Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Red Velvet Cake and Blue Pancakes

My grandmama died on Sunday. It was something we'd been expecting for a few weeks, and according to my sister, she just stopped breathing. The Man and I went to The Man's home state to deal with a few things from his grandfather's passing a few weeks ago, and I wrestled with whether I should go or not. I finally went at my sister's urging...she pointed out that there wasn't a damn thing I could to about it, it was going to happen whether I was there or not, and it was probably better (for me) that I wasn't there, plus the powers that be had been saying that she was going to die "any day now" for the last 3 weeks, so who knows when it would actually happen. (When my sister starts being the sane and logical one in the family, you just gotta wonder if we should start looking for the other 3 Horsemen of the Apocalypse.)

I lived with my grandmother from the day I came home from the hospital until I was 12, when I moved from her Small Town to live with my mom, sister, and (sometimes) dad in Hightechville (It's a very long and convoluted Southern Gothicky-kind of tale as to why I was not living with my mother, and frankly, I don't know if I have the bandwith for all of it. Suffice it to say, it's interesting in that train wreck, be glad your own family is more normal than you thought kind of way.) I also spent large chunks of my summers with her after that until I turned 16 and got a job. We didn't spend as much time together after that, but we did talk on the phone almost every week until she went into the nursing home 2 years ago.

My grandmother was not overwhelmingly talented in the cooking department, and some of her concoctions were less than stellar. Her mother died when she was a little girl, and her older sister died at young age as well, so she had a negative balance if you will in the domestic arts department. When she married my grandfather, she was barely 16 and he 17, and she moved in with him and his family of 12 brothers and sisters. All the women on that side of the family were pretty darn good Southern cooks, so I guess it might have been a bit intimidating for my grandmother to try and match her skills with theirs.

The best memory I have of her cooking is Red Velvet Cake. She only made Red Velvet Cake at Christmas and no other time of the year...which made it extra special. Red Velvet Cake still screammms "Christmas!" to me, and it does seem decidedly decadent to eat it at other times of the year, but I manage to force myself.

I was thoroughly fascinated with Red Velvet Cake, because what other food was I allowed to eat that looked so exotic? Not to mention elegant (in my child's mind)...the deep red color and the pure crystalline white icing--none of that cream cheese-pecan spackle crap! Hate that stuff...hate it with the fury of a thousand suns...hate it. Will scrape it off any and all pieces of red velvet cake I am offered, so don't be offended that it was just yours--it's everybody's. I think Red Velvet Cake might fall under the whole "not as good as mom/grandma made" food group, right up there with spaghetti and meatloaf. (Although, seeing as how my mother made spaghetti sauce with ketchup, you might wonder about that...)

According to legend I like best and the "Innernet," Red Velvet Cake was first served at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in NYC, and it was served with a pure white icing. Which is what my grandmama made--a 7-minute variety, I think. It was sort of sticky and formed a slight sugar crust after it had been frosted for awhile. She frosted it with dozens of tiny peaks--exactly like pictures of the cakes in her 1950s-era red and white checkered Better Homes and Gardens 3-ring binder cookbook.

Red Velvet Cake

2-¼ cups All-purpose flour, sifted (I use cake flour because that's what my grandmama used)
1 teaspoon Salt
2 tablespoons Cocoa
2 1-ounce Bottles of red food coloring (equivalent measure is ¼ cup or 4 tablespoons)
½ cup Crisco or other vegetable shortening (I've used butter as well)
1-½ cups Sugar
2 Large Eggs
1 cup Buttermilk
1 teaspoon Vanilla extract
1 teaspoon White vinegar
1 teaspoon Baking soda

Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease and flour two 9-inch cake pans. You can also use three 8-inch pans, which is what she did.

Combine the sifted flour and salt, and set aside.

Put the cocoa in a small glass bowl, and add the food coloring gradually, stirring until mixture is smooth. Set aside.

Cream together the shortening and sugar, beating for 4 or 5 minutes at medium speed in your electric mixer until fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating for at least 30 seconds after each addition.

At low speed of your mixer, add the flour mixture to the sugar mixture alternately with the buttermilk and vanilla, scraping down the sides of the bowl as necessary. Add the cocoa/food coloring mixture, mixing until color of batter is uniform. Do not overbeat; overbeaten cake batter will result in a tough cake. Turn off your mixer.

In a small bowl, mix the vinegar with the baking soda. It will foam up. Stir it briefly to mix, and then add it to the cake batter, folding it in to incorporate well, but do not beat.

Pour the batter into the prepared cake pans, and bake in a 350°F oven for 25 to 30 minutes, or until a cake tester comes out clean. Allow layers to cool on a rack for 10 minutes before turning out. Let cake cool completely before frosting.

Respect the red food coloring--it will stain. You will find little droplets of red batter all over the kitchen, yourself, and the mixer, so be prepared and wear old clothes.

For the white icing, I cheat a little bit, since I am afraid of the 7-minute variety...don't know why I have this phobia, since I've never actually made it myownself, but we'll attribute it to Grandmama having to re-make it a couple of times one year and being very cranky because of that. I use a recipe from the Cake Mix Doctor for Marshmallow Frosting that is pretty darn close to what I remember. (However, you should resist using the CMD's recipe for Red Velvet Cake that involves a boxed German Chocolate cake mix. It is NOT, I repeat NOT, a true Red Velvet Cake and you will be shunned and doomed to wander the scorched earth...well, maybe that's a bit of overreaction, but you get the point.)

Marshmallow Frosting

1/2 C sugar
2 Tbsp water
2 large egg whites
1 jar (7 oz) marshmallow creme

1. Place sugar, water, and egg whites in a medium-size heavy sauce pan. Cook over low heat, beating continuously with an electric handmixer on high speed until soft peaks form; about 2-3 minutes. (Make sure you keep the cord away from the burner!)

2. Remove pan from heat. Add marshmallow creme and beat the mixture on high speed until stiff peaks form; about 2 more minutes.

3. Use at once to frost cake; makes about 3 1/2 cups, enough to frost a 2- or 3-layer cake.

I remember finding a package of food coloring--you know the ones with the funky plastic dropper lids--several months after Christmas had come and gone; I was probably 8 or 9 at the time. I knew I wouldn't be able to persuade her to make a Red Velvet Cake, but I got the idea that maybe we could make Red Velvet Pancakes! I mixed up the batter, added the food coloring, and presented them to her for cooking. To her credit, she didn't bat an eye and proceeded to fry them up and eat them with me. The next time we made pancakes, we were out of the red, so behold--the amazing Blue Velvet Pancakes! Somehow, the rest of the box of food coloring disappeared, so I never got to make Green Velvet Pancakes. Bummer!

Another food memory I have of her is not nearly as tasty. Somewhere along the way, she came up with a recipe for an asparagus casserole. This is the casserole that becomes the dish that Aunt Such-and-Such or Grandma So-and-So brings to every family gathering, and no one will ever eat it. Ever. It becomes a sort of challenge to see if you can get the newcomers to actually eat it. Every family's got one of these recipes, and you know exactly what I'm talking about. This one involved a can of asparagus spears, the ubiquitous can of cream of mushroom soup, boiled egg slices, and cheese. Somehow, you layered up this concoction and bake it. It looked alot like this, only worse.
Evidently, there were supposed to be cracker crumbs, but that never quite made it into Grandmama's recipe. (I know-- I was amazed when I found a picture of the casserole online! Who would have thunk anyone would take a picture of this hideous thing!)

My grandmother also taught me how to play checkers and Old Maid and was properly horrified when my dad taught me to play poker. She despaired of my tree climbing and would cut the limbs off my favorite tree on occasion, but I always grew just enough to reach the next highest branches. I probably almost gave her a heart attack more than once with that tree, but we both survived.

I miss my grandmother, the blue pancakes, and that damned asparagus casserole.


Linna said...

So sorry to hear about your grandmother. I hadn't realized you lived with her until you were 12. (If you'd been my baby, I would never have given you up, not even to family.)

I have that Betty Crocker red-plaid-ring-binder cookbook! It was my first cookbook ever, and I still make things from it like the Pineapple Upsidedown Cake in the "Quick Mix Cakes" section. (I suspect that cake no longer appears in later versions of the cookbook because it's made with Crisco. But it is very tasty. I make just the cake without the pineapple to use as strawberry shortcake-cake when the first strawberries come out in the spring.)

Thanks for the Red Velvet Cake recipe. And I'm glad there's somebody else who doesn't like cream cheese frosting on cakes like that. I don't even like it on carrot cake. You don't have to be afraid of 7-minute frosting now that we have portable hand mixers. It was horrible to make back in the days when you had to stir it by HAND for 7 minutes. Yikes! But standing over the pot with a hand mixer is no big deal. I'll try your marshmallow frosting one of these days. (Hmm, the SF writers are meeting tomorrow at Nancy Swanner's house.)

When is grandma's funeral? I expect you to take notes.

Erin said...

I'm sorry to hear about your loss. Losing someone close is never easy, even when you know that it will happen soon.

I've never eaten red velvet cake, but I think that I need to try it. I'm a huge fan of cake in general, and it sounds delicious.

Kim said...

I'm sorry to hear about your grandmother. Both of my grandmothers could cook and make stuff that makes your mouth water.

Red Velvet cake is delicious and I will ahve to try your recipe. Although I am not too sure about the marshmallow icing, I am not big on the marshmallow taste in things.