Friday, May 13, 2005

She Wore Red Velvet

"A woman who would refuse a slice of Red Velvet Cake is not someone with whom you will want to get naked. Testify."

This is author Dorothy Allison's final warning about her Sinful Red Velvet Cake. Warning #2 is the importance of hunting down that mad, bad, dangerous old "semi-poisonous" red dye #2 to get the "genuine lurid red dye color." Warning #3 is the not-surprising fact that this supremely unhealthy cake has never been served at the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival, except the one time that Allison went. All this, of course, comes after she's told you how to make it, in one-, two-, and three-layer (the "death-dealer") versions.

Most everyone knows Dorothy Allison for her breakout novel Bastard Out of Carolina, but my favorite work of hers is still her first book, the short story collection Trash. Near the end of it is "A Lesbian Appetite," a series of brief snapshots about hunger and love and food, vivid with her memories of growing up dirt-poor and Southern. There's so much squishy, queasily poetic bad food writing out there (especially of the my-mother's-cooking, or worse, the sexy-food genre) but Allison's voice is cutting and sharp and real, capturing, in just a few lines, the bitterness of nostalgia when you're homesick for a place you thought you couldn't wait to escape.

"In the middle of the night I wake up desperate for the taste of greens, get up and find a 24-hour deli that still has a can of spinach and half a pound of bacon. I fry the bacon, dump it in the spinach, bring the whole mess to a boil and eat it with tears in my eyes. It doesn't taste like anything I really wanted to have."

And later, she writes,"Food is more than sustanence, it is history. I remember women by what we ate together, what they dug out of the freezer after we'd made love for hours. I've only had one lover who didn't want to eat at all. We didn't last long. The sex was good but I couldn't think what to do with her when the sex was finished. We drank spring water, and fought a lot."

I don't quite trust people who don't want me to cook for them. All the best relationships I've had have ended up involving a lot of time in the kitchen. It's one of the first and most generous impulses: if I love you, or even just like you a lot, I'm going to want to bake you a pie.

But back to the Red Velvet Cake.

As you might have gathered from the above notes, I'm a bit of a sucker for Southerners, and in fact have distant Southern roots on my mother's side, thanks to a great-grandfather from Charleston. So I'd always been intrigued by the idea of Red Velvet Cake, even though I'd never eaten one. In fact, I'd never even seen one until Dorothy Allison and I became neighbors, as it were, in the cookbook Food for Life, a collection of recipes from queer authors and famous people (like RuPaul and Martina Navratilova) put together to benefit AIDS service organizations. Paging past my own prissy writeup for Tea-Time Scones (currants! lemon rind! heart-shaped biscuit cutters!), I found Allison's recipe for Sinful Red Velvet Cake and wanted to lie down for her right there. The recipe is an evolution from a traditional devil's food, which gets its name from its reddish tinge, a result of the chemical interaction between the cocoa (acidic) and the baking soda (alkaline). Reducing the amount of cocoa, and filling in the difference with red food coloring, makes a cake that's bright red instead of reddish-brown, with a taste more of sugar and shortening than chocolate.

I made it for the first time for a birthday party for Sharlene, a woman known far and wide for her devotion to glitter and glamour, as befitting the author of the indispensable Femme’s Guide to the Universe. It was deep red and crazy looking, especially against the plain white frosting Allison insists on. ("Do not add coconut or any tacky decorations. This cake is tacky enough on its own.") And it tasted like--well, a cheap supermarket cake mix. It was achingly sweet with a pronounced chemical twang from all that food coloring. Everyone else ate it, because it was cake, but I was bummed.

Much later, another red velvet cake showed up as an office birthday cake at my job in NYC. Made by the otherwise-fabulous Amy's Bread (home of amazing grilled cheddar-cheese sandwiches and killer devils-food cake) it was heavy and dense and had no taste at all except for a kind of generic, tinny cake flavor. Someone else suggested trying the red velvet cupcakes at Magnolia Bakery, but since I already hated their regular cupcakes--mere vehicles for huge clumps of horrible sugar-and-crisco* icing--there was no way I was going to stand in line for 45 minutes for something I only yearned for conceptually anyway.

Then I finally had the Red Velvet cake at Cake Man Raven, in Fort Greene. Well, for people who like this sort of thing (like longtime Cake Man fan Patti Labelle), this is the sort of thing they will like. Triple decker, the color of lipstick inside, so hefty that a single slice must weigh at least a pound. But bite by bite, the cake is amazingly tender and light, with crushed walnuts pressed into the side of the frosting for a little textural contrast. Still, though, it just kind of tastes like...I don't know, cake. Or shorthand for cake. It's better on paper.

But then again, that's just me. If the girl (or boy) of your dreams is a sucker for Red Velvet Cake, here's how to make one. Dorothy Allison's recipe is much more elaborate and much funnier, but it's way too long to retype here. Instead, this is the Cake Man's version, as published on the bakery's website. Can't vouch for it, as I haven't baked it for anyone, but if you're so inclined, try it and report back here.

Cake Man's Red Velvet Cake

Dry Ingredients: 2-1/2 cups of cake flour, 1-1/2 cups of granulated sugar, 1 teaspoon of baking soda, 1 teaspoon salt and 1 teaspoon of cocoa powder.

Wet Ingredients: 1 cup of buttermilk, 2 eggs, 1 teaspoon of white vinegar, 1-1/2 cups of vegetable oil, 1 oz. of red food coloring and 1 tsp. of vanilla extract.

Sift together all dry ingredients and set aside. Pour wet ingredients into a separate bowl and beat on medium speed until well mixed. Slowly add dry ingredients to bowl and stir well until all ingredients are combined. Pour into 3 greased cake pans.

Bake @ 350 degrees for 20-30 minutes. Let cool thoroughly before frosting.

Frosting: 4 cups of Confectioners Sugar, 1 lb. of cream cheese (room temperature), 1 lb. (4 sticks) of butter (softened) and 2 tsp. of vanilla extract.

Frosting: Mix together the cream cheese and the softened butter. Gradually add confectioners sugar until it reaches desired sweetness and smoothness. Add 2 teaspoons of vanilla extract and frost the cake.

Serves 10-12

*Please note: I have no idea if this is what Magnolia's icing is actually made of. The much-vaunted Pie Queen fact checkers having gone on tart strike, Magnolia could be using the lovingly hand-extracted milk of organic goats for all I know. But sugar and Crisco is what that icing tastes like to me.

1 comment:

esther said...

Hey, great post. Just came across your site and I think I might have to come back.

I love Allison's Trash as well, and the appetite story in particular. Isn't that the one with the story about salting eggplant with your lover's sweat and girl juices? That story made my fried ask me if I had my eggplant tattoo because I'm a dyke..she thought it was a secret sapphic symbol.

Tho' I seem to remember that she knocking the eggplant cooking lady.. too fancy for her southern tastes. The cake sounds fantastic, yet not worth cooking - I hate those plain cakes that just taste like "cake" as you so aptly put it.