Monday, November 28, 2011

Just in from Nashville: Red Velvet Cake and Chess Pie

This story ran on Patch Sunday morning. Several readers wanted to know if they could substitute red food coloring with something healthier. Pam Riesenberg, who teaches cooking classes in New Jersey, suggested the following: "A good all natural substitute for red food coloring is red beet powder. It is available on line at Amazon, and at Spice Barn." For more info about Pam, check out homeappetit.
Sunday Night Supper: Just Desserts

On the weekend after Thanksgiving, it's hard to think about cooking dinner. Bake Red Velvet Cake or Chess Pie instead - and order take out.

Last weekend, I went to Nashville for the bar mitzvah of the son of an old friend. This woman and I have known each other since fourth grade. Neither of us had a sister, so we stuck to each other like glue. She was my first friend to get married and my first friend to lose a parent. She was also one of my first friends to get divorced. Even though she went to college in the South and stayed there, she often comes back to New Jersey to visit, and a bunch of us from Essex County were flying down for her son's blessed event. Before we got there, she emailed us and said that the author Ann Patchett was opening a new bookstore in Nashville the day of the bar mitzvah. Did we want to go?

We sure did. In between the Kiddush luncheon and the Saturday night party, we drove to the bookstore where my friend introduced us to her gentleman caller. They don't make men like this up North. This man grew up on a farm, flies his own plane, hunts squirrels and spends hours cooking up meals, without glancing at a cookbook. He also makes his own vanilla (split open three vanilla beans, drop into a glass cup of vodka and let marinate for two months). When my friend's mother visited from out of town, he brought over five live chickens and killed a couple for dinner. By the end of our conversation, my jaw was dropping.

When we arrived at Patchett's bookstore, Parnassus Books, it was late afternoon and Patchett was gone so we wandered around. The New York Times reported that Patchett sunk $300,000 into the store, and it is now Nashville's only independent bookstore so even without her there, the place was hopping. The store is small and part of a shopping center; the book selection was limited. Most of Patchett's books had sold out so I picked up Alisa Huntsman's book, Desserts From the Loveless Cafe: Simple Southern Pies, Puddings, Cakes and Cobblers from Nashville's Landmark Restaurant.

This was a book that was begging to be judged by its cover. The front photo was of a sinfully delicious looking Red Velvet Cake, cream cheese frosting slathered all over it. Red Velvet Cake is one of my favorites, but I've never made it because I can never find red food coloring in the supermarket (I did eventually find it at Kings, next to the imitation rum and peppermint extract.) Standing in that bookstore in Nashville, it suddenly seemed crucial that I rush home to New Jersey and make this cake: My husband's birthday was the day after Thanskgiving and since we were going to be in Indiana for it, I wanted to make something that would either a) hold up well enough to survive the plane ride there, or b) be easy to make before we left and still be good when we got back. Huntsman promised that because of all the butter, eggs and cream cheese, the cake would hold up well for at least three days. That was long enough for me.

Reading this book will make you happy. The descriptions of the recipes are lively and informative, with a bit of Southern culinary history thrown in. By the time you're done reading it, you'll be saying, "Bring on on the buttermilk and cornmeal." Many of the recipes call for ingredients you don't normally bake with: Chocolate Mashed Potato Cake is made from leftover mashed potatoes, the Tipsy Cake uses bourbon. The Guess Again Tomato Cake with Pecans and Raisins uses tomato soup, and many recipes call for cider vinegar. There are also recipes for pound cakes, short cakes. biscuits, cobblers, grunt, slumps, buckles and pandowdy, with a brief explanation on how these desserts came by their names (e.g. a pandowdy is made in a pan and looks dowdy. )

The Chess Pie looked intriguing because it looked so simple. It is made from basic ingredients - cornmeal and cider vinegar among them - and has nothing to do with the Game of Kings. "Many stories attempt to explain the name," Huntsman writes. "The one most prevalent is where the family cook keeps apologizing for her humble recipe, made from a a few staple ingredients, by proclaiming that 'it's jess pie...'jess' over the years being repeated faster and faster until it became 'chess'." Huntsman provides an easy-to-follow recipe for a pie shell but says it's also just fine to buy one ready-made.

I excitedly told my Nashville friend about my plans to make Chess Pie and asked if she'd ever had it. "Of course," she said. "It's just sugar and butter." Exactly. I set about making it, and it was, forgive the pun, easy as pie. It took about 10 minutes to make the pie dough, and five minutes to make the filling. The filling is made of sugar, butter, eggs, heavy cream, cider vinegar, vanilla and corn meal. You don't have to cut, slice, peel, mash, grate or sift anything - you just dump it all into the food processor. (There are many variations on Chess Pie. Huntsman has a recipe for Honey Chess Pie that uses wildflower honey, and Lisa Fain in her book The Homesick Texan uses lemon zest and juice instead of cider vinegar.)

The Red Velvet Cake was more of an effort but easy enough. And the frosting is so good, it's outrageous. You will be bouncing off the walls as you eat it. I had to go out the evening I made it, so I made an extra layer, slapped some frosting on it and left it for my kids to snack on. When I got back, half the cake was gone. Don't let the four cups of powdered sugar the frosting calls for scare you. Yes, it's a lot of sugar but the good news is powdered sugar is often on sale: This week, Kings had four boxes of Domino's Confectioners Sugar on sale for $5. The day I made the RVC, my younger son was off from school. While I mixed ingredients, he watched TV. At one point, he asked if we could do something together, maybe have a catch? "Okay," I said. "Soon." Once the cake layers came out of the oven, I showed him how to frost the cake and insert frosting between the layers. Then it was time for Hebrew school and we ran out of time for a catch. Here's hoping that in some alternate universe somewhere, frosting a layer cake counts as a life skill.

Alisa Huntsman's Red Velvet Cake


2 1/2 cups cake flour

1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder (not Dutch process)

1 teaspoon baking soda2 tablespoons liquid red food color1 cup buttermilk

2 1/2 sticks (10 ounces) unsalted butter, softened

2 cups packed dark brown sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 whole eggs plus 2 egg yolks

1 tablespoon distilled white or cider vinegar

Cream Cheese Frosting (see recipe below)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease two 9-inch cake pans. Line bottoms with parchment paper and grease the paper.

Sift flour, cocoa, and baking soda into a bowl and whisk briefly to combine; set aside. Stir red food coloring into buttermilk and set aside.

In large mixing bowl, cream butter with brown sugar, vanilla, and salt on medium low speed until light and fluffy, 3-5 minutes. Add eggs and egg yolks slowly, beating and scraping bowl to ensure they are completely incorporated. On low speed, add dry ingredients alternately with the colored buttermilk. To prevent streaking in cake, scrape sides of bowl as you mix batter. Finally stir in vinegar by hand. Divide batter between cake pans.

Bake for 35-40 minutes. Let layers cool in pans for 10 minutes. Then turn them out on wire rack, peel off paper and let cool completely. Make frosting. To decorate cake, place one layer bottom side upon cake plate. Spread 3/4 cup of cream cheese frosting over cake right up to edges. Add second layer and use remaining frosting to decorate sides and top by gently swirling it over cake.

Alisa Huntsman's Cream Cheese Frosting


8 ounces cream cheese (Don't use reduced fat or nonfat cream cheese. Consistency won't be the same.)

1 stick unsalted butter

4 cups confectioners sugar

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Place cream cheese and butter in mixing bowl and beat with electronic mixer on medium speed until completely blended. Sift the confectioners sugar into the mixture in several additions, beating thoroughly in between. Add vanilla and beat until frosting is light and fluffy but still holds its shape, 3-5 minutes. Use immediately.

Alisa Huntsman's Chess Pie


9 inch pie shell, partially baked (recipe below)

1 1/3 cups sugar

1 stick (4 ounces) unsalted butter, softened

2 1/2 tablespoons white cornmeal

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

4 eggs

1/2 cup heavy cream

2 tablespoons cider vinegar or distilled white vinegar

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place pie shell on sturdy baking sheet and set aside.

Place sugar, butter, cornmeal and vanilla in food processor. Run machine long enough to blend ingredients completely. Scrape down sides of bowl and while machine is on, add eggs, one at a time. Scrape bowl again and with machine running, add cream through feed tube in steady stream, then add vinegar.

Scrape bowl one last time before processing to blend well. Pour filling into pie shell.

Bake until filling has set and golden brown across the top, about 35 minutes. Let cool completely before cutting and serving.

Alisa Huntsman's Flaky Pie Dough for a Partially Baked Pie Shell


1/3 cup cold water

1 1/2 teaspoons distilled white vinegar

2 2/3 cups unbleached, all purpose flour

1 1/4 teaspoons salt

2 sticks (8 ounces) cold, unsalted butter, cut into cubes

Combine water and vinegar in a cup and refrigerate while you begin dough.
Place flour and salt in a mixing bowl and stir. Add butter and mix. Add in cold water and vinegar mixture and mix. Dough will form into a ball. For a double crust pan, pat one third of dough into a 4-inch ball for top crust and the remaining dough into a larger ball for bottom crust. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes before using.

When ready to make pie: Roll out one ball of dough on a lightly floured surface with a rolling pin to a round 1/16 to 1/8 inch thick. Carefully fold into quarters or wrap over rolling pin lift and transfer to a 9-inch pie plate. Trim edges to leave an overhang of about 1/2 inch. Fold under and crimp. Refrigerate pie shell until ready to put fililng in.

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Place pie shell on a sturdy baking sheet to make it easier to maneuver. Line pie shell with wax paper and fill with three cups (about one package) of dried beans or pie weights. (Make sure to dump beans out of plastic bag!) Bake for 18-20 minutes. Remove wax paper and let shell cool before putting in filing. You can reuse these beans!

This suggestion comes from Pam Riesenberg, who teaches cooking classes in Millburn: "A good all natural substitute for red food coloring is red beet powder. It is available on line at Amazon, and at"; For more info about Pam, check out, and for class info, email her at

1 comment:

  1. I will have to try the red velvet cake, after your description of her icing!