A couple years back, I got my first job working at a bakery in a grocery store.
Well, it wasn’t my “first job”, but it was the first time I’d worked in a bakery environment outside the classes I’d taken during college. They hired me without giving me a tour of the facilities. Actually, originally I wasn’t even hired to work in the bakery. I was hired to work as a cashier. Luckily, I didn’t even work one day on the register. A strange turn of events made the management take a second look at my work experience and resume, and after learning that I’d taken classes in “pasty arts”, they decided to give me a chance working in the bakery.
Anywho, lets just say, all the old bitties that worked in the bakery up until then? Yeah. They didn’t like me too much. Working in the bakery was like some sort of elite social club, and I wasn’t welcome. Management may have invited me, but that didn’t mean that my new co-workers wanted to play nice.
I started out working the closing shift.
The closing shift in the bakery is sort of like working as a janitor, only the first half of the day you spend finishing someone elses job, then when you get that done, you clean it all up. Then the last half of your job is getting everything ready for the people who come in and do the actual baking, and then you have to clean up after yourself. When you have extra time, you take cake decorating orders, help the bread packagers, keep up with the demand for hot french bread (which I’m pretty sure is a standard program in most grocery stores, but in ours, we had to do this every hour on the hour from 1pm until 7pm) and be ready to slice bread for anyone who asks.
Being the newbie, I was always left the crappy jobs and the cleanup. I always had to wait until everyone else had gone to break before I could go, and same with taking my lunch. Often times, I would get stuck washing the floor while my co-workers went off for an extra break. It just wasn’t much fun.
If you’re lucky, the cake decorators will ask you to “ice cupcakes”, which basically means take the cupcakes, set them all up in the little plastic clamshell containers, fill a giant pastry bag with white buttercream icing, and do the signature grocery store swirl of icing before sprinkling on some sprinkles and closing up the packaging. Not exactly the most creative work, but trust me, it was a nice break from washing floors, dishes and countertops.
After a while working the closing shift, I discovered that there was an open position working 1am until 10am, making the donuts. I jumped at the chance, and once in this position, I LOVED my job, and I loved the shift.
You see, when I get to work by myself, I can get into my groove and get things done, and fast. Eventually it got to the point where I was able to start spending some quality time decorating the donuts, beyond just adding sprinkles. I had fun at it, and it was a nice creative outlet.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to continue in that shift. I’m one of those people that isn’t meant to be awake all night because I can’t sleep during the day. A trip to the hospital and a doctors note later, I was back on closing shifts, but with a twist in my favour. During the year that I’d been working the early shift, they had hired new people to work the closing shift. I was now “the old bitty”, and they were now the newbies.
Once my personal life had leveled out (and I’d started sleeping again), it didn’t take long to get to where I was icing cupcakes more and more often. Then, one of the cake decorators decided to give me a chance to decorate a cake. This was AWESOME. To be completely honest, I’d never had complete creative freedom over cake decorations before. In the pastry arts class, I learned “classic” techniques, but not the fun stuff, like airbrushing patterns, creative lettering, creative detailing… All that I knew of that stuff was what my mom had taught me when I was younger. What happened that day was wonderful. I had been handed a cake, shown the tools I needed to decorate it, and given the chance to do something creative and fun.
…I don’t think I have to tell you this, but… It was horrible.
My swirls looked like lumps, my twirls like bumps. My pink airbrushing ended up brown, and I learned that there is such a thing as TOO MUCH filling.
I was very fortunate that they were patient with me… and probably didn’t expect as much out of me as I did.
A week later, I was promoted to cake decorator. It was an earlier shift, I had more contact with customers, and at first, I was more of a sales person than a decorator, which was fine because it gave me time to learn.
One of the first things that I learned, was from a customer.
That morning I had come to work around 10am. The girl who worked the shift before me was really busy, and asked if I would restock the showcase out front. I went to the refrigerator and got out the cart full of stuff to restock it with.
There is just something about a girl wearing an apron out front of the bakery in a grocery store, pushing a cart full of fresh pastries that just works like a magnet for all people, and thats exactly what happened. I was swarmed. A few older women tried to haggle with me about the price of a pie, an old man made a joke and asked if any of the “sweet things” behind the counter wanted to go home with him. We all giggled while he picked out a donut and shuffled off to his wife who was standing in the freezer section.
I handed out a few free cookies to some small children, and thats when it happened.
There was a crazy old lady wearing much too much perfume and gold coloured jewelry holding a red velvet cake awkwardly over her head with one hand, her other holding her reading glasses at an angle so she could read the ingredients on the bottom of the package.
“Miss…. Oh MISS!!!! I have a question!” she chirped in a birdlike tone.
“Yes Ma’am? How can I help you?” I responded, probably sounding as unenthusiastic as I felt.
Her perfume nearly sucked the air out of my lungs. I knew this woman. Why did I know this woman?
“Did you make this cake?” She barked, lowering the cake and glaring at me.
“Well, no Ma’am. Did you have a question about it? Is there something the matter with it?” I asked, a little worried that she would point out something the matter with the cake and demand a discount.
My mouth filled up with the taste of floral and spice, but not in a good way. Her stale perfume tasted like my childhood best friend’s great grandmother, who despite being on oxygen insisted on wearing a layer of perfume thick enough that it was almost visible. Her name was Laura, and to her, I was Amie’s “fat friend” who ate all the twinkies, even though I’d never eaten a twinkie at her house in my life. In fact, the twinkie eater was Amie’s little sister Nichelle, but being a sneaky little twit, she blamed it on me, and it stuck. I swear that old woman blamed me for those missing twinkies until the day she died.
This was not the same old woman.
“Can you tell me, Miss, what is a ‘red velvet’ cake?” her eyes seemed innocent and slightly mischevious as she questioned me.
I wanted to blame it on the fog of perfume and aspercreme which encased her, but my brain went completely blank. What is a red velvet cake? HOLY CRAP! Can anyone tell me what a red velvet cake is? ANYONE?!!
The answer today, is no.
Despite working with 3 other capable cake decorators, some of which have been on the job for 10+ years, no one would come to my rescue. I was on my own.
As I searched my brain for the answer, I realized it had been too long since she asked the question. I still hadn’t responded. I’d been standing there like an idiot for probably 30 seconds without a word. I decided to keep thinking, and STALL.
“Um.” I sounded like a genius.
“Um… Well… Its a unique cake.” I stumbled.
“Would you like to try it?” I asked, trying not to make it sound too obvious that I had no idea what I was doing.
“No, I’m looking for a cake for my husband, and we want something old fashioned. This looks old fashioned. Is it old fashioned? What flavour is it?” She added to her list of demands.
“Well, uh…” Then it hit me. My memory was starting to come back. I may have had no idea what it tasted like, but I vaguely remembered something I’d seen on food network a few years prior, about red velvet cake being made with bittersweet cocoa and sour cream.
“Its made with bittersweet cocoa and sour cream!” I shouted, not intentionally, but it just sort of slipped out in my “outside voice”.
Taken slightly aback, the woman looked at me. She squinted.
“Yes, but is it old fashioned? Is it a chocolate cake? Why is it red?” Her list of questions grew.
“Um, I do believe it is an old fashioned cake. Yes, its a chocolate cake, but it doesn’t taste ‘chocolaty’ so much as the added cocoa powder makes the flavour richer. The sour cream adds a tangy flavour. The red is just food colouring, and I have no idea why it is there other than to make it look pretty.”- I had no idea where that came from, but I said it.
“hmm.” she hummed. There was an audible pause.
“Hmmm… I don’t like chocolate cake.” she said.
Then without a look, she sat the cake on the counter, turned around, grabbed her cart and left. Only the smell of her perfume and the sound of her flip flops remained.
I looked over at my co-workers, who had by this time gathered around the area where I stood, and they laughed.
“She comes in here probably once a week and does the same thing each time.” one of them piped up.
They laughed more. I giggled a little, but I had wished I hadn’t been in that situation. I really had forgotten about the red velvet cake. That old, fragrant, inquisitive little woman taught me that I need to always know my product, AND, that I can’t please everyone.
A long time has passed since I worked at that bakery, and I learned many more things before my time was up there. Nothing quite has stuck with me quite as well as that woman though, and her red velvet cake.
So what IS a red velvet cake?
For the record-
Red Velvet cake is a southern recipe for a mildly chocolate flavoured cake, known for its distinctive dark red or reddish brown colour. Some of the ingredients in this cake include sour cream, buttermilk, cocoa powder, and a large quantity of red food colouring, though some recipes use beets or beet juice in place of this as a more natural ingredient.
In James Beard’s 1972 book American Cookery, three kinds of red velvet cake are described, all with varying amounts of butter and shortening. All of them use red food colouring for the colour, but it is mentioned that the reaction of acidic vinegar and buttermilk turns the cocoa a reddish brown color. Also before more alkaline “Dutch Processed” cocoa was widely available, the red color would have been more pronounced. This natural tinting may have been the source for the name “Red Velvet”.
Red velvet cakes seemed to find a home in the U.S. South and reached peak popularity in the 1950’s– just before a controversy arose about health effects of common food colorings.
Here’s the thing, Most people know of red velvet cake topped with its signature cream cheese icing. Actually, through all my internet searches, it seems as though very few people are willing to switch up this paring, other than omitting the icing all together. Since I’m not willing to do that (I love icing), I decided to try something slightly different, and maybe use the red velvet cake’s tang and mild chocolate flavour to enhance another delicious flavour-
Yep. I made red velvet sweet cherry cupcakes.
Then I filled them with a mixture of cocoa, cream cheese, powdered sugar and maraschino cherries and cherry juice.
Sort of a Lord Baltimore cake filling in a red velvet cake.
What I ended up with, was nothing short of delicious.
Stop me before I eat another!
Red Velvet Cupcakes
1 cup (2 sticks) softened butter
1 3/4 cups sugar
2 tablespoons red food coloring
1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
2 cups cake flour
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp salt
1 tsp baking soda
2 tsp cherry extract
1 tsp almond extract
1 cup buttermilk
1 cup sour cream
1 Tbsp white vinegar
Preheat oven to 350.
Line the muffin cups with paper liners
Cream butter and sugar on medium-high until fluffy (about a minute). Mix in one egg at a time, beating after each addition. Turn mixer off and add food coloring and cocoa powder to bowl. Turn on mixer on low and mix until the ingredients are just integrated, then beat on medium for a few more minutes.
Sift together the flours, salt, and baking soda and set aside. Stir buttermilk, cherry extract and almond extract together in a second container. Add dry ingredients to the mixing bowl in three batches, alternating with the buttermilk mixture, starting and ending with the dry ingredients. Beat on medium until just combined. .
Fill muffin cups 3/4 full and bake for 25-35′ until the cupcakes are solid on top and a toothpick comes out clean.
Let cool in the pan for 5 minutes and then cool completely on a rack.
This recipe makes about 24 cupcakes.
For the filling-
2 cups powdered sugar
2 tablespoons cocoa powder
1 8oz bar of cream cheese
1 tablespoon butter, softened
1/2 cup powdered sugar
1/4 cup chopped maraschino cherries
2 teaspoons maraschino cherry juice
You can either mix both of these together or mix them separately and layer them inside the cupcake. I chose to layer them, because the pink looked pretty, rather than just a big brown glob.
The first mixture you’ll want to whip up in a stand mixer, starting by mixing together the butter and the cream cheese. Once that is mixed together and fluffy, add in the cocoa and powdered sugar. The icing should be fluffy and soft, and will need refrigeration. If you feel it is too soft, add more powdered sugar. If you feel it is too pasty, add a teaspoon of milk.
The second mixture you’ll make like a glaze. Just add the chopped cherries and cherry juice to the powdered sugar and mix with a fork until no lumps remain.
If you want, you can use chopped dried cherries and real cherry juice, or chopped fresh cherries and real cherry juice, but the filling will not be as sweet, or as pink. It’ll still taste good though!
After the cupcakes have cooled, cut a cone of cake out of the top of the cupcake and fill the void with a small amount of chocolate cream cheese filling and top it off with a small amount of the cherry icing. remove the cone part of the cake you removed and place the top back on the filling. Ice with your choice of icing. I used a marshmallow fondant to cover mine.