August makes me think of peach skin against my lips, of yellowing grass, and inevitably of the coming school year.
I remember exactly where I was last August – the kitchen. There were only a few weeks before I moved to Boston for college, and I went into a baking frenzy. In the mornings, I preheated the oven before I brushed my teeth, and I photographed enough desserts to keep the blog alive across the country.
This summer, though, I haven’t spent much time baking. I don’t leaf through cookbooks when I’m bored or brainstorm flavor combinations in the car. I’ve lost something I can’t place. Whenever I think about it, unease seeps through me like melting ice. I don’t know why I’ve fallen into a baking rut or how to fix it.
A year ago, I remember standing with my dad in the kitchen. I’d spent the week baking, and I handed him fork after fork of desserts to sample. He’d just tried the Oat, Pear, and Raspberry Loaf when he said, “You’re really going to do this. Keep the blog going.”
I wasn’t sure what he meant. I hadn’t even considered ending the blog, giving up on the baking, moving on with life as I moved into college. “Yeah.”
He shrugged a little and said, “You never know. After a while, you might not want to be 17 and Baking anymore. You might lose interest.”
“Never going to happen.” I wrapped up the loaf, started on the dishes, and the conversation faded from memory.
Now I can’t get it out of my mind.
I didn’t spend as much time with my parents this summer as I expected, or as I would have liked. I think the ritual of family dinners would have helped me rediscover that “feeling.” I think tossing ideas back and forth with my dad would have inspired me. Now, it’s too late. Here I am a year later, nine days from my flight, with almost nothing saved up.
This semester I’m going to Europe, where baking opportunities will be even scarcer than they were in Boston. I’m so afraid. I didn’t realize it until I typed the words a moment ago, and now it’s more real than ever. I’m afraid of wasting the opportunities I’ve been given. I’m scared of failing. I’m scared that I have burnt out, and that I can’t recover.
But I am more than my insecurities. I know that when I put my mind to something, I can make it happen. I have the strength to pull through baking ruts, to breathe life into my writing, and to conquer fear. I’m afraid, but I’m also more passionate and determined than ever.
D- is a new friend, but already a good one, and his first visit to Seattle is wrapping up in a few days. I wanted to make something really special to celebrate his 19th birthday and last night in the Emerald City.
This week I rediscovered the process of finding The One. You know, The Recipe that is everything Your Friend would want, their sweet tooth soulmate. I remembered that his favorite cake is red velvet, but his favorite dessert is cheesecake. I immediately wanted to combine them. I’d seen red velvets split by cheesecake on several other sites, but that didn’t make it less special.
The excitement mounted as I bought ingredients at the store, while I creamed butter, when I scattered sprinkles across the frosting. But everything became clear when I eased the first slice onto a plate and passed it to D-, drank in his expression of surprise and joy.
The thrill! It lit me up like a sparkler – burning slowly, but unbelievably brightly. I almost forgot that feeling, but now, all I want to do is relive it. I’m an addict.
The cream cheese frosting is thick, tangy, and sweet, just like I like it. The cheesecake is dense and creamy. But the star is the red velvet. Heartbreakingly red, soft as satin, fine-crumbed and fluffy… As I watched him scrape the fork across the plate, I couldn’t wait to come home and share the recipe with you.
I never lost the passion. I just had to stop taking it for granted.
I’ll probably be on the east coast when the next post is up – thanks for staying with me. See you on the other side.
[Too hot to bake? Check out my Chocolate Raspberry Icebox Cake in the Boston Globe! It’s a heat free, ridiculously easy recipe that comes together in half an hour.]
While this cake looks like a lot of work, it’s really not. The steps are spread across two days – make the cheesecake first, bake the cake/whip up the frosting/assemble the second. None of the components are very difficult separately, and it’s pretty simple to put it together. And the results are definitely impressive.
I’ve made red velvet cakes in the past, but never posted them on the site. They’re somehow always disappointing – dry, flavorless, artificial looking. I used red food coloring gel, which gave it an incredibly rich color without adding weird flavor. This red velvet is unlike any I’ve ever tasted. I don’t know whether it’s because I used a really good Dutch process cocoa powder with a reddish tinge and a depth of flavor. Maybe it’s from the buttermilk or the healthy pinch of salt. I don’t care. It’s magic.
The cheesecake is also surprisingly simple. My secrets to a great cheesecake? Make sure the ingredients are all at room temperature (this could take hours for the cream cheese.) Cream the cream cheese and sugar with the mixer until blended, then stir everything else with a wooden spoon to avoid overmixing. Grease the sides of the pan so the cheesecake won’t crack, and bake it in a waterbath.
The cheesecake is sturdy enough that overnight refrigeration was all I needed, though I’ve seen other bloggers freeze their cheesecake layer for easy transportation onto the cake.
And the frosting… Well, I could eat it with a spoon. The almond extract adds something special without tasting like almonds. I like a high ratio of cream cheese to sugar, and a stiff texture that won’t melt or droop. I think we’ve got a winner.
20 oz full fat cream cheese, at room temperature
2/3 cup white sugar
Zest of half a lemon
1 1/2 tsp fresh lemon juice
1/4 tsp salt
2 large eggs, at room temperature
1/2 cup sour cream, at room temperature
1 tablespoon all purpose flour
I started the cheesecake the day before. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F and set a kettle of water to boil.
Grease a 9″ springform pan, and line the bottom with a round of parchment paper. Wrap the outside of the pan with heavy duty aluminum foil, and set the pan into a larger pan (for the waterbath.)
In the bowl of a mixer, beat the cream cheese on medium until fluffy. Add the sugar and beat until smooth. Switch to a wooden spoon and beat in the lemon zest, lemon juice, and salt. Add eggs one at a time, making sure they are combined but not overmixing. Add the sour cream. Stir in flour and gently mix just until combined.
Pour the batter into the greased pan. Pour boiling water into the larger pan halfway up the cheesecake. The aluminum foil should protect the cheesecake from seeping water. Bake until the cheesecake is just set in the middle, about 40 minutes. Run a knife around the sides and let the cheesecake cool completely. Press plastic wrap onto the surface of the cheesecake and refrigerate overnight.
2 1/2 cups cake flour
1 1/2 cups white sugar
1 tsp baking soda
1 tbsp cocoa powder
1 tsp salt
2 eggs, room temperature
1 1/2 cups vegetable oil
1 cup buttermilk, room temperature
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp white distilled vinegar
Red food coloring, as desired
I made the cake the day after I made the cheesecake, so it had rested overnight in the fridge and was sturdy enough to flip.
For the red velvet, preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Grease and flour two 9″ pans.
Sift the flour, sugar, baking soda, cocoa powder, and salt together in a medium bowl. In the bowl of a mixer, beat the eggs, oil, buttermilk, vanilla extract, and vinegar until well combined. Add the dry ingredients and as much food coloring as you like. Beat until well combined, about two minutes.
Divide the batter between the two pans. Bake 25-30 minutes, rotating the pans halfway, or until a toothpick comes out clean. Cool the cakes in the pans for five minutes, then run a knife around the edges. Invert them onto cooling racks and cool completely. (I like to make the frosting at this point, while the cakes cool down.)
Cream Cheese Frosting
12 oz cream cheese, at room temperature
6 tbsp butter, at room temperature
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 tsp almond extract
3 cups sifted powdered sugar (sift, and then measure)
Beat the cream cheese and butter in an electric mixer until very smooth and lump-free. Beat in the vanilla and almond extracts. Then stir in the powdered sugar a cup at a time until very smooth.
Assembling the cake.
Use a cake leveler or serrated knife to level the tops of the red velvet cakes. Put one of the layers, cut-side up and parchment paper removed, on a serving plate. Spread with a very small amount of frosting, just enough to cover the cake in a thin layer.
Take the cheesecake out of the fridge. Open up the springform pan and peel off the plastic wrap. The cake should be pretty sturdy. My cheesecake was still attached to the bottom of the springform pan. I simply used one hand to hold it, and gently flipped it over onto the red velvet. I lifted off the bottom of the springform pan and peeled off the parchment paper. Piece of cake.
My cheesecake was wider than the red velvet. I just gently sawed a knife around the edges and trimmed the excess.
Spread another very thin layer of frosting on the top of the cheesecake. Flip the remaining layer of red velvet, cut side down, on top. Peel off the parchment paper.
Use about a third of the cream cheese frosting to cover the whole cake with a crumb coat. Basically, you want to frost the cake with as little frosting as possible, picking up all the red crumbs and sealing the cake. Refrigerate the cake for half an hour, or until the crumb coat is hardened.
Then frost the cake with the rest of the cream cheese frosting. I decorated mine with sprinkles.
Keep the cake in the fridge. It can stand at room temperature about half an hour before serving, if necessary.