I don’t think I’m the most patriotic of people but there are times, man oh man, when I am indeed proud to be an American. Like during the last inauguration. Or the Olympics. That’s some great stuff right there but I’ll admit it … we do some dumb ass things as a country, collectively. No need to get into the details but in the great scheme of things you have take us as we are – the good, the great and even the not so wonderful. On the whole, though, we’re a pretty cool bunch of people and the U.S. really is a great place to live, to be a part of, to come from. We know this; I just don’t think we stop to think about it much. We should. We’ve got it pretty good folks, and sometimes it takes someone else to remind us of it. I’m not about to break out into some Lee Greenwood song, I’m just sayin’.
I was reminded of this recently as I was driving my pal Caroline home from lunch. I adore this woman and don’t see her nearly enough. She’s funny, talented, smart as a whip and just an all-round cool chick. (Her blog – Whipped – is pretty great too; check it out.) We try to meet regularly to hit our favorite place in the world – Hot Doug’s – and catch up over encased meats. So on this last visit, I was informed that she and her husband were throwing a very special party. You see, he is (was?) a citizen of the Netherlands and had recently become an American. Took the civics exam, recited the pledge, issued a new passport … the whole kit and caboodle. Chances are very good that he now knows more about our country’s history than most of us. To celebrate, they were throwing a big American style BBQ shindig with huge dishes of Americana … hot dogs (fancy ones!), baked beans, cole slaw and of course, a keg. Red, White and Blue all over!
I instantly volunteered to bring the cake, of course. I knew EXACTLY what they needed – something big, wonderfully delicious and yeah, kind of cheesy goofy too. They NEEDED a big American flag cake. Oh yes, you know the cake. Blueberries for the stars and raspberries for the stripes? The one that graces of the covers of all the women’s magazines this time of year? Look around at your grocery check out counter. Oh yeah, that one!
As for the cake layers it had to be – had to be! – red velvet. Red cake, white frosting, American berry flag on the top. You bet! Knowing that Caroline is crazy for red velvet, I had this in the bag. In fact, she has covered the topic most beautifully on her blog, Whipped, here.
So red velvet … yeah yeah yeah … but I had a way better idea. I was so excited I couldn’t contain myself and blurted it out to her in the car. (So much for surprises.) As I described my plan, her eyes got wide and she may have even shouted “hell yeah!” Now then, I wanted this cake to be red, white and blue inside and out. So if I could make a red velvet cake, why not a blue velvet cake? Say what? You’ve never heard of blue velvet cake? Well, hello let me introduce you to something hilariously wonderful. Instead of a ton of red color in the batter, I added a ton of blue. Blue has always been my most favorite flavor.
I baked three cakes – two red, one blue – in half sheet pans then whipped up batches and batches of cream cheese icing for the white. Red, white, blue … check! I stacked these suckers with the blue layer on top and icing in between so that when the cake was cut … well look at that! … a flag on the inside too! The stripes were piped with a medium open star tip, alternating with raspberries for the stripes and big fat blueberries for the stars. Was it historically accurate with 13 stripes and 50 stars? Well no, but let’s see Betsy Ross work with cream cheese icing on a hot day. I have to say … it was fantastic. Utterly cool and most fantastic. And it weighed about 578 pounds. It was a big mama-jamma of a cake.
Then several things dawned on me at once, mainly that I live on the second floor. One heavy cake + a lot of stairs = welcome to my life. Lovely. This happens every single time and I always choose not to remember. And where was my car parked anyway? And seriously, the Cubs game just ended? Argh, add drunken fans to my obstacle course. Oh and I was running late. Wonderful. The traumas of being me.
So I dressed in my most festive red/white/blue and packed this baby in a protective box and gazed admiringly at my handiwork. Very cool. Ever so gingerly I hoisted the sucker up – keeping it level, mind you – and somehow make it out of my apartment managing to hold the cake AND lock the door, down two flights of stairs, out two outer doors to my car, avoid/evade a few stumbling fans, pop the trunk, ease the baby in and drive nervously at an average speed of 10mph to the party. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again … I am woman, hear me roar.
I arrive to a wonderful party in full swing (I may have been a tad late) and am immediately offered a beer. Oh sweet nectar of the gods! (I think it may have been Bell’s Oberon too. Have I mentioned that I adore these people?!) A big hoopla is made and next thing I know, it’s cake time. Everyone is shushed and a 6-year old neighbor kid leads us in singing the national anthem. Rockets red glare and everything. Our newest citizen, “Gus” is congratulated, hugged, patted on the back and high-fived over beers. The cake is cut and I have to say … total awesomeness. Super moist, delicious and it looks cool as hell. I was kind of impressed myself.
It was a big cake, perhaps too big, and yet here’s what it looked like at the end of the night. Oh happy happy day.
So welcome to our tribe Vasili (or “Gus” which he has deemed his “American name”). We’re a funny, kind, warm and friendly people, we Americans, and we’re happy to have you join our ranks. I fully expect to see you wearing sandals with socks soon, and baseball hats, perhaps even a fanny pack on vacation. If you need some tips, Stuff White People Like can probably help you out. Welcome welcome Mister – the good, the bad and the ugly. You’re stuck with us all now!
And hey! Be sure to click over to Caroline’s post on the wonderful event.
STRESS BAKING THERAPY FACTOR: HIGH HIGH HIGH! This cake was easily one of my most personally satisfying baking projects. It was extremely touching to me that Vasili/Gus choose to give up his own citizenship from his native country and become one of us and I was more than happy to bake a silly little cake to celebrate. That it turned out so well and exactly as I envisioned was intensely rewarding even if my overly warm kitchen turned my cream cheese icing into a test of patience. Hey, it all works out in the end. That picture of red, white and blue crumbs at the end of the night makes me smile. So what does this mean to you? This is cool … so very cool … and it’s one of those “projects” that are a little on the futzy side but that will impress the hell out of people. So you can go hang out at the courthouse looking for newly minted citizens to bestow this upon or you can just make it for the Fourth of July next week. Same dif.
FOURTH OF JULY CAKE – aka THE RED WHITE AND BLUE CAKE
The recipe below makes one standard cake – a 10” cake, about 20 cupcakes, or one commercial half sheet cake. I’ve given an outline for the flag cake, as I made it, at the bottom of this post. You’ll need to make this cake recipe 3x – 2 red, 1 blue – plus 6x the cream cheese icing recipe, also below. If you’re using a different pan for a smaller cake, adjust accordingly. For the blue, I was unable to find 1-ounce bottles so I used a royal blue gel color (like Spectrum or Wilton) and added it until I got a bright blue hue.
RED (OR BLUE) VELVET CAKE
3 Tablespoons cocoa powder
1 teaspoon kosher salt
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1 Tablespoons + 1 teaspoon white vinegar
1 cup buttermilk
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ cup unsalted butter, room temperature (1 stick)
1 ½ cups sugar
2 large eggs
2 1/3 cups sifted cake flour (sift then measure) – or 8.25ounces if that’s easier
2 1-ounce bottles of red food coloring (or royal blue gel color added until it looks nice and bright)
- Preheat oven to 350°F and place a rack in the bottom position.
- Prepare your pan – Spray the pan sides with cooking spray and line the bottom of the pan with parchment. Set aside.
- In a small bowl, combine the cocoa, salt, vinegar and vanilla – set aside.
- In a 2 cup measure or bowl, combine the buttermilk and baking soda – make sure you use a large enough measuring cup or bowl as the mixture will foam a bit.
- In a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter and sugar on medium-high until light and fluffy.
- Add the eggs, one at a time, and beat on medium-high until very light and fluffy – about 5 minutes.
- On low, add the cocoa/vinegar/vanilla mixture and mix until combined.
- On low, add the cake flour in 3 additions, alternating with the buttermilk/baking soda mixture. Mix until just combined.
- Scrape the bowl then on low, add the red (or blue) color and mix until just combined.
- Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake until the cake top is firm and a toothpick inserted just off-center comes out clean with moist crumbs – 25-30 minutes for a 10” pan and about 20 minutes for a thinner sheet pan.
- Let cool, in the pan, on a wire rack for 10 minutes then turn out onto the rack to cool completely. Note: with the thinner sheet cakes, let cool completely in the pan (turning out to cool is a messy nightmare.)
CREAM CHEESE ICING
Makes enough for a 10” 3-layer cake. For the half sheet flag cake, multiply x6.
1 pound cream cheese, room temperature
10 Tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature
2 Tablespoons sour cream
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 ½ cups powdered sugar, sifted (measure then sift) or 10 ounces if that’s easier
- In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the cream cheese and butter on medium-high until smooth and well combined.
- Beat in the sour cream and vanilla and mix until combined.
- On low, slowly add the sifted powdered sugar and mix until thoroughly combined.
- This icing is very silky and smooth – and difficult to work with if too warm. If needed, pop the bowl in the fridge to chill.
TO MAKE A HALF SHEET FLAG CAKE …
Serves a lot – I’d say at least 50 people with a nice healthy slice
2 half sheet red velvet cakes
1 half sheet blue velvet cake
x6 batches of cream cheese icing
half sheet cake board or cardboard cut to fit
4-5 half pints fresh raspberries, rinsed and laid out on sheets of paper towels to dry
1 pint fresh fat blueberries, rinsed and dried
Half sheet pan (for support)
Piping bag fitted with a ½” open star tip
- For support: turn a half sheet pan upside down and place the cake board/cardboard on top. The cardboard alone will not support the full weight of the finished cake (learn from my experiences, grasshoppers.)
- Smear a little bit of the cream cheese icing on the cardboard to hold the first layer in place.
- Level: Take a look at your cakes and level with a serrated knife if needed.
- Build the cake: place the cardboard, icing side down, on top of a red velvet layer and flip the pan to dislodge the cake onto the cardboard as centered as possible and place on top of the inverted sheet pan support. This is the easy one – for the other layers, if a half sheet cake is unweildy, cut the cake in half or even quarters to make it easier to transfer. This is a very moist cake and smaller pieces may be easier for you to handle as the cake may crack during transfer. No worries – the icing will hold everything in place.
- Ice: Cover the cake layer with cream cheese icing and continue in the same fashion: another red velvet, then icing, then the blue velvet layer.
- Crumb coat/chill: Ice the sides and top with a thin crumb coat of icing and chill until firm – about an hour. The cake is very moist and will crumb up quite a bit, marring the icing with little bits of red and blue. This crumb coat will help you hold all this messiness together and get a nice white icing layer on top.
- Top coat: Once the crumb coat is firm, finish icing the sides and tops as smooth and tight as possible. Pay special attention to the edges/corners – the tighter the corners, the better looking the flag.
- Chill: Chill about a half hour to firm up.
- Pipe/decorate: Fill the pastry bag halfway with cream cheese icing.
- Pipe a shell border along all four edges of the cake.
- Build the stripes with the raspberries – start at the bottom and place a row right next to the bottom shell border.
- Pipe another shell border above the raspberries and continue this process alternating a shell border and raspberries until you’ve covered about 2/3 of the cake.
- In the upper left corner, pipe two lines of shell border to create a square for the blueberry stars.
- Using the biggest, fattest blueberries, fill in the piped square for the “stars”.
- Fill in the remaining space to the right of the stars using the piping/raspberry technique. Your last stripe, if you’re lucky or took the time to mark it off, should nestle a row of raspberries next to the outer shell border. If you want to make sure it comes out perfectly, mark off the “stripes” with single berries along the right border so you know how much space you have to work with.
- Chill: Chill the cake until you’re ready to serve.