Ten years ago, I was strolling through the West Village in New York City when I first came upon Magnolia Bakery—with its toy-like displays of layer cakes, cheesecakes, and cupcakes; all that pastel yellow, green, and blue frosting; the long line snaking out the door.
The cupcake was in its heyday. It seemed everywhere you turned there was a cupcake shop: If it wasn’t Magnolia, it was Butter Lane on 7th Street, Melissa’s on 14th, Georgetown on Mercer, or (RIP) Crumbs on University Place. I had just moved to Manhattan from Atlanta a few months prior, where the cupcake craze had yet to explode, and felt lucky to live in a city where a shop’s single purpose was to dole out mini cakes topped with buttercream. I had also just broken up with my then-boyfriend and was soaking in the cold winter streets on my own for the first time. And the one thing you need when you’re cold, alone, and heartbroken is to stumble upon a bakery filled with cupcakes.
The sweet brightness of the shop was in stark contrast to how I was feeling that night. It wasn’t until I got to the counter after waiting in that line, ordered myself a red velvet cupcake (something I had never had before), and took my first bite that, for one brief second, I was able to forget about the breakup and wrap my mind around this new thing I had just shoveled into my mouth. I had never tasted anything like it. Was it vanilla or chocolate? Or both? Definitely both, like a black and white milkshake. Or a deeper cookies 'n' cream.
That first bite at Magnolia would inform how I’d measure all other red velvet desserts thereafter: Red velvet batter must, in my opinion, have enough sugar to caramelize at the edges after being baked (for flavor, but also a slightly chewy texture in the cupcakes' case). There must be savoriness (thanks to salt and vinegar, the latter of which helps the cake rise, too) as well as bitterness (thanks to the cocoa and food coloring). Speaking of artificial facades, there must be a deep, bold, brick-red hue to it (because that’s the color of reignition).
Most sources point to the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in N.Y.C. as the crimson cake’s original creator. Wherever it came from, red velvet is, for me, a flavor that I’ll always associate with my early years in New York, and by extension, who I was back then: wide-eyed, vulnerable, and unabashedly sanguine. A lot has changed in ten years: The hotel has since closed and been turned into luxury condominiums; I barely remember that ex-boyfriend’s name, let alone his face; and cupcakes, especially red velvet, are way over.
But even after all these years, one thing has remained the same: I still love this stupid city. —Eric Kim
In a mixing bowl or stand mixer with paddle attachment, cream together the butter, olive oil, sugar, salt, and egg until fluffy and pale yellow. Add the vinegar, red food coloring, and vanilla and mix until well combined.
In a separate bowl, stir together the flour, cocoa powder, and baking soda. Add this to the butter-sugar mixture and stir gently until just incorporated.
Using a medium ice cream scoop, scoop the cookie dough onto a plate (you should get about 8 cookies). Place into the freezer for 10 minutes. Remove from the freezer and roll each cookie into a ball with your hands, then toss around in a bowl of confectioners' sugar, covering outsides completely.
Place cookies on a half sheet pan and bake for 20 minutes. Let cool before transferring to a container or (let’s be real) eating right off the pan.
Eric Kim is a senior editor at Food52, where his solo dining column, Table for One, runs Friday mornings. Formerly the managing editor at Food Network and a PhD candidate in literature at Columbia University, he writes about food, travel, and culture and lives in a tiny shoebox in Manhattan with his dog, Quentin "Q" Compson. His favorite writers are William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, and Ernest Hemingway, but his hero is Nigella Lawson. You can follow him on Twitter @ericjoonho.