The *#%&! red velvet cake

By Mir
December 5, 2007

Yesterday was Otto’s birthday. I like it very much when Otto has a birthday, because he is the youngest man I’ve ever dated (I, apparently, used to have a thing for older men), and it is only between his birthday and the following summer when I have MY birthday that I can claim he’s a year older than I am.

(Why yes, his birthday IS all about me. Why do you ask?)

I have been ribbing Otto for a while about what we’d do for his birthday, because my birthday this year didn’t work out all that well, due to a number of circumstances. It wasn’t a big deal, really, but you have to understand that Otto completely and totally screwed himself the year of my divorce—when life had been running at maximum suckitude for several years already—by making my birthday not only a veritable festival of extravagance and pampering, but he somehow managed to draw the whole thing out for about a month. (“It’s your birthday week!” he’d say, and then “It’s your birthday month!” after that, and by the time he was into “It’s your birthday quarter!” even I had to concede that possibly this was enough.) Anyway, dude neglected to pace himself, is all I’m sayin’.

Nevertheless, I am not about payback. I am about making birthdays as awesome as possible, because when you love someone, what better way to show it than to celebrate their birth with toys and frosting?

(No frosting ON the toys, though. That would be gross.)

So, I’d mentioned that Otto had requested a red velvet cake, and after reading through your comments and perusing recipes, I decided I was ready to take this on.

Understand that until fairly recently, I firmly believed that homemade cakes came from a box of mix. As with nearly anything baking-related, I have since (for the most part) been pleasantly surprised at how easy it is to actually make things entirely from scratch. So with the task before me I figured it would be NO PROBLEM.

First there was the grocery shopping. Three separate trips, because first they didn’t have any red food coloring and then I realized I had no cocoa powder (and oh! the arguments for and against “dutch” vs. “non-dutch” in various recipes, lord). Ingredients assembled, I set to work the day before.

Well, I ran out of canola oil. Of course. It would not be ME BAKING unless I ran out of something and had to improvise. I, um, topped off with olive oil. Delicious! Just like Grandma used to make, if Grandma was Italian and a little bit tipsy!

The recipe I used called for parchment paper on the bottom of the cake pans. That’s, like, the third recipe in a row demanding parchment and OKAY, I GET IT, I SHOULD BUY SOME. But in the meantime, a quick consultation with Google confirmed that I could use wax paper instead. I braced myself for waxy cake but it worked out alright in the end.

During the egg part I managed to drop an egg on the floor. But at least Monkey was on the phone with his dad when that happened. “Mama is baking a cake and she totally just threw an egg on the floor! But I think it’s okay. She has lots of eggs. I wonder if she’s gonna drop another one.” (Thanks, buddy. With your vote of confidence I did manage to muddle through.)

And finally I reached the moment of truth, when I decided to STAY TRADITIONAL and YES, I dumped TWO ENTIRE BOTTLES of red food coloring into my batter. And I continued to use the mixer on low, because the recipe warned me that IT MIGHT SPLATTER.

Let me tell you something. Red food coloring WILL NOT BE DENIED. Red food coloring does not care if you are stirring at a rate of one revolution per YEAR, it will FIND A WAY to get all over your kitchen. By the time I poured that damn batter into the three waiting cake pans, it looked very much as if I had slaughter a medium-sized lamb in the kitchen. Also, I STILL have red stains on my hands. (Out, out damn spot!)

No matter. This was all for the man I LOOOOOOOVE.

The cake layers sat in the fridge overnight, and yesterday I made the frosting and leveled the layers and finished it off. The frosting was without incident, but I did discover that there is no tidy way to put coconut on the sides of your cake. I mean, I considered sticking a large dowel up through the bottom and then just rolling the entire thing in some coconut as if it was a giant lollipop, but I thought better of it.

And in the end? Well, we showered Otto with birthday wishes yesterday at breakfast, then he came home a bit early so that we could do presents before dinner. We went out and had a really nice time at a local Mexican place, then came home to top off the day with cake.

Happy birthday to you,
Happy birthday tooooo you,
Happy biiiirthday Dear Otto,
Happy birthday tooooo yoooouuuuuu!

The cake was… fine. Good. Not stupendous. A little overcooked, actually, I think, which has me thinking we really need to get a thermometer for our oven, because this is not the first time I have begun to suspect it’s running a little hot. Nevertheless, it’s cake, and that’s good.

The very best part of the cake experience, I think, was Monkey waving his fork around in consternation, declaring he really needed to not have “so much pineapple” on it.

So, you know, we had the traditional “coconut and pineapple are two different things” discussion. Like everyone else. (What? You don’t do that? Oh. Um. Hey, look over there! Something shiny!)

I think Otto had a nice day despite the less-than-stellar cake.

Happy birthday, baby. I love you truly, madly, deeply, and will always celebrate the day you came into this world.

P.S. Next year we are buying a cake.

P.P.S. You are old. Ha!


  1. Leandra

    Happy Birthday, Otto!

    The cake looks good. Delicious, in fact, but I’m all for “let’s buy the cake!”

  2. All Adither

    You are a good wife for taking on 2 bottles of red food coloring.

  3. The Other Leanne

    The cake looks fan-frickin’-tabulous! Nice job, Mir! Happy Birthday, Otto!
    (yay, I’m third. So glad I got up at 4am)

  4. hok

    I love red velvet cake! I once made a green velvet cake in honor of St. Patrick’s day. I got many complaints from the mothers of the kids who ate the cake, though. Turns out green food coloring does interesting things to little kid poop.

  5. Megan

    Happy Birthday Otto!

    Mir you made me think of the way my mother cooks! First she decides what to make (hmmmm… shrimp scampi for dinner!) then she looked to see what she actually has around (No shrimp – but I have chicken! No garlic – but here’s an onion!), throws it all together and presents it saying “Look! Shrimp Scampi!” I distinctly remember getting ready to make a stir-fry at her house and asking for water chestnuts – none available she said, but how about some canned beets instead?

  6. Flea

    I didn’t see a picture of the cake. Where’s the picture of the cake?

    We’re currently having the debate about a birthday cake for my very Southern mother this weekend, and I was hoping that you’d say your cake was THE BEST EVER, so I could find out which recipe you used and wow mom. Looks like we’re going with option 2 – the carrot cake.

  7. RuthWells

    That cake looks stupendous! Well done. Next time (ha!), you can at least partially tame the food-coloring beast by draping paper towels over top of the bowl to catch the splatters.

  8. Flea

    My bad for not clicking ALL the links. That cake looks downright scrumptious. Time to try a new recipe!

  9. jennielynn

    The only time I ever had red velvet cake was after our production of Steel Magnolias wrapped. Somebody made one (no, it was not shaped like an armadillo)and brought it to the cast party. It was okay, but yours looked waaaaay better.

    Happy Birthday, Old Man.

  10. Aimee

    Happy Birthday, Old Otto! Happy Birthday to youuuuuuuuuu!

  11. The Other Jamie

    Yummy looking cake! Happy belated, Otto!

  12. StephLove

    Happy Birthday, Otto! The cake looks great. Very red. Crimson even.

    After the initial discussion of red velvet cake, I decided we needed to go to out to dinner at the only restaurant I know in the area that serves it so we went on Saturday. The cake was yummy, as were the latkes and scrambled eggs I had for the pre-cake course (otherwise known as dinner).

  13. Katie

    Happy Birthday Otto! It’s cake and it’s red, that sounds like a win to me.

  14. Flea

    Otto, maybe you could send the cat out to be groomed, you know, as a birthday gift to yourself. And to avoid those hairballs. Happy Birthday!

  15. Sophie

    Happy birthday, Otto Man! (sorry for the pun)

    Your description of the red food coloring made me laugh. I love my beloveds madly and deeply, but I have decided that going to a good bakery is also a way to love them madly and deeply. But the baking sounds like an adventure — messy but fun.

  16. Stephanie Chance

    You’ve inspired me. Next month I will bake my husband’s favorite cake for his birthday. Carrot cake. Of course then he will probably ask why I have decided to torture him. Maybe I’ll just stick with the store bought…

  17. Monica

    A friend of mine once made a wedding cake with red roses on it. While dying the icing both her golden lab and her contacts took on a rosy glow.

    This was before the era of disposable contacts and they never did lose their rosy colour.

  18. ChristieNY

    Happy birthday, Otto!!!

    Mir, I agree you are a BRAVE woman to take on two bottles of food coloring – and the cake actually looks nice! How did you end up getting the coconut on the sides of the cake? That in and of itself is no small feat! :D

  19. tammy

    That is the best-looking *#%&! red velvet cake I have ever personally seen.

    (This means you have gone native, you know.)

  20. Patricia


    I’ve never in my life seen a red velvet cake with coconut on it — mind you I HATE coconut with the passion of 1000 suns, but still….coconut???

    Baking (and baking southern foods) are almost always an adventure. My great-grandmother could make biscuits in one hand and fried pies in the other. She was amazing.

    It looks good, congrats on using the red — because seriously it isn’t a red velvet cake without the red.

  21. amy

    I’m not sure what the pull for the red part is… it looks rather.. murderous. Hope it tasted great tho! I’ll stick to marble or chocolate thanks.

  22. arduous

    The cake looks delicious. Happy birthday Otto!

  23. Tootsie

    Happy birthday to your Otto! That cake looks delicious, I’m sorry it didn’t taste as good as you’d hoped. I hate it when that happens. My oven runs hot too, but did I get a thermometer? No. I’ve learned how long to bake things. Like brownies? 10 minutes LESS than what the box says. Cookies are done in 8.2 seconds.

    And I do love me some coconut! Too bad no one else in the house can even look at it. It means I never get to eat it.

  24. Otto

    Mmmmm … cake leftovers …

  25. Kelly

    Coconut?? That is a first but the cake is so pretty. You did a great job. But most of us southerns have to have pecans on it. Yummy!

  26. bogartg

    The cake looks delish! Congrats to you and Happy Birthday to Otto!

    Toys + Frosting = FUN!!

  27. tori

    I made a red velvet cheesecake once and know exactly what you mean about it getting everywhere no matter how careful you are about it. I talked about leaving the food coloring out and people had very strong reactions, so I guess it must be included no matter how messy it is. I still have no idea why though.

  28. Liza

    I always wondered what made red velvet cake red. (But never enough to look up the answer!)

    Your cake looks amazing, but if you do find yourself in the market for a REALLY STUPENDOUS cake, Southern Sweets makes unbelievably wonderful ones. ( They’re worth driving the hour-ish it would take you to get here. And I’d meet you there for coffee and cake-by-the-slice! :)

  29. Deputy's Wife

    Happy Birthday Otto!

    That cake looks gorgeous! I am envious, my red velvet cake doesn’t get that red! GREAT JOB!

  30. Warrior Knitter

    Happy Birthday, Otto!

    Lucky Otto
    Lucky Mir.
    Lucky Chickadee.
    Lucky Monkey.

    in any order you please. Lucky us.

  31. Cele

    two bottles of red food color? ohmigawd.

    Happy Birthday Otto!

  32. Brigitte

    I’m impressed at your frosting job, I’ve given up even trying to do the sides of any cake, mine comes out so globby and uneven (despite following all the handy-dandy frosting tips and instructions I can find). Pretty, pretty cake.

  33. saucygrrl

    Do you think, maybe, someone’s inebriated grandmother was the one who “invented” the red part of the red velvet cake?

    “Hmm… *hic* what this cake needs is some RED. Weeee! Oh no! *hic* that’s not enough! Weeeeee! *hic*”

  34. Sheila

    Otto, I surely hope you had cake for breakfast this morning. Happy belated birthday!

  35. Kay T

    There is a cookbook called something like the Chocolate Cake Doctor (I think, not at home and can’t check) in which the author takes cake mixes and doctors them up to be something absolutely frickin’ dee-lishish. I personally have never made any of the recipes but my DH does and I can swear that they are to die for. So it is sort of like from scratch but without having to do all that measuring, etc. You add things like pudding or chocolate syrup. Very good. I was going to check if she had a red velvet cake recipe, but I know the southern purists would not have been happy. You needed to try it at least once.

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