Life · Memories

Things I Have Learned from Cake

It was my husband’s birthday last week. His favorite dessert that I make is red velvet cake, although rhubarb dream bars and any kind of pie are not to be sneezed at.

I usually make the cake sometime around Christmas, but last December I decided a lot of things were less important than my sanity and the adequate sleep that would support it, and red velvet cake was one of those things. So it never happened. But it was his birthday, and I was feeling guilty, so I baked.

There are two things you should know about red velvet cake.

Thing 1: I make it from scratch. For a lot of cakes, honestly, a mix from a box is great. I make birthday cakes here and there, and sometimes people want the recipe for the cake. I tell them it was Betty Crocker with pudding in the mix, and they’re a little disillusioned. What they really want, even if they don’t know it, is the recipe for the icing.

Boxed chocolate cake mix with good buttercream icing? Fantastic!

Boxed red velvet cake mix? PISTOLS AT DAWN.

Thing 2: We do not eat homemade red velvet cake with cream cheese icing. I am using the Royal We because it’s that important. I mean, it’s a free country and (most of) you are adults, and I can’t stop you if you really want cream cheese icing on your red velvet cake. But I can question your judgment, and I absolutely will. Cream cheese icing on carrot cake is delicious. Do that instead.

Red velvet cake is eaten with cooked flour icing. The kind that requires prep the day before, overnight chilling in the fridge, and an irritating tablespoon-at-a-time combination process with the whipped butter.

You’re probably catching on to the fact that this is kind of a pain to make, which is why it doesn’t happen very often.

This icing is not one that works well as decoration, so I use the plop-and-slather method. The results are pretty much what you’d expect. It’s not the prettiest cake in the world.

But pretty or no, red velvet cake has taught me a lot over the years.

The recipe came from my Aunt Elma, and has been passed around the family. I think my mom made it a few times, and my sister, too. In 1994, I turned 19 a mere nine days after my father had died, and I got three cakes that year. One of them was a red velvet cake made by my Aunt Roberta.

Lesson 1: Cake doesn’t fix everything. But it doesn’t hurt. And the memory of cake may still warm someone’s heart a quarter century later.

I don’t recall exactly when I became the red velvet baker for my immediate family, but it was probably early in my college years. One cake in particular stands out in my mind. I was home from school for a holiday and my sister and I had already rolled out the noodles for pot pie the next day. Next up: red velvet cake. I bustled around my mother’s kitchen in the early evening, humming under my breath. Things were going swimmingly until I realized that there was not enough red food coloring in the house. There was a tiny bottle in the back of the pantry, but it had less than a teaspoon remaining. This cake requires two full ounces. (This makes diaper changes somewhat alarming for parents of toddlers who enjoy solid food and snitch too much cake. The first time, poor Paul thought Levi was dying.)

I looked at the clock. It was almost 6:00 PM. On Christmas Eve.

This was before the days of always-open Wal-Marts dotting the Midwest landscape. There was one store in town that would have red food coloring. “I am going to the IGA!” I hollered as I abandoned the bowls in the kitchen. “I’ll be right back!”

I skidded into the IGA parking lot with a few minutes to spare and ran flat-out to the door. The two employees charged with closing up were jangling the store keys as I came in. They were not overjoyed to see me. “I am getting ONE THING!” I said over my shoulder as I sprinted for the baking aisle. “I swear!”

It was a lie, sort of. I bought all three bottles of red food coloring that were left on the shelf. It was more than I needed, but I was going to be prepared from now on. What if one of them had a broken seal? There was no coming back to the store tonight. I paid, thanked the unamused cashier, and heard the bolt slide shut behind me as I fled.

Lesson 2: Read the recipe first. They’re not kidding about that, even if it’s one you’ve made before.

I got back to the house and dumped the red food coloring in with the cocoa. The first two bottles were fine — no broken seals — so I put the extra back in the pantry with the other food coloring bottles. The now-near-black cocoa paste went smoothly into the butter and sugar batter. We were finally getting somewhere. Thank goodness I’d made it to the store with seconds to spare.

I mixed up the flour and other dry ingredients, and turned to the fridge for the buttermilk.

Yes. You’ve guessed correctly. No buttermilk. I really should have read the recipe. The ENTIRE recipe.

Lesson 3: The moment you start feeling pleased with yourself, be afraid.

When my temper tantrum subsided, I conferred with my sister, who, to her eternal credit, did not laugh. At least not in my hearing. We made a short list of stores in neighboring towns that might stock buttermilk and still be open the evening of Christmas Eve. I went back to the kitchen and read the remaining ingredients out loud as I lined them up on the counter.

I think I’ve repressed the next bit, because I don’t remember how far I drove to acquire buttermilk. But acquire it I did, and went home and finished the cake. While it baked, I prepped the cooked flour part of the icing and set it to cool overnight.

I pulled the layers out of the oven and waited impatiently for the pans to cool just enough for me to get the cake out and onto cooling racks, and then I stacked the dishes in the sink and took my exhausted self off to bed.

I got up the next morning to ice the cake before going to Christmas Day services. The icing mixed up without incident, which was a significant relief given my experiences of the previous evening, and I turned to retrieve the cake layers and begin assembly.

It looked like a hungry badger had snuck into the kitchen overnight. There was an enormous hole gouged out of one the cake layers. Perhaps not a badger, I thought to myself, as I examined the evidence. Perhaps a small child, just tall enough to reach a hand up onto the counter.

It’s possible there were still people asleep in the house that morning after I had run the mixer, but after I had shrieked my niece’s name, there were not.

Lesson 4: Never trust a preschooler.

My mother pointed out that icing covers a multitude of sins, and the cake was assembled. My niece was permitted to return to the public areas of the house. (It helped that she was cute and dressed for Christmas church.)

The rest of the day was uneventful by comparison. Church was fine. Lunch with the extended family was nice, and no tragedies befell the pot pie I’d helped to make for that. We returned to mom’s house to nap and await the time at which we could even think about ingesting more food.

Because we were eating that blasted cake, after everything I’d gone through to make it. I didn’t care what else we had that night or what anyone else thought about it. We were having the cake.

We did roll ourselves to the table eventually and pick over some food. Libby was under the table, begging for scraps. She was my brother’s dog, a gorgeous tan-and-white spaniel with a sweet spirit. My sister-in-law had trained her beautifully, and she was such a nice dog that my mother — my mother — allowed her in the house. To this day, Libby is the best dog I’ve ever napped with.

It was time. There were a lot of people around the table and not a lot of room, so rather than taking up valuable real estate with a cake plate and knife, I cut the cake in the kitchen. I cut exactly as many pieces as there were people that night, and like the good little girl that I was, I served everyone else first.

I slapped the last piece on a dessert plate for myself and headed for the table, and tripped. I watched, horrified, for what felt like an eternity as the last piece of red velvet cake went tumbling layer over layer and hit the floor with a splat.

It was the crowning moment of Libby’s life.

She was so happy no one had the heart to drag her away for a bit. Someone did, eventually, and I wiped up the mess of icing with paper towels. When I sat down at the table, depressed, my brother Chris slid his plate over to me without a word. There wasn’t even a bite missing.

Lesson 5: Brothers are not always mean.

I’ve been making this cake for 25 years, and I’ve mostly got it down. I’ve never again had a disaster like that one, and yes I realize that saying it right out loud like that is tempting fate. In recent years, though, I’ve been more and more frustrated with the texture of the icing. It’s grainy and hard to manage, and while I am of the opinion that the taste of food is much more important than whether it is ready for a magazine shoot, I do have some standards. It should be possible to ice the cake without the stuff glopping off everywhere.

And so this time, I tried a new method. When I prepped the cooked flour icing the day before, I added the sugar into that step. Slowly, as recommended. No impatient dumping. The next day, I added that goop to the butter at the specified laborious pace, not cheating even a little.

It worked. All the graininess was gone, and the icing stayed on the cake. And it had lost none of the rich butter flavor that so delighted my sweet friend Libby.

Lesson 6: It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been doing it. You can always learn something.

I replaced the red food coloring in my own pantry yesterday — it’s possible that I’m a little paranoid about that — where it will likely sit until December. Hopefully, I will retain the things I’ve learned for the next round. Mostly, I just hope I remember to buy the buttermilk.


By request, here’s the recipe.

Red Velvet Cake

  • ½ c. butter, softened
  • 1 ½ c. sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 oz. red food coloring
  • 2 T. cocoa
  • 1 tsp. vanilla
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 2 ¼ c. sifted cake flour
  • 1 c. buttermilk
  • 1 tsp. baking soda
  • 1 T. vinegar
  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Prepare two round cake pans.
  2. Cream together butter and sugar. Add eggs, beating after each.
  3. Make paste with cocoa and food coloring; add to above mixture with vanilla.
  4. Mix flour and salt; add alternately with buttermilk.
  5. Remove beater and MIX BUT DO NOT BEAT IN vinegar and soda.
  6. Bake in cake pans at 350 degrees for 30-35 minutes.
  7. Cool each layer and cut into two discs, if desired. [Carol’s Note: I don’t usually do this. Life is hard enough.]
  8. Ice.

Red Velvet Cake Icing – Original Recipe (see below for smoother version)

[Carol’s Note: Covers 1 batch cupcakes, but double to cover a layer cake well, especially if cutting to four layers.]

  • 5 T. flour
  • 1 c. whole milk [Carol’s Note: I’m not responsible for the results if you use skim milk. Use whole milk.]
  • 1 c. sugar
  • 1 c. butter, at room temperature
  • 1 T. vanilla
  1. Cook flour and milk together until thick; cool until thoroughly cold.
  2. In separate bowl, cream sugar, butter, and vanilla until fluffy.
  3. Add to first mixture; beat only enough to mix.

Red Velvet Cake Icing – SMOOTHER 

  • 4 ½ T. flour
  • 1 c. granulated sugar
  • 1 c. whole milk
  • 1 c. butter, at room temperature
  • ½ tsp. vanilla
  • pinch salt
  1. Whisk together flour and sugar in a medium saucepan. Whisk in milk.
  2. Place saucepan over low heat and bring to a boil, whisking continuously, then cook for 1 minute. Remove from heat. Pour into a clean heatproof plate or shallow container. Immediately cover with plastic wrap, pressing plastic directly against the surface. Chill completely. [Carol’s Note: A pie plate worked very well for a double recipe.]
  3. Beat butter until smooth and fluffy and lightened in color, about 2 minutes.
  4. Add cooled pudding one T. at a time, mixing well after each addition.
  5. Add vanilla and salt and beat until buttercream looks thick, smooth, and creamy, about 3 minutes.
  6. Use immediately or refrigerate in an airtight container or a ziploc bag for one week.
  7. To use once refrigerated, first allow to come to room temperature then beat until smooth and spreadable.

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