Category Archives: Recipes

Red Velvet Cake: A Southern Tradition

Remember the  wedding reception scene in the movie Steel Magnolias in which the groom’s aunt shows off a red velvet groom’s cake shaped like an armadillo, swathed in gray icing? “I can do almost any shape except for a snake,” she says. “I don’t have the counter space.”

The armadillo shape and the unfortunate gray icing may be quirky, but Southern brides have a long tradition of choosing this luscious chocolate cake with cream cheese icing for the big day. Here in the South, red velvet cake is often served as the showy finish on Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day or at any dinner requiring a special dessert. Since the advent of the cupcake craze, red velvet cupcakes have become all the rage. This summer, on vacation in a small funky beach town on the Gulf coast, I had a sumptuous red velvet cupcake to top off a dinner of shrimp gumbo and cornbread. Perfect ending to the day.

No one is sure just how this Southern delight evolved. Recipes for a version of a butter cake similar to red velvet, but without the color, appeared in cookbooks as far back  as 1896. Some say it was an invention of the WW 2 era in which sugar-strapped cooks substituted sugar beets for the real thing. But since sugar beets are white and not red, this seems unlikely. Regardless, it’s absolutely delicious. Here’s a recipe for the cupcake version. Enjoy!

Preheat oven to 350. Line  2— 12 cup muffin pans with cupcake papers.

In a medium bowl, sift together: 2 and 1/2 cups all purpose flour ( I use Gold medal) 1 and 1/2 cups granulated sugar, 1 tsp baking soda, 1 tsp salt, and 1 and 1/2 tsp cocoa powder. Set aside.  In another bowl, beat together: 1 and 1/2 cups vegetable oil ( Crisco is a good one) 1 cup buttermilk, 2 eggs at room temperature, 2 tbsp red food coloring, 1 tsp white vinegar and  1 tsp pure vanilla extract ( not imitation vanilla) until thoroughly mixed. Then sift  the dry ingredients into the wet ones and mix until smooth.  Divide the batter evenly into the prepared tins, filling each one about 2/3 full. Bake 10 minutes, turn the pans, and bake for another 10-12 minutes, until the cakes test done. Remove from oven and cool completely. Make the cream cheese frosting by beating 2- 8 ounce packages of softened cream cheese, 2 sticks of softened butter, and one tsp vanilla till smooth. Slowly add 4 cups sifted confectioner’s sugar until incorporated. Continue beating the frosting till  light and fluffy.  Frost each cupcake. If you like,  add garnishes such as chopped pecans, jelly beans, or fresh berries.

Do you have a family tradition involving this delicious cake? Leave a comment and share your story.

Spongecake and Books: A Mid 19th Century Child’s Memoir

The other day I came across a reference to a book published in 1926, Caroline Hewins’ memoir called A Mid Century Child and Her Books. Since I began my career writing for children and young adults I couldn’t resist a peek at the books that captivated young readers in another century. Turns out that one of the most popular books of the time was Peter Parley, by Samuel Goodrich, a man as popular in  his day as today’s JK Rowling. On a trip to the South in 1846, the author was mobbed by hordes of adoring children who loved not only his lavishly illustrated books, but also subscribed to his magazine which ran for nearly 40 years.

Army Optics Army and Navy Stories captivated young would-be soldiers in 1865, and The Two Hungry Kittens (1866) stole the hearts of every reader. Many books of the day contained beautiful, idealized images of children, such as this c 1890 illustration of a little girl.

I love the first chapter of this memoir in which Miss Hewins writes of an annual summertime visit to the home of a favorite aunt who lived across town in Boston. After traveling by steam car and horse car, she arrived at her aunt’s house where she was served “a pitcher of lemonade and a loaf of spongecake…and books to look at.” It reminded me of  my own childhood summers and the books I enjoyed : Black Beauty (although it made me cry), Little Women, Hurry Home Candy, Charlotte and the White Horse, Kenny’s Window, Harold and the Purple Crayon, and so many more.

Since I can’t think of anything more pleasant than a summer afternoon of  lemonade, cake and books, I thought I’d share a favorite recipe for coffee cake that’s easy to make and perfect for Sunday brunch or a book club meeting.  Here goes:

Dorothy’s Chocolate Chip Coffee Cake

1 16 oz box of pound cake mix

1 cup semisweet chocolate morsels ( the French ones are best)

1 eight ounce carton of sour cream

1/2 cup milk

2 eggs

Streusel topping (recipe below)

Combine one tablespoon of the dry cake mix with the chocolate morsels and set aside. Combine the rest of the cake mix, the milk, eggs, and sour cream and mix on low speed of mixer till blended. Increase speed to medium and beat for 3 more minutes. Spoon one half of the batter into a lightly greased 13 x 9 inch baking pan. Sprinkle the chocolate  morsels evenly over the batter and then add the rest of the batter.  Top with the streusel topping and bake at 350 for 25 minutes or till the cake tests done. Cool on a wire rack.

For the streusel topping, combine 1/2 cup brown sugar, 2 tablespoons flour, and one tsp ground cinnamon. Stir in  1 cup finely chopped pecans and 2 tablespoons melted butter.

What about you? What were your favorite childhood books?

Horses, hats, and mint juleps: a southern tradition

Saturday marked the 137th Kentucky Derby–the annual  “run for the roses” at Churchill Downs in Louisville. Lately I’ve been reading up on the history of the Derby and of horse racing in general, as a race plays an important role in my upcoming  Hickory Ridge novel, Beauty For Ashes. I’ve watched the Derby a few times, mostly to enjoy looking at the outrageous hats. Whether high end or homemade, the rule seems to be the bigger the better.

It turns out that horse racing in Louisville goes all the way back to 1783 when races were held on Market Street downtown. Later, they were moved to an island in the Ohio River, and in 1875, the first Derby was run at the track that was later named Churchill Downs. The winner that year was a horse called Aristides.

Aside from modeling gorgeous hats and serving mint juleps, women have played a role in the races since 1904 when Mrs. Laska Durnell entered her horse “Elwood” and won. In 1942, women owned seven of the top eight  finishers.  Twelve women trainers and five female jockeys have also left their marks on this historic race, the first of racing’s Triple Crown.

The Derby wouldn’t be the Derby without mint juleps, and it seems there’s as much disagreement about the proper way to make and serve one as there is about how to make salsa here in Texas.  The one thing most people agree on is that however a julep is made, it must be served in a silver cup. The julep didn’t start out as the official refreshment of the Derby; originally it was concocted to cover up the bitter taste of medicine, as was our beloved Georgia-based Southern libation, Coca-Cola (that’s “co-cola” to us Southerners). Anyway, here is the official Kentucky Derby mint julep recipe for those of you who are so inclined. Enjoy it this summer while sitting on the porch swing,  reading a good book. Or make yourself a gallon of sweet tea. Or pick up a six pack of Co-Cola.

Mint Julep

A day ahead (I know,  I hate recipes that start out like this, too, but this isn’t  too bad, I promise)  Boil 2 cups sugar and 2 cups water for five minutes to make a simple syrup. Add 8 sprigs of fresh mint, cover tightly and refrigerate overnight. When it’s julep time, fill a silver julep cup with crushed ice. Add one tablespoon of the simple syrup and 2 ounces of bourbon. Stir rapidly to frost the outside of the silver cup and garnish with more fresh mint.

Summer’s almost here. What is your favorite hot weather thirst quencher?