Red Velvet Memories

red velvet cakeAs my birthday approaches I can't help but think of my sisters - I'm the middle one - and my maternal grandmother. My sisters and I are born two years apart, with our birthdays all in the last week of September. If you do the math, I guess one can blame the joyful spirit of the holidays on the closeness of the timing.

My brother, as the oldest and only boy, always seemed to get special treatment over us girls. I'm sure he felt tortured by his loud, energetic sisters, but at least he never had to share his birthday party. I can't really blame my parents for lumping our "big days" all together on the middle weekend between them all. My father worked two jobs to support his young family, so lack of money paired with convenience produced - throughout our childhood - one giant party for "the girls." It was a "more-the-merrier" type of event and we were all showered with enough gifts to make us contented despite the lack of individual attention.

When we were very young my mother took care of the cake, but as we got older and began developing our own opinions, all we ever wanted was my grandmother's Red Velvet Cake. I can't remember the first time I ate it, but I can still taste it today. It was the same every time with a dense, almost chewy texture; the sweet tang of the cream cheese frosting; that distinct something-more-than-just-chocolate flavor that distinguishes this classic cake from all others.

I have no idea where my grandmother got the recipe, but it was one of the only things she ever baked or cooked. She was a single mother - my grandfather died when my mom was 14 years-old - so she spent much of her time out in the working world and not in the kitchen. She mostly ate simple things - hot dogs and beans being a favorite - so where she got the inclination to bake this fairly complicated cake is a mystery I can no longer solve as she is already gone from this world.

sistersShe must have learned to make it just for us, because my mother never ate a slice. Perhaps she was inspired by the surprise and delight the unusually bright red interior must have brought to our young faces. As we grew older, the color became something of a family joke as every time we indulged my mother would bring up how the red dye was unhealthy. (I guess there was a recall in the 50s or 60s because the dye supposedly caused cancer - or some such rumor - and even though this was long after that, she couldn't resist bringing it up.) Being teenagers, that only added to the cake's appeal and gave us our own private joke with our grandmother. My mother was not amused, but being the obedient daughter, she allowed the cake to be served.

I have never found one to equal the texture and flavor of my grandmother's version, though believe me I have tried, much to my constant disappointment. Most lack the dense texture of both the cake and frosting that I just loved. Perhaps I haven't found it because that's not the way it is supposed to be made, but we thought it was just perfect. It made us feel special, grown-up and loved. Now that we're older having our birthdays so close binds us together even though we live quite far apart. If only we had her recipe to share.