Enough already. The out-of-control cupcake craze of the past few years has peaked, leaving a trail of overwrought treats in its wake (and the somewhat frightening prospect of a cupcake vending machine.) Perhaps the most collateral damage has been done to the reputation of the Red Velvet Cake, touted by many bakeries as the ultimate variety, the cupcake supreme. But an office celebration a couple of weeks ago, with cupcakes from one of New York’s most famous purveyors, provided the sorriest sample to date: a Red Velvet cupcake that was so red it looked like it was bleeding, with a hefty dollop of frosting that tasting like slightly sweetened Crisco. “I don’t get it,” one taster said. “Why are people so crazy about Red Velvet?”
To set the record straight about why the Red Velvet Cake/Cupcake is so beloved, we baked up a batch using an old-fashioned recipe via the Waldorf Astoria, and offered some words of wisdom on the side:
- Yes, a Red Velvet Cake is a chocolate cake, a butter velvet cake recipe that results in a finely textured crumb, incorporating cocoa for a light, chocolately flavor.
- No, a Red Velvet Cake does not have to be neon red in color. The reaction between buttermilk, vinegar and cocoa in the original recipes gave the cake a reddish-brown tinge, and subsequent recipes began to add red food coloring to emphasize the idea of a devil’s food cake. But newer recipes have bumped up the food coloring to absurd amounts, with some calling for an entire bottle of red color. Who really wants to consume that much food coloring?
- Yes, there are chocolate cake recipes with beets (which do lend color and moisture) but Red Velvet is not one of them, no matter how much the girls consuming all those cupcakes might want to think they are getting some nutrition. (Ok, we’ll concede that beets were used during World War II, when food dyes were scarce.)
- No, a Red Velvet Cake does not always have cream cheese frosting. Original recipes call for an unusual cooked, French butter roux icing, called ermine icing, that isn’t very sweet. It mimics the lightness of whipped cream, but holds up better without refrigeration, and provides a lovely counterpoint to the chocolate cake.
- Yes, cream cheese frosting is an option. But to my point of view, it’s a heavy-handed topping. Do give the ermine icing a try. More than one of those tasting the old-fashioned version after that blood-red commercial cupcake were convinced that they’d eaten cream cheese frosting.
- Yes, tasters will be delighted, almost childlike in their enthusiasm. A sampling of comments: “This is Red Velvet Cake? I’ve never had one like this.” “It’s so light. It’s not too sweet.” “I don’t have that weird chemical feeling I usually have when I eat Red Velvet cake. This is so much better.”
You’ve probably seen those jars in the dairy aisle, next to the sour cream or cream cheese. Something called crema — from Mexico, or Salvador, or Guatemala, or even L.A. And you’ve likely wondered what it was, or how exactly it was different from the nearby cream and/or sour cream. Well, stop wondering and pick up a jar. Crema is a wonderful addition to the repertoire, easily swapped for that sour cream, crème fraiche, cream or yogurt in dishes both savory and sweet. It has the texture of a thick cream, or a thinned sour cream; the tang of sour cream, but with a lighter acidity; the lightness of crème fraiche, but with a bit more salt to land it on the savory side.
The Three Points cooks first tried it out some time back when gathering ingredients for a scalloped potatoes dish. Finding ourselves at a grocery in a largely Hispanic neighborhood, and looking at the array of crema brands in the cooler, we decided to give it a try. Used in place of milk, crema produced a wonderfully creamy, rich, and slightly tangy version of scalloped potatoes. The guests loved it.
Last weekend we once again found ourselves face-to-face with an array of crema, this time at the local supermarket (proof that Latin products are becoming increasingly easy to find at mainstream stores). We’d stopped in to get some cream for a chocolate ganache, but we again looked at the dairy case, exchanged glances, and said, “Why not?” The resulting ganache for our four-layer Black and White Chocolate Butter Cake was so good — reminiscent of a sour cream chocolate frosting — that we opted to frost the sides of the cake with it instead of just using it for filling (a beautiful brown sugar buttercream went on top).
Then, taking a cue from the traditional use of crema as a topping for fish tacos, enchiladas and other Mexican/Latin American dishes, we drizzled some into the fresh Red Okra Soup, where it proved a perfect match to the soups smoky heat.
It’s just the beginning.
The Three Points cooks’ have birthdays that bookend September, with one of us in late August and two in October. And now we can claim the in-between month for our collective anniversary, effectively stretching our celebrations into the holiday season. My contribution to the Three Points first birthday cake bash is a showstopper in dark chocolate and salted caramel that elicits orgasmic cries from anyone who tastes it: Sweet and Salty Cake.
I’ll state it up front. This three-layer cake from my favorite local bakery, Baked, isn’t for beginners. The cake recipe is a fairly simple devil’s food, but the filling and frosting call for home-made caramel. And since the filling is salt caramel, while the frosting is not, there’s no getting around having to make two batches. Not really difficult in itself, but timing, a watchful eye, and a good candy thermometer are key. (Hint: be sure to read the recipe through carefully before beginning or you’ll miss some steps. I’ve twice forgotten to let the caramel for the frosting cool a bit before whipping it with chocolate and butter, so the frosting stays a little soft and the cake has to be refrigerated to keep it from getting too melty.)
Don’t plan to do much else the day you bake this one. Even Martha Stewart would cop out on the process. During a demo with the bakers on her show, she asked, “How much do you charge for this cake? It might be worth it.” When Martha Stewart admits something is complicated. . .
Still, adventurous bakers who can’t make it to Baked for a slice should give it a try. Your guests will be moaning with delight. Guaranteed. And for all your trouble, the cake can be done up into cupcakes, and it also freezes incredibly well. Cut leftover cake into slices, wrap individually with wax or parchment paper, and then with plastic or foil. It’s particularly satisfying to be able to pull out a slice when one of those massive chocolate attacks strikes.
I also had leftover caramel and frosting. The salted caramel makes a great topping for ice cream. Any remaining frosting was popped into a freezer bag and pulled out a few days later for a different batch of chocolate cupcakes. Some toasted coconut was stirred in for a dreamy frosting with the chocolate/caramel/coconut taste of a candy bar.
There’s nothing like the end of the world to get the hunger juices going. The DC food crew marked the date with a rich and spicy pot luck dinner al fresco—with plenty of chilled white and rosé wine for solace. Of course, what with it being opening day for the apocalypse, we didn’t get a lot of photos. But we had a sinfully delicous dinner:
Rhubarb Pork Loin
Amelia’s Mac and Cheese
Boiled Shrimp Coated with Penzey’s Bangkok Blend
Spinach, Goat Cheese, Slivered Almonds and Roasted Beet Salad with Walnut Dressing
Angel and Devil Chocolate Ganache Tarts
Farmers’ Market Strawberries
The request was simple: supply a chocolate ganache tart for the birthday girl. Of course, with a little too much time and butter on my hands, the single tart became three as Saturday stretched into a test-kitchen moment for crusts and fillings. Along the way, I made several important discoveries—including a butter-laden, moist (near-oozy) dough that, defying logic and physics, bakes into an airy, soft-crispy shell.
First, the chocolate ganache tart. I used my standard pastry dough (with almond flour substituted for some of the all-purpose flour) and blind baked it. Ganache was a snap, so this was done in no time. (Chilling the dough was really the only time consuming part of this process, and the ganache hardens quickly.)
I was only getting warmed up. Leafing through Dorie Greenspan’s Paris Sweets cookbook, I honed in on her pâte sucrée dough because it called for 2½ sticks of butter (!) and powdered sugar. In the explanation, she says this is the standard recipe for Paris pastry chef apprentices—and I know why. The end result is divine. Though with so much butter, it is nearly loose enough to pour when it is first made and has to be chilled for hours before it reaches a consistency that allows for rolling. The good news is that it makes enough for three 9-inch tarts, so I have two dough disks in the freezer for future tart adventures.
Now, fully inspired and, as usual, lúcuma obsessed, I attempted to recreate lúcuma cream (which usually fills sponge cakes in Chile and Peru). If it’s good in a cake, it HAS to be better in a tart, right? As there were no lúcuma cream recipes to be found, I used a Gourmet recipe for coconut pastry cream as a starting point and pulled together an intensely lúcuma-flavored custard that set nicely. Into Dorie’s lovely pastry shell that went.
Of course, then I had extra ganache and lúcuma filling on my hands… screaming for a chocolate pastry shell. Martha Stewart has a simple recipe—essentially a basic tart dough with the addition of two tablespoons of cocoa. However, whoever typed it up for her web site forgot half of the instructions. (Am thinking Martha would say, “This is a bad thing.”) I guessed and blind baked it as I usually do: 375 degrees for about 25 minutes, pulling the weights out at 20 minutes so the crust browns. One chilled, I spread in the leftover ganache and covered it with a thin layer of lúcuma custard.
At that point, my tart run was over; I ran out of pans and refrigerator space. But I am already imagining combinations for the remaining dough in my freezer.