When I was in the seventh grade, I wrote an impassioned essay about my hatred of Valentine's Day. "Valentine's Day," I read out to the class. "Is my least favorite day of the year. Anybody who likes Valentine's Day is an idiot. It's just a made-up holiday that big nameless corporations invented so that the mindless masses go out and spend money unnecessarily."
Pretty sure that my essay received crickets. Not to mention that, what seemed anti-establishment and rebellious at age 12 actually seems pretty, uh, trite now. To say the least.
I'm sorry to say that, now that I'm older, I kind of... like Valentine's Day? Although Erlend and I aren't really the type of couple to dress up and pay an arm and a leg for a special Valentine's prix fixe dinner (in fact, it's quite the opposite — we are likely spending this Saturday evening in sweatpants and ordering a double order of Papa John's), I think the holiday is kind of cute. The way my friends and I exchange silly gifts and funny cards, the special candies that appear in the supermarket and of course, Valentine's Day themed baked goods in general. Because really — heart-shaped baked goods are pretty goshdarnadorbs! no matter what, which is why I've decorated this cake with a constellation of marzipan hearts (inspired by the many wonderfully marzipan decorated cakes of my incredibly talented blogger friend Molly, of course):
However, the cake does have one weak spot: its frosting. Although red velvet cake is traditionally served with cream cheese frosting these days, the perfect cake I had in New York was served with some sort of incredibly light and creamy orange-scented buttercream frosting. I haven't had a buttercream frosting yet that's come close to it. BUT I did find through my research (ehem, Google and reading New York Times cooking articles) that the original red velvet cake from the 1940s was served with something called ermine frosting, or boiled milk frosting. The frosting instructed you to make a pudding from milk and flour, before whipping it up with butter and sugar to create an incredibly light and fluffy frosting. And by light and fluffy, I mean light and fluffy — think of the soapiest bubble bath you've ever taken and imagine that those foamy soap suds are actually edible. That's the texture of ermine frosting. While it was cool to serve the cake with a historically significant recipe, I still think the cake would have been better balanced out with a tangy, citrusy cream cheese frosting. Oh well. For next time!
P.S. My incredibly talented photographer friend Celeste took some behind-the-scenes photos of me cutting, styling and playing around with this cake — check it out on her blog!
Some baker's notes:
- Although I made this recipe in four 6-inch cake pans, you can turn it into a three layer cake instead by using three 9-inch cake pans. Shorten the baking time by 10 minutes to 25-30 minutes.
- Because this cake uses a lot of red food coloring, I suggest using a red food coloring gel as opposed to plain old red food coloring dye. In my experience, gels tend to disperse color more evenly throughout the batter and you end up with a more vividly colored baked good. I also think that gels taste less artificial than dyes, but that one might just be in my head.
- I used these cookie cutters for the larger hearts and a cutter from this mini cookie cutter set for the smaller hearts.
- 2 cups granulated sugar
- fresh zest from 1 medium orange
- 2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
- 1/2 cup plus 3 tablespoons natural unsweetened cocoa powder
- 3/4 teaspoon baking powder
- 3/4 teaspoon baking soda
- 3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
- 3/4 cup buttermilk
- 2 large eggs
- 2 large egg yolks
- 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- 1/2 teaspoon pure orange extract
- 1 tablespoon red food coloring gel
- 3/4 cup boiling coffee
(makes around 3 cups, enough for one 4-layer cake)
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- fresh zest from 1 medium orange
- 5 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- 1 cup milk
- 1 teaspoon pure orange extract
- pinch of salt
- 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 4 ounces marzipan, divided into two 2-ounce portions
- red food coloring
- Center a rack in the oven and preheat to 350 (F). Prepare four 6-inch round cake pans by spraying generously with cooking spray and lining the bottoms with parchment paper circles; spray the parchment paper with cooking spray.
- In a small bowl, combine 2 cups granulated sugar with fresh zest from 1 medium orange. Use your fingers to incorporate the zest throughout the sugar, rubbing the zest into the sugar. This will help release oils from the zest that will infuse your sugar with more flavor. Set aside.
- In the bowl of a freestanding electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, combine sugar (from the 2nd step), 2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour, 1/2 cup plus 3 tablespoons natural unsweetened cocoa powder, 3/4 teaspoon baking powder, 3/4 teaspoon baking soda and 3/4 teaspoon kosher salt. Beat on low speed for around 30 seconds to blend the ingredients together until fully combined.
- In a large bowl, whisk together 1 cup melted unsalted butter, 3/4 cup buttermilk, 2 large eggs, 2 large egg yolks, 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract, 1/2 teaspoon pure orange extract and 1 tablespoon red food coloring gel until just blended.
- Add the liquid mixture (from the 4th step) to the flour mixture in 2 batches, beating on low speed until blended. Once the liquid mixture has been added, increase the mixer speed to high and beat until smooth, no more than 30 seconds. Reduce the mixer speed back to its lowest setting and slowly pour in 3/4 cup boiling coffee. Be careful not to overmix! Beat until the coffee has just been blended, and the mixture turns into a dark maroon, almost brown color. The batter will be thin.
- Divide the batter equally among the prepared pans and bake in the preheated oven for 30 to 35 minutes, or until a skewer inserted into the center of each cake comes out clean and the tops of each cake bounce back when gently touched. Transfer the cakes to a wire rack to cool for 15 minutes, before turning them out to cool completely. Remove the parchment paper and prepare the frosting only when the cakes have completely cooled and you're ready to start frosting the cake.
- In a small bowl, combine 1 cup granulated sugar and the fresh zest from 1 medium orange. Use your fingers to incorporate the zest throughout the sugar, rubbing the zest into the sugar. Set aside.
- Combine 5 tablespoons all-purpose flour and 1 cup whole milk in a medium, heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat. Continue heating until the mixture simmers, whisking frequently until the mixture thickens and becomes almost pudding-like. The end result should be a thick, white paste.
- Once the mixture achieves this texture, remove from heat and whisk in 1 teaspoon pure orange extract and a pinch of salt. Use a rubber spatula to transfer the mixture to a bowl to allow it to cool completely. Put plastic wrap on the surface of the pudding to prevent a skin from forming.
- Once the mixture has cooled completely, combine 1 cup unsalted butter and 1 cup orange-scented granulated sugar (from the 1st step) in the bowl of a freestanding electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment. Cream the butter and sugar together on medium-high speed until light and fluffy, scraping the sides of the bowl occasionally, creaming for at least 5 minutes.
- Once the mixture is light and fluffy, keep the mixer on medium and add the cooled flour mixture one tablespoon at a time. Continue to beat until the mixture becomes light and fluffy and resembles whipped cream. Use immediately.
- To assemble and frost the cakes, level each cake with a serrated knife. Place 1 cake layer, bottom-side down, on a cake plate. Use an offset spatula to spread 1/3 cup of ermine frosting on top. Take one 2-ounce portion of marzipan and grate over the ermine frosting until evenly distributed. Add the second cake layer, top-side down, and repeat the process until all layers have been used up. Frost the top and sides of the cake with the remaining frosting.
- Use your hands to knead a couple drops of red food coloring gel into the remaining 2 ounces of marzipan until fully incorporated. Roll out the marzipan to a 1/8- to 1/4-inch thick rectangle in between 2 sheets of wax paper. Use cookie cutters to stamp out shapes, and gently press each shape onto the cake.