January has been cold so far. Thankfully New York City apartments have come a long way since medieval European castles. I say this because although none of us have any square footage, most of these old brownstone apartments have old heating pipes with little temperature control. Mine seems to usually be more on the stifling side. 500 years ago, wealthy medieval folk used to insulate their dark, dank castles with tapestries, which though beautiful, are also impractical in today’s day and age. Even so, tapestries were very important during the middle ages, and were incredibly impressive to own. Seen as a luxury item, these large woven scenes could take up to years of multiple people working at once to complete.
Luckily for New Yorkers, we are super close to a spectacular tapestry series—The Hunt of the Unicorn, c. 1495-1500, on display at the Cloisters. I have talked about the Cloisters before—it is an amazing museum, and so worth the long trek all the way up the west side. The Hunt of the Unicorn is a series of seven tapestries, together depicting the hunt, capture and murder of the unicorn. It can be interpreted in two ways: in a religious context it compares the unicorn and his eventual death to that of Christ. Alternatively, the unicorn can be seen to stand for the bridge groom, who has gone through hardships to gain the love of his lady. The last tapestry in the series, The Unicorn in Captivity, shows the unicorn trapped in a pen; this can be seen as Christ resurrected in the heavenly garden, or as the married groom, who has now been domesticated (aka trapped in a pen!) by his bride. As a future married lady, I really hope this is not the general consensus…
Despite the multiple interpretations, you can’t argue that these beautiful tapestries aren’t incredible. On first glance, these woven works of art made me think of a luscious red velvet cake—rich and eye catching. After more research, I was a bit sad to learn that medieval tapestries were actually made of wool rather than velvet. Nevertheless, I still made a red velvet cake, because to be honest, red wool cake sounds pretty disgusting.
Red Velvet Cake
5 ½ ounces flour
4 ounces cake flour
½ ounce cocoa powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
pinch of salt
1 cup buttermilk
heavy squeeze of red food coloring
1 tablespoon white vinegar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
10 ½ ounces brown sugar
4 ounces unsalted butter, room temperature
2 eggs, room temperature
Cream Cheese Frosting
13 ½ ounces powdered sugar (so much sugar!)
12 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
3 ounces unsalted butter, room temperature
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
pinch of salt
Preheat the oven to 325˚F. Spray two 9-inch cake rounds with cooking spray and set aside. In small bowl, whisk together the flours, salt, baking soda and cocoa. In another small bowl, whisk together the buttermilk, vinegar, good coloring and vanilla. In the bowl of a stand mixer, beat together the butter and brown sugar for about 2 minutes. Add in the eggs, one at a time, mixing thoroughly after each addition. Now, add the wet and dry mixtures, alternating between: dry, wet, dry, wet, dry. Mix only until fully combined—do not over mix! Split evenly between the two cake pans, using a kitchen scale to ensure that two cakes are truly equal in weight. Bake cakes for about 30-32 minutes, on the middle rack of your oven, rotating half way through the baking time.
Let the cakes cool completely, and mix together the frosting while that is happening: Cream the cream cheese and the butter together in a stand mixer on medium speed. Scrape down the sides, and add in the salt and vanilla. Slowly add the powdered sugar, beating until the frosting reaches your desired consistency. Let refrigerate for at least 10 minutes while the cake finishes cooling.
Using an offset spatula, ice one layer of the cake; place the other layer on top, and ice. You can either stop now or ice the sides as well. Enjoy!
Recipe adapted from Alton Brown
Featured art: The Unicorn in Captivity, tapestry from the Hunt of the Unicorn series, Franco-Flemish, made in Brussels, c. 1495-1550