you get in cans. So, I was happy when I looked at the “creamy vanilla frosting” recipe Magnolia recommended. No hardball, softball stuff. But there was a hidden danger lurking on the horizon.

The frosting had two components. The first was the flavoring: your average butter, sugar vanilla frosting ingredients.

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The second was a base to be mixed into the flavoring that was (here’s where it got weird) a very thick béchamel of flour and milk –– when cooked and cooled according to recipe, it was like a soft, dense rubber.

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The recipe called for the base and flavoring to be mixed together for five minutes. I’m guessing ten minutes would have been better, for this was where the frosting problem arose. As I frosted the cake, I noticed that there were little yellowish rubber cement balls in the frosting –– unmixed bits of the base. Yeech. Before the party, my friend assured me it wasn’t noticeable and not to tell anyone.

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(frosting, mixed & set in the refrigerator)

Sure enough no one noticed. Out of the bowl the frosting tasted like a buttercream with strong meringue overtones (even though there was no egg in the frosting). On the cake, later, it tasted like a rich whipped cream. Nothing great. The Buttercup Bake Shop (formed by the partner who split off from Magnolia) actually does a better Red Velvet cake with a cream cheese frosting. I’m going to try that recipe next time.

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(nasty yellow balls in frosting visible)

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Two other unexpected problems arose that had nothing to do with the recipe as it was printed:

First, as Craig, a partygoer, was cutting a slice of the cake, he asked “what’s this in the cake?” Oops. I had forgotten to take the parchment paper off the bottom of one of the cake layers. That is what we call a faux pas in sophisticated circles. If you’ve ever seen the trick where a magician whips the tablecloth off the dining room table and all the glasses and silverware remain, you’ll get a good sense of how I dealt with the parchment paper.

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The second problem I won’t go into detail here. Let me just say though, when you consume an evening’s worth of various delicacies that have been dyed black, the aftereffect of it hours later is a bright mossy green. Enough said.

7 comments

  1. Let me be the first to point out that in my opinion (which usually does not count worth didley) that Red Velvet cake is NOT a “white trash specialty”. I should know as I live amongst them. I have yet to see “white trash” even bother to cook for themselves. Now, if Wal-Fart happens to have one on their shelves of lard laden “delicacies”, they will be the first to scarf them up. Red Velvet cake is one of my favorites. Maybe I am “white trash”? I think not. Shame on you!

  2. I agree Jennifer. Red velvet cake is far from “white trash”. It’s more of traditional Southern dish than anything. Oh wait, traditional southern == “white trash”? I don’t think so.

    And I’ve had Sock it to me Cake, and it’s nothing like a red velvet cake. I think James’s friends dropped the ball on this one.

  3. I don’t know, kids. Red velvet cake has always seemed like a white trash dessert to me, and I’ve had a number of unfortunate encounters with it far north of the Mason-Dixon line. Fancy white trash, yes, but still appalling with the horrid red food coloring element.

  4. I’m fascinated by Red Velvet Cake. This is what I learned from my favorite cake history site:

    “Devil’s Food Cake – Also know as Red Velvet Cake, Red Devil’s Cake, Waldorf-Astoria Cake, and $100 Dollar Cake. A beautiful mild chocolate flavor cake that is startlingly red. The cake is traditionally complemented with a thick white frosting with different regions of the country using different types of frosting. The cake gets this bright red color from the large amount of red food dye used in the preparation. 

    Devils food cake is usually thought of in terms of dark chocolate, but originally it was red. This was thought to be due to a chemical reaction between early varieties of cocoa and baking soda, which also gave the cake a soapy taste. Today cooks, using modern processed cocoa, sometimes add a touch of red food coloring to bring back the authentic color. This cake is particularly popular in New Orleans.

    The term “deviled” for spicy foods dates back to the 18th century. This cake probably goes back in history and existed in the southern states where the cake was originally made from beets and cocoa. 

    1902 – Devil’s food cake was the favorite dessert of the early 1900s. In 1902, the recipe first appeared  in an American cookbook called Mrs. Rorer’s New Cook Book by Sarah Tyson Rorer. By 1913, recipes began appearing in cookbooks across America.

    1950s – Some people think that this cake originated in the 1950s at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. The restaurant archives can’t produce any evidence or records of this, but because this version is so popular, the restaurant likes to take credit for it.

    1940s – In the 1940s, a rumor was spread that a customer asked for a copy of the recipe and was given a bill in the amount of  $100. According to the rumor, the angry customer, apparently with revenge in mind, then began circulating the recipe along with her story. As with most urban legends, they seem to have a life of their own, creeping through a society one person at a time.

    1970s – In the 1970s, the cakes’ popularity faded when red dye was linked to cancer.”

    The above came from http://whatscookingamerica.net/History/CakeHistory.htm.

  5. Red Velvet Cake is much more than just a colored chocolate cake! The best recipe has vinegar and buttermilk in it. With that and a great cream cheese frosting, you’ve got something completely wonderful. Amateur Gourmet – have you made one yet yourself?

  6. I’ve had a similar experience with black food coloring (making a red velvet cake with black frosting for halloween) fortunately i’ve been able to stick to red velvet cupcakes from “make my cake” (perhaps the best red velvet cake in the city) try it, you’ll never go back.

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