Smooth as Red Velvet

Every year for mine and my sister’s birthdays my mom makes Red Velvet Cake — homemade Red Velvet cake complete with an entire bottle of red food coloring to get that deep, scarlet red, and covered with mom’s homemade icing — not the cream cheese stuff but a base of flour and milk cooked to a paste on the stove and then whipped with sugar and ONE POUND of real butter. Mmmm, mom’s icing is divine. She switched to using a cake mix a few years ago (albeit a suped-up cake mix with extra ingredients that make it better). But the icing is still the same, and the icing is what makes the cake.

Mom has said for years that one of these days she’s going to teach us how to make her cake — there’s a few tips and tricks she’s learned along the way — so that when she’s no longer able (or no longer with us) we can still make mom’s cake. We’ve put it off and put it off, each year enjoying the fruits of mom’s labor and refusing to believe that mom is getting any older and that there’s any real need for us to learn to make this cake any time soon. But whether we want to accept it or not time is passing and we’re all getting older. Maybe it had something to do with me turning 30 a few months ago, but at that time the deal was struck: I would take home the leftover cake (whoever’s birthday it is takes home the leftover cake) and I would return it in a few months on my sister’s birthday, with a Red Velvet Cake inside. It would be  team effort, to be sure, because the point wasn’t just the cake but for mom to impart her wisdom to her daughters.

A few nights before the planned birthday gathering I went to mom’s, bringing with me my softened ONE POUND of butter and we made mom’s icing. She coached me on all the little things that make the icing come out just perfect and all the things that I could do to ruin it. By the end of the night we’d done it. We each took a finger-lick (as dad licked the spoon) and agreed it tasted just like mom’s.

The morning of the party I baked mom’s modified cake mix recipe into three little round cakes — mom’s cake is triple decker round cake. I followed mom’s tips for greasing only the sides of the pans and placing a circle of wax paper in the bottom, and the cakes came out beautifully. After the cakes cooled mom stopped by to help me stack and frost the cakes. We ran into a small snag with the icing — being in the fridge for two nights had caused some of the butter and sugar to separate so it had to be whipped back into submission. At first we didn’t whip it enough so the icing was thin, sticky and granulated. But mom whipped it some more with the handmixer and we were back in good shape.

The results of the taste-test? “Just like mom’s.” I beamed. But then, mom had a big hand in making it so no surprise there. The frosting on the first layer was thinner than the rest, and our theory is that the butter from the slightly separated icing absorbed into the cake, which made the cake really moist, but visually the first layer of icing disappeared.

Mom and I talked about how sentimental our family seems to be with emotional attachments to seemingly mundane things and all the things my sister and I will battle over when my parents are gone — like who will get mom’s cake carrier? Or the pans she makes the cakes in? So we decided they go together — as a set — passed back and forth between my sister and I, between March and December, as we make each others’ birthday cakes. What special memories mom made for us all these years by making us Red Velvet Cake, and what special memories are being made now as she passes that tradition on to us and as we hopefully keep it alive for many years to come.


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