The problem with having a reputation for being a good cook/baker is that occasionally you find yourself awake at 4:30am on a Sunday, frantically swearing at a cream cheese frosting that refuses to form stiff peaks. That was the situation I found myself in after being asked to make a cake for a surprise 21st birthday party with only 10 days notice.
Normally not a problem; I’d just rock out a cake from my reportoire, ice it and stand back with a smug smile. In this case however, the theme of the party was red (that being the girl in question’s favourite colour). Now I know of only one truly red cake, and I’d always stayed away from it.
Red velvet cake has never appealed to me. Partly because of the colour (it just looks wrong!) and partly because of the cream cheese frosting (also unappealing to me). So I’d never even tasted the cake and icing I intended to make, let alone made them before! Fortunately Hannah, the Awesome Housemate, had tried red velvet cake and knew what it was supposed to taste like.
In her first week of living in the house not only did I cakebomb kitchen just about every night, I also fed her more red velvet cake than anyone wants to eat. By the end of the week, both of us were craving savoury food and the kitchen floor was decidedly tacky from all of the sugar.
I’d decided to get organised, and start making the cake six days before I needed it. That way I had the chance to make a couple of trial runs if I needed to, and I could freeze the cake layers and defrost them the day before they were needed, ready for decorating.
It was a good job I did. Because of the unusual rising agent (bicarbonate of soda and vinegar, which any young scientist can tell you is an explosive combo) all of the uncooked cake batter rises to the top… unlike every other cake I’ve made. Worst of all, when you insert a skewer into the cake and it tells you it’s cooked, IT LIES!
Because the colour of the cake is more vibrant the more cooked it is, it was very obvious when the first two cakes were cooled and levelled that they weren’t actually cooked all the way through. I certainly didn’t want to be responsible for serving them up to med students! Carving each cake into layers revealed that while the bottom layers were done the tops were not.
I threw the tops into a scraps pile and froze the two good layers. Now, you may be wondering why I wanted four layers. Forty-three people had been invited to this party. Time to make more cake.
The oven temperature was increased for round two. This time I also fired up the top oven and used the leftover batter for cupcakes and muffins. When a skewer in the main cake told me it was cooked, I shut the oven door and left it for another ten minutes.
Perfectly cooked the whole way through.
The top ended up in the scraps pile, which was growing bigger by the day. In desperation, I popped them into a cake tin and took them into work. Muffins, cupcakes and the two new layers were bagged and added to the recently defrosted freezer. Which was now full of cake.
Work greatly appreciated the cake scraps but like Hannah and I, they struggled to get through the whole pile. We’re only a small team! They were very disappointed though, when I had a sudden brainwave and told them I was taking the scraps home to turn into cake pops.
First time making cake pops… Why do I make life difficult for myself?
Saturday morning arrived, the cakes came out of the freezer and took over the kitchen. Seriously, cake everywhere. I went to work. Came home, cooked a quick Indian stir fry dinner I was developing, burnt it, swore, and started making icing…
By 11pm I started to realize that my cream cheese frosting wasn’t going to thicken any further. I had a little more icing sugar left so I added it to the bowl. It sank without a trace. Maybe the kitchen was too hot? Chilling it in the fridge for half an hour had no effect. Good luck finding more cream cheese, butter and icing sugar in Exeter at almost midnight on a Saturday night. Internet! Internet can help…
Internet tells me that it’s almost impossible to get stiff peak cream cheese frosting in the EU because America adds cornflour to their icing sugar and we don’t. That’s okay though, I have cornflour in the cupboard.
I don’t have cornflour in the cupboard. As I put the contents of the cupboards back, I distantly remember throwing the cornflour away because it was out of date… I have arrowroot though.
Arrowroot does nothing. At 3am I resign myself to sloppy icing.
Cream cheese frosting oozes out of every layer, puddling at the base of the cake. So I scrape it back up the sides with a spatula and stuck it back in the fridge. Meanwhile, I attacked the cake scraps with a fork to turn them into crumbs, discarding the darkest bits. Once that was done, the cake came back out and the crumbs were gently but firmly slapped into the side of the cake to disguise to the slightly seeping layers. Back into the fridge.
The Eagle is landing at 9am… 5 hours to go… Cake pops! Aaargh! Not enough chocolate to coat them. No shops are open, but the one over the road opens at 8am on a Sunday. Bed for two hours. Get up. Buy chocolate. Start finishing cake pops. People arrive. Finish cake pops and decorate cake while people make sandwiches in the living room. Pack cakes into many boxes. Pile into car and drive to venue. Set up party food. Mainline coffee. Hide in living room, waiting. Yell, “Surprise!”
Have a fab time, get home, and sleep!
A few days later, a friend finds out you can make red velvet cake and begs you to make one for their birthday… Sigh. Of course, you agree to do it. After all, it’ll give you a chance to try out the more traditional ermine icing.
Ermine icing works!
Red Velvet Cake
Feeds: 12 Takes: 1 hour 45 minutes
480g unsalted butter, softened
600g caster sugar
75g natural red food colouring (liquid)
3 tbsp cocoa powder
415g plain flour
2 tsp vanilla extract
Pinch of salt
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
1 tbsp white wine or cider vinegar
235ml full-fat milk
Pinch of salt 200g granulated sugar
Preheat your oven to 180C/Gas Mark 4. Prepare three 20cm cake tins by greasing them and then coating the inside with a light dusting of flour. Set aside until needed.
Grab your largest mixing bowl, and put 250g of the butter and all of the caster sugar in the bowl. Using a hand mixer or wooden spoon, cream the two together until the butter has whitened and the sugar has completely dissolved into it. Add the eggs one at a time, beating thoroughly after each addition.
In a small separate bowl, mix the food colouring and cocoa together into a paste, and then scrape into the butter, sugar and egg mixture. Mix together until the colour of the proto-batter turns a violent red.
Set aside 40g of plain flour to use in the icing, and add the remainder to the cake batter a little at a time, and alternately with the buttermilk. Stir in a teaspoon of the vanilla extract.
In a small cup, mix together the bicarbonate of soda and the vinegar. Fold into the cake batter, taking care not to over mix it.
Divide the batter evenly between the three cake tins and level. Place on the same shelf of the oven, and bake for 25-35 minutes. The raising agent pushes the uncooked batter to the top of the cake and renders the skewer test ineffective, so if it tests as done when you insert your skewer into the cake, give it an extra ten minutes just to be on the safe side.
Remove the cakes from the oven and allow to cool in the tins for five minutes before you turn them out onto wire racks to finish cooling. While they’re cooling, whip up a batch of ermine icing.
Place a small saucepan over a medium heat. Add the full-fat milk and the remaining 40g of plain flour to the pan and whisk continuously as it heats to simmer. Keep it simmering until the roux becomes thick and stiff.
Remove from the heat immediately and whisk in the salt and the remaining teaspoon of vanilla extract. Pour into a bowl and cover with clingfilm to prevent a skin forming while it cools completely.
In a separate bowl, cream together the remaining 230g of softened butter and the granulated sugar until the resulting combination is light and fluffy, and the sugar has completely dissolved. Add the cooled roux a little at a time, beating continually. Continue until the roux has all been added and the icing resembles whipped cream.
Level the cooled cakes and retain the scraps; these can be turned into crumbs with a fork and used as either decoration or separate cake pops. Assemble the cake, using half of the ermine icing to sandwich the three layers together, and smoothing or piping the rest over the outside of the cake.
Decorate with cake crumbs, halved strawberries drizzled with white chocolate, or the decorations of your choice. Serve with a side order of celebration!