27 March 2007
Big Hair, Big Welcome
A few weeks ago, I boarded a plane out of the cold, snowy, still winter-laden northeast, and headed south. My trip to Houston was two-fold in it’s purpose, a bit of business, but mainly a good visit to my uncle and his sunny welcoming home. Emerging from the plane, I felt a strange chill in the airport: ah, yes, airconditioning, they already need airconditioning. The rodeo was on, the sun was shining, and it was perfect for playing in the backyard with the dogs and walking around the museums. We had a great time, and I was once again reminded that cold, gritty, expensive cities (ahem, ny) are not the only way to go in the U.S.
There was sunny weather and Live Oak-lined boulevards, art galleries and live jazz, good food, good wine, good friends and even a baby in a Mexican sombrero. There were discusions of making homemade baking powder and my grandfather’s love of all things cornbread (recipes to come soon!), and there was red velvet cake. Yes, Red Velvet Cake. I don’t want to overshadow the Blue Bell ice cream, chicken fried steak, tortilla soup, bbq, fig jam, Vietnamese food, pecans, and Brown Paper Chocolates that I should be telling you about, but let’s talk about that Beauty Queen of a cake.
Being a girl of Southern roots, I’ve always had a thing for red velvet cake. Maybe it’s the shocking hue, but I think it’s more about the tender-crumbed cake paired with delectable cream cheese frosting. And while red velvet has gradually been gaining popularity in the northeast (often with unfortunately insipid icing), it was recently catapulted to stardom with a feature in the New York Times. I had, of course, clipped the recipe and filed it away, but you can’t imagine how pleased I was when I arrived in Texas to find my uncle had beat me to it and already made the thing.
If the pictures of the towering three-story beauty aren’t evidence enough, let me tell you that this is the real stuff. Moist, flavorful, good cake. And that mascarpone frosting? As my uncle said, "we had to pour the extra down the disposal so we wouldn’t eat the whole bowl." So if you were thinking (as I had thought when I clipped the recipe) of substituting your usual cream cheese frosting, I’m here to tell you to take the dive into caloric excess. It’s worth every bite.
To wrap things up, my uncle also took me to Central Market one evening so I could cook dinner, and I made a nice little saute of Shrimp and Snow Peas in Spicy Black Bean Sauce. This comes together quickly and has a satisfying bite to it, I served a simple red-wine braised cabbage on the side.
Red Velvet Cake
This has a surprising amount of red food coloring in it, so make sure you have enough on hand before proceeding.
3½ cups cake flour
½ cup unsweetened cocoa (not Dutch process)
1½ teaspoons salt
2 cups canola oil
2¼ cups granulated sugar
3 large eggs
6 tablespoons (3 ounces, 1/4 cup plus 2 tbl) red food coloring
1½ teaspoons vanilla
1¼ cup buttermilk
2 teaspoons baking soda
2½ teaspoons white vinegar.
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease 3 round 9-inch layer cake pans and line bottoms with parchment.
2. Whisk cake flour, cocoa and salt in a bowl.
3. Place oil and sugar in bowl of an electric mixer and beat at medium speed until well-blended. Beat in eggs one at a time. With machine on low, very slowly add red food coloring. (Take care: it may splash.) Add vanilla. Add flour mixture alternately with buttermilk in two batches. Scrape down bowl and beat just long enough to combine.
4. Place baking soda in a small dish, stir in vinegar and add to batter with machine running. Beat for 10 seconds.
5. Divide batter among pans, place in oven and bake until a cake tester comes out clean, 40 to 45 minutes. Let cool in pans 20 minutes. Then remove from pans, flip layers over and peel off parchment. Cool completely before frosting.
Whipped Mascarpone Frosting for Red Velvet Cake
2 cups heavy cream, cold
12 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
12 ounces mascarpone
½ teaspoon vanilla
1½ cups confectioners’ sugar, sifted.
1. Softly whip cream by hand, in electric mixer or in food processor. Cover in bowl and refrigerate.
2. Blend cream cheese and mascarpone in food processor or electric mixer until smooth. Add vanilla, pulse briefly, and add confectioners’ sugar. Blend well.
3. Transfer cream cheese mixture to bowl; fold in whipped cream. Refrigerate until needed.
Shrimp and Snow Peas in Spicy Black Bean Sauce
I do the snow peas seperately because I like them to be well-cooked and don’t want to risk over cooking the shrimp. If you’re not worried about your snow peas being on the crunchy side you can saute them at the same time with shrimp.
1/2 lb snow peas
2 tbl each minced garlic
1 tbl minced ginger
1 lb shrimp, peeled and deveined
2 tbl peanut or vegetable oil
1/4 cup fermented black beans*
3 tbl soy sauce
1 tsp sugar
1 tsp arrowroot powder or cornstarch
3/4 cup broth or water
1 pinch red pepper flakes
sliced green onions for serving
1. In a wok or large saute pan, heat 1 tbl of the oil. Add the snow peas and cook over high heat until they are softened and just beginning to show some color. Add 1/2 cup of water and continue to cook over high heat until the snow peas are softened and the water has evaporated, about 5 minutes. Transfer the snow peas to your serving platter.
2. Combine the soy sauce, sugar, arrowroot, broth or water, and red pepper in a small bowl and stir to dissolve completely.
3. Heat the remaining tablespoon of oil in the same pan. Add the garlic and ginger and saute about 1 minute. Add the shrimp and cook, stirring constantly, until they are just beginning to color, a few minutes. Add the black bean sauce and stir to combine and coat the shrimp. Add the soy sauce mixture and cook until the shrimp are pink and opaque and curled only 3/4 of the way closed and the sauce is thickened.
4. Pour the shrimp and their sauce over the snow peas in the dish, garnish with a few chopped green onions, and serve immediately.
*Fermented black beans are avilable in Chinese markets, if you can’t find them you can substitute a bottled black bean sauce which is available in the Asian section of most supermarkets, but look for one that doesn’t have too many added ingredients.