“What happens when people open their hearts?”
“They get better.”
– Haruki Murakami
What’s with red velvet cake? Not to cast aspersions on those who live for the stuff—including my darling friend, Rima, who worships at the cathedral of Red Velvet— but I just fail to be enamoured of it . (And apparently so does home chef and cookbook author Deb Perlman of probably my favourite recipe site, The Smitten Kitchen.
But Rima loves Red Velvet. And Rima is getting married. So Rima got Red Velvet. While I called it “the most soporific of cakes” in my Instagram story (dubbed the shadiest Instagram story EVER by my friend Julius) while constructing the confection for her bridal shower a few weekends ago in Maryland, I do understand the allure of its texture. It owes its characteristic velvetiness to the reaction of acidic vinegar and buttermilk with the base, bicarbonate of soda (known to the rest of us as baking soda). Without getting into the basics (no pun intended) of inorganic chemistry, one of the products of the chemical reaction that ensues is carbon dioxide, which is responsible for the large air pockets in the cake that render the crumb so fluffy and soft.
But as for the red part, it is all copious amounts food colouring. While I have spotted a few inventive ideas for achieving crimson crumbs, including colouring the cake with beets or using red wine as dye, I have yet to play with any of these ideas. For Rima’s cake, I stuck to the Red Velvet recipe I have been using for eons and opened my heart to all the good that could come of the artifice of colour. My little red velvet secret, which really is no secret at all, is to mix about a quarter cup of hot coffee or a double shot of hot espresso into batter as the last step before baking. I find the coffee matures the cake, enhancing the flavour of the modicum of cocoa powder that is the other non-negotiable ingredient of red velvet cake.
I’ve come to be quite partial to the naked cake— that is a cake that is not fully frosted in the traditional sense (and not only because of my unfortunate tendency to underestimate how much icing I need for a given cake). There’s something a little Wabi-Sabi about a cake left only roughly lacquered in cream cheese or buttercream, vulnerable and honest about its innards. There’s something quite beautiful about baring it all. The cake gets better. No surprise then that Rima’s gift was as much cake as it was exposé.
Searching for a way to make the naked presentation grow even better in appearance, my friend Marmette, who is a stellar maker of cakes in Ghana under the company name, Kakes n’Bakes, challenged me to do something with roses. And viola, that is how this cake came into being: two bouquets of red and pink roses, three bottles of red food colouring, and carrying half a kitchen to Maryland were the confluence that sowed this undressed garden for darling Rima. By all indications, she loved her cake, and honestly, that is all that matters.