Red Velvet Cake

Scan 9Each year around the beginning of May, James and I begin having a very important discussion. It’s definitely not one of those heated discussions where brows furrow and nostrils flare. Actually, if carried on long enough, it’s a discussion that leaves us both salivating a bit. I’m speaking, of course, of our annual discussion about James’ birthday cake.

In 2010, it was a recipe from my great-grandmother’s church cookbook for Italian Cream Cake. In 2011, I went out on a limb and created a brand new cake built to meet James’ taste expectations: Peanut Butter-Chocolate Chip Layer Cake. Where can you go after reaching such dizzying heights of decadence?

“This cake will have to be really good!” I said, eloquently pointing out the importance of the occasion. Aside from it being his first birthday celebration in our new home, we were also privileged to be hosting James’s sister, Georgia, for the Memorial Day weekend. Turning to an old favorite of ours, James chose Red Velvet Cake… and I did not have to be persuaded.

What is Red Velvet?

When I think of Red Velvet Cake, I’m instantly brought back to the first time I tried it. I believe it was my Aunt Lisa’s birthday. I was skeptical and hesitant. Maybe the stark color contrast between the cake and the white frosting was suggesting danger. At last, my mom or my aunt stuck a fork of it into my face and I was transported. I’m not sure how large a slice I ate that evening (not to mention how many more I probably begged for), but I was certainly hooked. So memorable was that cake, I dreamt about it a short time later — maybe even that same night.

I can still remember this dream. I was in the family kitchen. I turned around to face our refrigerator which — in dreamland — was as tall as a skyscraper, the top of it barely visible. I squinted toward the top, my eyes zooming in as if through binoculars, and noticed a giant Red Velvet Cake. A slice had been taken out to reveal the majestic interior. Reflexively, I reached toward the top of the refrigerator with all my might. I could not reach, of course. Undaunted, I began jumping while reaching. It was at this point I awoke in my bed because my arms were actually reaching out, zombie-like, for the dreamland refrigerator and that heavenly cake forever out of reach. I felt foolish… and then I wanted cake. You know you’re in love with a cake when you dream about it — especially when you still remember that dream decades later!

Its history is debated — sometimes hotly. Some say it’s from New York City’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel. Some say it’s from “the South”, though no one cares to narrow that suggestion any further. I’ve even heard one theory placing it in a Canadian department store. Wherever it may have originated, suffice it to say Red Velvet fans hail from just about anywhere and it isn’t a regional dessert, these days. So, what is it about Red Velvet that inspires such passion in its fans?

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In the simplest of terms, Red Velvet’s allure is pure alchemy — a collection of very common ingredients that combine and magically react to form something otherworldly. Unlike a Devil’s Food Cake whose ingredient list foretells that first, rich bite of chocolatey goodness or a Carrot Cake with its tell-tale laundry list of spices, fruits, and nuts that promise a complex treat; Red Velvet’s ingredient list is a veritable b-list of raw materials except for the often copious amount of red food coloring. Even before the luscious Cream Cheese Frosting is considered, the taste of the cake is a subtle chocolate flavor made tangy by buttermilk.

Before you get started…

This recipe makes three impressively plump 9-inch cake layers. I would not recommend making any changes to IMG_5050the pan size since this would greatly affect the cooking time and might result in a nasty overflow of red cake batter into the bottom of your oven.

You’ll notice the recipe asks you to line the bottom of your cake pans with parchment paper (parchment paper and waxed paper are not the same thing, by the way). In doing so, you’ll guarantee the cake layers can pop right out of their pans to finish cooling rather than hurling you into a fit of fiery rage as you attempt to free them from IMG_5054their metallic prison whilst not breaking them or mangling them in any way.

Parchment rounds are available in stores where cake decorating supplies are sold, but you can do as I often do, and make your own. To make your own, simply use the bottom of one of your cake pans as a stencil and use a pencil to trace it onto the parchment paper. Cut it out with a pair of scissors. Ta-da! Parchment rounds!

Part of the magic of Red Velvet’s flavor is the acidity of buttermilk and vinegar rushing headlong into the very IMG_5051alkaline nature of cocoa powder and baking soda. In order for this magic to take place, you should take the time to get all of your ingredients pre-measured and in marching order. Timing and measuring are always important in baking, of course, but when you toss the vinegar into the baking soda and swirl it around, it’ll need to be added immediately to the cake batter already in progress otherwise depressed cake times are ahead.

Three ounces is a LOT of food coloring, isn’t it? Recipes for Red Velvet differ on how much food coloring is added. Be careful if you tamper with the amount. If you decide to reduce the IMG_5049quantity, you’ll need to add water to the food coloring so that you have three ounces of liquid added to the batter. Fortunately, you can usually find one-ounce bottles of red food coloring down the spice aisle next to the extracts or in the cake decorating aisle. When you buy more than one of them at the grocery store, a knowing cashier will likely ask you for a slice of Red Velvet Cake!

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The only sure way I know to mess up this cake is to try to remove it from the pans too soon (when it’s still too fragile) or to attempt assembling and frosting it before it has completely cooled. In other words, be patient and use a kitchen timer!

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Red Velvet Cake

Serves 14-16

    1 tablespoon unsalted butter, softened
    3 1/2 cups unbleached cake flour
    1/2 cup dutch-process cocoa powder
    1 1/2 teaspoons salt
    2 cups canola oil
    2 1/4 cups granulated sugar
    3 large eggs
    3 ounces (6 Tablespoons) red food coloring (not paste)
    1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
    1 1/4 cups buttermilk
    2 teaspoons baking soda
    2 1/2 teaspoons white vinegar

    Preheat oven to 350-degrees. Using your hands, coat the interior bottom and sides of three 9-inch round cake pans with the softened butter. Line the bottom of each pan with a parchment round; use your hands to spread some of the butter from the sides of the pan onto the parchment.

    In a medium bowl, sift together the cake flour, cocoa powder, and salt.

    In a large bowl, beat together the oil and granulated sugar with a mixer at medium speed until combined. (Note: the sugar will not dissolve into the oil, yet.) While mixing on low, add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Pausing the mixer, add the red food coloring and the vanilla; begin mixing on low to avoid splashes, mix just until combined. Add the flour mixture and the buttermilk alternately in two batches, beating just until combined and scraping down the bowl after each addition.

    Place the baking soda in a small bowl; quickly stir in the vinegar and immediately add the mixture to the batter. Beat only until combined (about 10 seconds at medium speed).

    Divide batter evenly among the prepared pans. Bake at 350-degrees for 35-40 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center of a cake layer comes out clean. Allow cakes to cool in pans on a wire rack for 20 minutes. Remove from pans, remove parchment, and place cake layers right-side up on cooling racks to cool completely before frosting.

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What about the frosting?

Don’t even try to get me to take a bite of a Red Velvet Cake frosted with anything other than Cream Cheese Frosting. Don’t even waste my time! I don’t care if some historian claims some Yankee in New York City invented Red Velvet Cake and topped it with plain-old, tired-old vanilla buttercream. Even if that were true (and I’ll never be fully convinced it is), most cake connoisseurs concur Cream Cheese Frosting is the best choice to accompany the cake’s already tangy flavor.

Since it was James’ birthday and this was to be an over-the-top Red Velvet experience, I decided to create an amalgam of a few recipes for Red Velvet Cake while also trying an interesting recipe for Cream Cheese Frosting. Rather than the usual frosting which combines butter, cream cheese, and the requisite powdered sugar, this recipe swapped some of the cream cheese for mascarpone cheese and even incorporated a hefty dose of whipping cream. Fancy! Once I noticed it used far less powdered sugar than the more common recipe, I knew I had to try it.

Sigh… having baked, presented, and devoured the cake, I can now say I wish I had used my tried-and-true recipe for Cream Cheese Frosting. While the frosting was very creamy, delicious, and “light”, the addition of whipping cream and mascarpone cheese diluted the cream cheese taste very noticeably — tipping it almost to the point of making it a “slightly cream cheesy vanilla buttercream frosting.” If you don’t like the traditional cream cheese frosting, this will definitely be one you’ll want to try. If the cream cheese frosting is practically your favorite part of this cake, you might want to try the traditional one (see link below).

Fancy Cream Cheese Frosting

Adapted from The Joy of Baking

    8 ounces cream cheese, softened
    8 ounces mascarpone cheese, softened
    1 teaspoon vanilla extract
    1 cup powdered sugar, sifted
    1 1/2 cups heavy whipping cream

    In a large bowl, beat together the cream cheese and mascarpone cheese until smooth. Add the vanilla and powdered sugar; beat at medium speed until smooth and uniform. While mixing at a low speed, gradually add the whipping cream, beating until incorporated. Beat mixture at medium-high until it reaches the desired consistency of frosting. The frosting consistency will be similar to whipped cream, though slightly thicker. (For a more traditional cream cheese frosting, double the frosting recipe for Italian Cream Cake.)

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All in all, James had quite the birthday celebration, this year — including two large home-cooked dinners. The first dinner was a down-home feast of Chicken & Turkey Andouille Gumbo with rice, collard greens with bacon, and a very tasty Spicy Crab Dip. Dinner on the second evening featured our Homemade Gyros with Tomato-Feta Relish.

Amazingly, there were no leftovers of the cake. No one refused a slice noting “sub-par” frosting. In fact, the cake was a big success — tremendously moist and flavorful, an utterly naughty birthday pleasure.

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~ by Jason on June 4, 2012.

7 Responses to “Red Velvet Cake”

  1. Oh my. Just… Oh my. You had me at “Peanut Butter”; I could barely make it to the Homemade Gyros.

  2. Wow that sounded like a cake I might like …im glad it was tasty .
    Im glad yall had a good birthday celabration.
    Wishing I was there.
    Love the pics too.
    Love yall mom

  3. Wow Jason as usual you leave me craving some tempting dessert. My daughter has joined us in a love for red velvet, it’s her favorite cake, and my new daughter in law Tori’s as well. One day I may make ur recipe, but maybe I will just wait and try yours, you being a far superior baker. Thanks for sharing your memory, glad my cake from years ago sparked such fond memories for you. Love and miss you guys!

    • Hey! Sorry WordPress mistakenly thought your comment was spam. 😛 That’s why it hasn’t posted until now.

      Love ‘n miss you too! See you in November.

  4. Happy Belated B-Day to James and, Jason, what a terriffic cake you baked!

    Jerry’s birthday is Wed. and this weekend his brother and sister showed up from downstate for an early celebration. (all concerned being over 75 years, an early celebration is a good idea), so I baked Jerry’s fav b-day cake.
    T’was a chocolate devils food cake with a sweetened, cream cheese filling.
    Butter cream icing. It was a huge DUD.
    This morning I tossed the remainder in the trash and then went back to take a good look at my tried and true receipe and discovered that I had omitted the baking soda…Don’t ever do that. You’ll regretfully end up with a leaden, chocolate gel-type cake that even the icing can’t overcome.

    I’m so glad that I have the privledge of knowing a really successful cook like
    Jason. Perhaps I may yet regain some of my youthful palate and patience and take another stab at cooking.
    Thanks for your incentive.
    XOXO’S

    • I can’t remember if I ever mentioned to you a similar incident that happened to me. I once put a “cake” in the oven and then turned around to notice that the bowl of flour, salt, and leavening was still sitting there on the counter as full as ever waiting to be put into the batter. Ach! I was livid with myself!

      Fortunately, I noticed it right away and hurriedly took the cake out of the oven (goodness knows what that might’ve turned into… some sort of souffle?) and put the flour into the mix. No one knew what happened but me, thankfully.

      Sorry Jerry’s cake didn’t turn out so well. But, at least you discovered what went wrong and your recipe is still as trusty as ever. 🙂

      Thanks for reading, Lynne.

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