Monday, March 17, 2008

red velvet

Friends are used to hearing me yammer on about topics near to my heart: Kippy, puggles, coffee, Britney, journalism, children, the funny things smart people say and how commuting on foot totally counts as legitimate exercise.

Also, red velvet cake. My pet obsession for the dessert predates the Times' trend story from last year about how it's a popular New York pastry (what isn't?). Red velvet is unique and intriguing. Its flavor is subtle but unmistakable. With its red cake - the color of love, passion, heat - and its pure white cloud of frosting, red velvet is desire in its ideal material form. Once I stopped into a random Gristedes for some bananas and noticed a red velvet cake mix that I didn't feel like paying for that day. I tried to find it later at four different supermarkets in my neighborhood, including a couple other Gristedes locations. Not even a trek to Fairway delivered the goods. One afternoon when I had better things to do I traveled back to the Gristedes at 2nd Ave and 75th to buy a couple boxes. (That procrastination trip is ranked a distant second to that night in college before a final Spanish project was due when I went from Columbia to Chinatown to get some clay at Pearl, since I decided I didn't want to write an essay and was going to make a diorama with clay figurines commenting on Frida Kahlo's work on self representation. I made it in a box of Annie's and didn't even bother covering its outside. That professor was bad with names, but she knew I liked journalism so she called me Maureen Dowd.)

Anyway! Things rose to absurd new heights Sunday. I, in east midtown, and a friend who lives in Washington Heights were trying to decide how to kill a couple hours together in the afternoon. I had visited another friend in Alphabet City the day before and passed a bakery en route that had breathtaking red velvet cupcakes in the window. The creamy white icing was swirled just so over gleaming red. Walking by the crane accident site had killed my appetite, but the cupcakey aesthetics carved a spot in my psyche. My friend and I decided to meet at the bakery, Panisi, even though it was cold and wet, and we were both tired.

But cliches, bad for writing, are good for common sense. I judged that cake by its cover. It was beautiful but not nearly the best New York offers. To save others the heartbreak red velvet wreaks when desire and product diverge, here is a list of places I've been for red velvet and what I thought of them.

Buttercup Bake Shop (2nd Ave b/w 51st and 52nd)
Small, cute dense little cupcakes. The dough is smooth and heavy and more often moist than dry. Pleasing amount of cocoa. The icing's cream cheese is the dominant flavor. These are good cupcakes.

Crumbs (Amsterdam Ave at 75th)
Their cupcakes, with colorfully textured toppings, are meant to be ogled. The red velvet has chocolate stripes and sprinkles, and the cupcake is gigantic and cocoa-y. It can be good, but Crumbs cupcakes can often be dry, and since they're so big there's not always enough icing to offset the dryness for the whole eating process.

Kitchenette (Amsterdam Ave at 122nd)
Very satisfying texture, like the cake the baker in your group of friends would bring to a gathering. That is, if the baker tends to make things stale and bland and you all secretly toss the second half of the slice.

Panisi (4th Street at 1st Ave)
The icing is too sweet and there isn't enough cocoa in the cake. It's moist and springy, but it's not really red velvet, just red.

Rack & Soul (109th and Broadway)
The red velvet here was my gateway slice. The cake was not as coarsely textured as most, but it wasn't too sweet and the icing is solid. I've never had food from here, what with Saji's two doors down, but the cake is worth a stop.

Two Little Red Hens (2nd Ave at 86th)
I don't remember anything great or bad about the cupcake, so it was probably a respectable example of the genre.


  1. so, if I dare to reveal that I've never had any, which should I travel four hours to try? Oh, and how was the boxed stuff?

  2. The mix is actually quite good, and I even undercooked it a little. Travel four hours and try a buttercup cupcake (there's another one in the west 70s). Or drag someone to Crumbs (which, btw, is Kosher) and mix and match two bigger cupcakes.

    I still need to try Make My Cake red velvet, which used to have a location on E 110th but now had a couple others (