Friday, October 29, 2010

Red velvet cake with cream cheese frosting

Happy Friday and happy almost Halloween!  A few months ago, a good friend requested a red velvet cake for his mid-October birthday.  I happily agreed and began the typical research, seeking out the best  recipe for this classic cake that I could find.

But, October turned out to be a pretty busy month with Pitt games, out of town visitors, family weekends, and weddings of the fall variety.  So, Nick's birthday came and went, much too quietly for anyone's taste.  He didn't seem to mind, but I knew he really wanted that cake, and I was determined to let him have said cake before October was behind us.  And then he went and got engaged to his longtime lady love.  Two reasons to celebrate and just one cake.  That's a lot of pressure, folks :)

Find a recipe is exactly what I did.  Not just any recipe, but one that ran in The New York Times.  That's right, the big guns.  But, while the search was successful, a tragedy reminiscent of childhood took place.  Every single flippin' recipe for red velvet cake involved heaping amounts of red food coloring.  That couldn't be right... could it?  Red food dye would mean that the color isn't natural, and the masses fawn over this cake's magical red properties (and frosting, but we'll get to that).  Apparently, the color of red velvet cake isn't simply the natural consequence of the acidic vinegar and buttermilk with the cocoa.  It's helped along with a literal ton of red food dye added to the batter!   It was a serious blow to my soul discovering this culinary lie.  Pretty similar to "The Easter bunny isn't real!" and "Santa Claus doesn't exist!"  Oh, how I remember it like it was yesterday...

A boy in my third grade class was talking about professional wrestling (a la the former WWF) and how it was just so cool and real.  I went home and asked if it was, indeed, real.  My dad, always the logical engineer, carefully explained to me that the matches were staged and a form of acting and entertainment.  So, armed with my new grown-up knowledge of that awful excuse for entertainment, I headed to school and informed my classmate that WWF was fake.  He was upset and stormed off to enjoy the rest of his recess elsewhere.  Fine by me, because, as far as I was concerned at the time, he carried cooties.  Unfortunately, he (or his parents) had the last laugh when he showed up the next morning and informed me that Santa wasn't real either.  Crushed!

Anyway, not being a red velvet enthusiast myself, I knew there had to be something redeeming about this cake.  This cake that makes people batsh-- crazy.  Seriously, mention red velvet and its cream cheese frosting and see how people react.  It's baffling.  So I got to work one Sunday afternoon, a bit miffed at just how much red food coloring the recipe called for -- 6 tablespoons, really?  I used 2 and that did the job quite well.  So well that I panicked and proceeded with extreme caution, afraid that one false move would give me new red cabinets, floors, and hair.  No redecorating was done, but my opinion on red velvet cake did change.

What I once considered a distraction by color, I now consider a party-worthy dessert, even more gorgeous once it's been cut.   Some recipes vary on the amount of cocoa used, and this had the most of all of them.  The chocolate flavor of the cake is mild but not overwhelming.  It actually allows the cocoa to play sidekick to the world peace-inducing (or something like it) properties of the tangy cream cheese frosting.  Yum!  What pleased me the most was how much everyone enjoyed it, including the birthday boy.  And, look, only one minor casualty.  This is not the time to sneak uncooked batter, kids, which I swear wasn't the cause of my marking:

One year ago: Pumpkin bisque

Red Velvet Cake
-makes three 9-inch layers, or 36-40 standard cupcakes

A few notes: As mentioned, I used a third of the prescribed amount of red food coloring and a perfectly acceptable shade of red was achieved, at least in my book.  If you're feeling extra festive (perhaps hosting a vampire party this Halloween?) or just want to spend those hard-earned dollars on even more food coloring, be my guest, but know that it's not necessary.  Also, the recipe makes enough batter for three cake layers.  I used two for the celebration cake and one for a treat to take to the office.  The icing recipe was enough to give healthy coats of icing for both cakes.  Finally, I'm not sure why my cakes were brown and red marbled -- they were uniformly delicious tasting.  I think I was afraid of waiting too long after the addition of the baking soda vinegar mixture and the pouring of the batter (I've heard stories of fallen red velvet cakes), but don't fret if yours, too, look like mine.

1 Tablespoon unsalted butter, melted
3 1/2 cups cake flour
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder (not Dutch process... Hershey's is the right stuff)
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
2 cups canola oil
2 1/4 cups granulated sugar
3 large eggs
6 Tablespoons (3 ounces) red food coloring or 1 teaspoon red gel food coloring dissolved in 6 Tablespoons of water
1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1 1/4 cup buttermilk
2 teaspoons baking soda
2 1/2 teaspoons white vinegar
Cream Cheese Frosting (recipe follows)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.  Brush interior bottoms and sides of cake pans with butter and line bottoms with parchment paper.  In a large bowl, whisk together cake flour, cocoa, and salt.

Place oil and sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer and beat at medium speed until wel-blended.  Beat in eggs one at a time.  With machine on low, very slowly add red food coloring.  (Be careful!!)  Add vanilla.  Add flour mixture alternately with buttermilk, in two batches.  Scrape down bowl and beat just long enough to combine, so that no white streaks remain.

Place baking soda in a small dish, stir in vinegar and add to batter with machine running.  Beat for 10 seconds.

Divide batter among pans equally, place in oven and bake until a cake tester comes out clean, 40 to 45 minutes.  Let cool in pans 20 minutes.  Run a paring knife around the edges of the cake pans, then remove from pans, flip layers over and peel off parchment.  Cool completely before frosting.  Store in fridge, covered, up to 5 days.  Before serving, let sit at room temperature for 30 minutes.

Cream Cheese Frosting
-makes 6 cups

16 ounces (2 standard "blocks") cream cheese, room temperature
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
4 1/2 cups confectioner's sugar, sifted
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

In the large bowl of an electric mixer (stand or handheld) beat cream cheese and butter until light and fluffy, roughly 2 minutes.  Add sugar and vanilla.  Beat on low speed to combine.  If too soft, chill until slightly stuff, about 10 minutes, before using.


  1. I've never eaten red velvet cake, but it seems to be popping up a lot lately, probably because of the red color & Halloween. As for that red color: we recently watched a FoodTV dessert show where the chef made red velvet cake. She said it will turn red with just the vinegar/buttermilk & cocoa, but that most everyone these days 'helps' it along by adding the food coloring - I guess that makes it a deeper, brighter red? But yes, kind of disappointing and makes it a wee less magical.

  2. A wee less magical, yes, but equally delicious :) I'll have to keep an eye out for that special. I can see Alton Brown doing a piece on it.