Two words, people: Betty Crocker.
But first, a bit of history:
Vivian Murphy gave me what is a recipe for "perfect Red Velvet Cake." The recipe goes back to when she was in high school back in the late 70's. The original recipe was clipped from a newspaper and over the years, has been tweaked. A family friend gave Vivian tips on improvement: add baking soda to the buttermilk instead of sifting it with the other dry ingredients; add the vanilla flavoring at the end instead of adding it to the cream mixture, before adding the dry ingredients; and use less cocoa (the original recipe called for 2 tablespoons instead of the one) so the cake wouldn't be so dark. Vivian began adding half of a second bottle of food coloring at the end with the vanilla flavoring because two bottles made the cake too red. White Lily flour was used because "Mrs. Keaton, who makes the best butter pound cakes in the world, swears by it." A church member told Vivian to separate the egg whites before adding them, which caused the mixture to become a little fluffier. Vivian also sifts the flour twice, sometimes three times, to make it airier.
Vivian's cake is ethereal and delicious; the perfect red velvet cake.
Friday, 6:00 pm
The wedding is in 24 hours. We have no wedding cake. I am sitting on the floor in my kitchen holding my head. I'm still wearing black socks and blue sandals, but that is the least of my problems. I went home at lunch today to test a theory and baked a 12" bottom tier. It failed rigorous review: it's sinking. It has no structure. The cake isn't dense enough to sustain the weight of two more tiers (six layers of cake and frosting). The bottom layer needs to be strong, Atlas, capable of holding the red velvet world on its shoulders. I seriously consider making a pound cake and coloring it red.
First Joetta calls to check in. I'm rocking back and forth but I assure her I'm fine. Amanda clicks in to see if I need help frosting the cake. I chirp that I don't, although I'm on the floor in a fetal position. I can't bring myself to tell her I don't have a cake to frost.
It's not a tragedy by any means. But it is a wedding cake and it doesn't matter if I produce great food tomorrow; it's the cake everyone's looking at and it's the cake that means the most to the bride. I really, really, really don't want to disappoint her.
I call Vanessa and explain my dilemma. "Vanessa, I have no idea what to do."
A momentary pause on the other line. Then, decisively Vanessa says: "Two words, honey. Betty Crocker."
I recoil in horror; how can I not, being the snob that I am? "No! You're kidding!"
"No, you need dense cake, Betty Crocker will do it. I mean, the rest of it will be real red velvet cake. It's just one layer, right?"
It's as if she's asked me to convert religions. I can't bring myself to look the horror of it in the eye. I'll brave lions; I can't denounce my culinary gods! Can I?
Everyone seems to sense my cosmic pain and is calling. Julie ("Dude," our mutual nickname for each other, not to be confused with Jules of the Paris trip) calls me next.
"Dude, I'm screwed!" I tell her, relating my problem and Vanessa's solution.
"Dude," she says, "She's right. If it's strong enough to hold the rest of layers of real velvet cake, what does it matter if the foundation is Betty Crocker?"
"It won't taste great!"
"How do you know? Have you ever had box mix?"
"No, but --"
"So you don't know. But Dude, it's one layer. There are eight more layers of the red velvet."
"But Dude, it's cheating!"
"Dude, it's a free wedding cake! And she's not marrying the cake!"
Sometimes, all it takes is the clarity of a simple statement. I'm such an arrogant ass. The fact is, Krista's not looking for, nor is she expecting any, miracles. The most important thing to her is Dan; it's not the food, it's not the cake, it's not the decorations at the church; all of that is incidental compared to him. So any burden I'm placing on myself is of my own making. I can do this.
At the grocery store, I'm having a Robin Williams moment from "Moscow on the Hudson." Confronted with more choices for box mix than I know what to do with, I am temporarily overwhelmed. I have no idea which one to buy. Vanessa's voice echoes: "Betty Crocker." I reach for the Betty Crocker Butter Yellow Cake...But before I can buy I feel compelled to confess. I dial Hubby. "Guess where I am?"
"The Betty Crocker aisle."
I hang up on him. One box. I look around furtively...snatch the box, throw it in my cart, and cover it with a five pound bag of sugar. Quickly I race to the checkout line, intent on leaving before I see anyone I know.
I am staring at the bottom tier of the wedding cake. A twelve inch round, three layers with cream cheese frosting in between them. The bottom, and thickest layer, is the Betty Crocker batter with red food coloring. Should I be concerned that it popped out of the pan as if coated with Teflon? Is it made of Teflon? I don't care; it isn't sinking under the two other layers of red velvet. A 9" tier and a 6" tier of red velvet cake are waiting to be mounted on this foundation. That will have to wait until the morning. I'm tired and I'm going to bed.
Saturday, 9:00 pm
The cake is a smooth column of ivory cream cheese frosting, two tiers high (I lost my nerve trying to put the third tier on), covered with blood red rose petals. No one looking would know the mid morning drama that resulted in the discovery that Hubby can frost cakes ("Hey! It's just like spackling!"); and that I had to lie on the kitchen floor to recover from the near heart attack of almost dropping the cake. No one knows that in the middle of finishing the decoration, a mere twenty minutes before bringing the cake out, I had a bad moment that could have been disastrous (Hubby: "Hey there, Curse-a-saurus Rex, this is a church!"). That's all irrelevant.
Dan and Krista cut their cake and the dark red layers stand out in stark contrast to the white frosting. Dan feeds her a bite; she reciprocates...then smears frosting on his cheek. He retaliates with a handful of red velvet cake in her face. Her makeup's ruined. Everyone laughs. We're all in a great mood. The cake doesn't collapse. It's a good moment. I finish pounding my glass of wine and lean back against Hubby.
"Good job, baby," he whispers.
"Baby," I whisper back, "If I ever volunteer to bake a wedding cake again, can you promise to kill me?"
"Baby, if you ever volunteer to cater an entire wedding for free again, I'll happily kill you."
And wouldn't you know it? My camera's memory card died as I was trying to take a photo of the cake. But it's a wedding -- so there are a million pictures. Hopefully someone will send me one soon so I can look at the first, last, and only wedding cake I will ever bake. Hold me to this, won't you?
Vivian Murphy's Perfect Red Velvet Cake
2 cups sugar
1 lb butter, softened, or 2 cups Crisco Oil (I used the butter for a richer taste. Also, I can't stand the idea of Crisco)
3 eggs, separated
2 ½ Cups White Lily all-purpose flour
1 tbs Hershey’s cocoa
1 cup buttermilk
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
1 tsp vinegar
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
1 ½ bottles red food coloring
Preheat oven 350 degrees.
Stir baking soda in with the buttermilk.
Sift the flour, salt, & cocoa (sift two or three times) in a bowl.
In a separate bowl, cream the sugar and butter on medium speed. Add the egg whites, scraping down the sides of the bowl to incorporate the cream mixture. Add egg yolks, one at a time making sure to incorporate. Reduce speed to low and carefully add 1 bottle food coloring to mixture, then the vinegar.
Increase speed to medium and alternate between adding in 1/3 of buttermilk mixture and 1/3 of the dry ingredients. Mix well. Add the remaining 1/2 bottle of food coloring and the vanilla.
Divide the batter between three 9" greased and floured cake pans. You must divide the mixture; the cake will rise and overflow if you attempt to bake it all in one pan. Trust me. Having cleaned out an oven full of red velvet lava, I know wherefore I speak.
Bake for 30-35 minutes. Let it cool in the pans for 10 minutes before turning out onto a cake rack.
Cream Cheese Frosting
1 lb unsalted butter (four sticks)
1 lb confectioner's sugar
1 1/2 lbs cream cheese
1 T vanilla extract
Beat butter and cream cheese until fluffy. Reduce speed. Add confectioner's sugar (seriously, reduce the speed or deal with a face full of powdered sugar) and vanilla, beat until combined.