The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook
Last week was our friend Jim's birthday! And our friends Tara and Brian had a really wonderful idea: Throw a surprise dinner party for Jim, totally themed around his favorite cookbook: The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook. (Sidenote: How great an idea is that?? We're totally stealing that sometime.)
So that's just what we did. Fifteen friends secretly gathered at Jim's house in Baltimore while Tara took Jim to brunch. People came from far and wide: D.C., New York, Salt Lake City, North Carolina. Jim was genuinely surprised when he walked in to his house -- decorated with streamers and filled with his friends preparing an amazing dinner.
We had volunteered to take on dessert (a cunning ploy on our part that meant we got cook early and then show up at Jim's and sip on gin and tonics while other people scurried around preparing dinner). Brian and Tara were the leads on dinner itself. The meal started with Fried Green Tomatoes with a Buttermilk-Lime Dressing, followed by Macaroni and Cheese, Slab Bacon Grits, Succotash Salad, and Grilled Ham Steaks with Chow Chow.
Everything was slap-your-mama delicious.
But we need to talk about this cake.
We generally like a red velvet cake. It's got a nice, mild chocolate flavor and a sweet cream cheese frosting. It's totally Southern and a tad bit tacky -- in the best way possible. Our favorite description ever of a red velvet cake was from a New York Times story back in 2007: "The color, often enhanced by buckets of food coloring, becomes even more eye-catching set against clouds of snowy icing, like a slash of glossy lipstick framed by platinum blond curls." That feature also refers to red velvet as the "prom queen of the bakery case."
But when it comes to this red velvet cake in particular, we have to say, we weren't really huge fans.
As cake prep goes, this is pretty standard: Mix your dry ingredients, mix your wet ingredients, mix them together. At one point you make a sort of cocoa-food-coloring slurry, which we thought was kind of beautiful:
So what didn't we like?
A couple things.
First off, there's a teensy bit of false advertising here. The photo in the Lee Bros. cookbook shows a towering four-layer cake. But the recipe only turns out two layers, and they're too thin to cut cross-wise. We wanted a showstopper cake for Jim's birthday (and it needed to feed 16 people). So we ended up having to make this entire recipe twice. Had we realized how thin the layers would be, we would have doubled the recipe from the get-go. As it was, we essentially had to make this cake twice in order to have the four layers we wanted (and enough frosting to cover all of them).
But our bigger complaint is the taste and texture. Sure, red velvet cakes are mild, but these cake layers were downright bland. We did like the Lee brothers' addition of orange zest, which isn't something we're used to in a red velvet cake. We experimented with adding a little extra cocoa -- you can actually see in the top photo that two of our layers are a little darker. But it still wasn't enough to deliver this cake from Blahville.
The texture was an even bigger disappointment. Somehow the cake ended up dry and stale-tasting, even though it was fresh-baked. We kept a close eye on it, and we're pretty confident we didn't overcook it.
Usually when it comes to baked goods, we're more than willing to concede that we may have made a mistake. And that very well could still be the case here. On the other hand, as we mentioned, we went through the entire process twice (with almost exclusively newly purchased ingredients the second time, because we'd run out of a lot of things after the first go-round). So if we did screw up, we screwed up in the same way twice. We intentionally added more cocoa the second time around, which is why there are two shades of red in our layers.
We certainly didn't get any complaints at Jim's. We may not have loved every aspect of this cake, but it's still pretty tasty, and the frosting -- simply cream cheese, sugar and butter -- is hard to beat.
The 16 of cheered while Jim blew out his candles, and then we cut the cake and passed it around. Everyone loved it (although some of that could be attributed to bonhomie, bourbon or the aforementioned mac and cheese).
Anyway, bottom line, we may not have loved this red velvet cake, but that may not have mattered.
What about you? Are you a red velvet fan? Got a favorite recipe? Let us know!
Makes one 2-layer, 9-inch cake; enough for 12 people
Time 1 1/2 hours
For the cake: 2 3/4 cups plus 1 tablespoon sifted cake flour or 2 1/2 cups sifted bleached all-purpose flour, plus more for flouring the pans
2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons baking soda
1/4 cup natural cocoa powder such as Hershey's
1 ounce red food coloring
1 1/2 tablespoons water
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened, plus more for greasing the pans
2 cups sugar
3 large eggs
1 1/2 teaspoons natural vanilla extract
1 tablespoon orange zest (from 1-2 oranges)
1 cup whole or lowfat buttermilk
For the icing:
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter
1 pound cream cheese (2 packages), softened
1 pound (4 cups) sifted confectioners' sugar
2 tablespoons whole milk, if needed
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour two 9-by-2-inch cake pans or line their bottoms with greased, floured waxed paper.
2. Sift the flour, salt, baking powder and baking soda together twice. In a small mixing bowl, whisk the cocoa, red food coloring, and water to a smooth paste, about 1 minute, and reserve.
3. In a large mixing bowl, beat 1 cup butter with an electric mixer until creamy, about 30 seconds. add the sugar, 1/4 cup at a time, beating about 15 seconds after each addition and scraping down the sides of the bowl if necessary, until the mixture has lightened in color and become fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add eggs, 1 at a time, the vanilla, and orange zest, beating for 15 seconds after each addition. Add the red cocoa pate and mix until evenly incorporated.
4. Add the flour mixture to the butter and egg mixture in thirds, alternating with 2 additions of half the buttermilk. To avoid overworking the batter, gently mix with a wooden spoon or rubber spatula after each addition, until the ingredient is just incorporated. Once all ingredients are incorporated, beat the batter 10 to 12 strokes with your spoon or spatula if using cake flour, 2 to 3 strokes if using bleached all-purpose flour.
5. Divide the batter between the cake pans and spread the tops evenly with the wooden spoon or spatula. Bake until a cake tester or toothpick emerges clean, about 30 minutes. Remove from the oven and let the cakes cool in their pans on a rack for 10 minutes, then slide a thin paring knife around the edge of the pans and invert the cakes. Lift away the waxed paper, if using. Cool the cakes completely on a rack, with their tops facing up.
6. In a large bowl, beat 3/4 cup butter with the mixer until creamy, about 30 seconds. Add the cream cheese and beat until the mixture is fluffy, white, and very smooth, about 1 minute. Add the confectioners' sugar cup at a time, beating for 30 seconds after each addition, until mixture is creamy, fluffy, and smooth. If the frosting is too stiff, beat the milk into it to loosen it.
7. Gently ice the cake layers generously. Spoon 1 cup of icing in the center of the first cake layer. Working an icing or rubber spatula in gentle swirling motions, spread the icing from the center toward the edges of the cake until it forms an even layer 1/3 to 1/2 inch thick (if you need to add more icing, add it to the center and work it out toward the sides).
8. Carefully set the second cake layer on top of the first and ice the second layer in the same manner, beginning with a dollop in the center and working it out to the sides. Then ice the sides of the cake. (If you prepared your pans well, the sides of the cake should have pulled away from the pan and baked to a firm, flat surface. But if the sides are crumbly, brush excess crumbs away and place a thin layer of icing on the cake to seal the creams in. Refrigerate for 30 minutes, then apply another, thicker layer on top of the first.)
9. Store the cake at room temperature, beneath a cake cover. If you don't plan to eat it for 24 hours, put it on a plate, tent it with plastic wrap, and store it in the refrigerator for up to 3 days. Remember to remove the cake from the refrigerator 1 hour or more before serving to take the chill off. Serve with glasses of cold milk.