A name like Red Velvet suggests something decadent, luxurious, perhaps even a little naughty, such as a slinky red velvet party dress or a Red Velvet cocktail, and the classic Southern Red Velvet Cake is all of the above. The cake’s history is not entirely clear, though both Canada and the U.S. have laid claim to its origins. It has been the subject of an urban legend claiming that the recipe comes from the famous Waldorf-Astoria hotel and a customer was charged US$350 for the recipe. Another popular myth concerns the unnatural red color, thought to be caused by the reaction of the baking soda and chocolate, but it is actually achieved through copious amounts of food coloring.
Last year I did not have a birthday cake and instead enjoyed a slice of cheesecake at The Cheesecake Factory in Virginia Beach. We had just put our house on the market and of course we were trying to keep it as clean as possible, so the thought of the kitchen devastation I tend to wreak while baking and the ensuing clean up just didn’t thrill me. This year we said I would definitely have a cake, and when Michael asked me what kind of cake I wanted, I didn’t hesitate: I wanted to make one of the Daring Bakers cake challenges that they had done before I joined. There were four cakes to choose from, and initially I was drawn to the flourless chocolate cake, but I decided that I should make this one because I am from the South and (sheepish grin) I’ve never made one. Time to rectify that situation!
I had plenty of inspiration because at the time of the challenge in March 2007 the Daring Bakers were still a small group of just fifteen intrepid bakers and they had decided to let everyone use the red velvet cake recipe of their choice. I chose to try the recipe posted by Elle of Feeding My Enthusiasms, though I was not as creative as she was with her adorable Daring Baker decorations!
The recipe did not specify the type of cocoa, it just said “cocoa.” Since the ingredients called for baking soda, I remembered the proper choice would be natural unsweetened cocoa because it reacts with the baking soda to produce a leavening action. Dutch process cocoa is neutral and requires baking powder to rise the cake.
The cake itself went off without a hitch, rising beautifully and looking very, very red. I swear the batter looked like ketchup when I poured it into the pans. (Andrea has lost her mind…she’s baking a ketchup cake!) I never keep buttermilk on hand, and my usual substitution of white vinegar + skim milk worked well in the cake. I did run into a problem with the frosting due in part to using light sour cream instead of whole fat. I didn’t think it would cause a problem in the frosting, but the light sour cream has more water than the regular stuff, so the frosting came out slightly runny. The instructions called for frosting the cake while still warm, but with my runny frosting I decided to let the cakes cool completely. I had to refrigerate the cake several times during the process because the frosting wasn’t holding together well and I was worried that the top layer would slide off. In fact I used some bamboo skewers to hold it together!
In the end we enjoyed the cake very much. The flavor was good, the cake was moist, and the frosting was downright sinful. The sour cream added just a bit of tartness that balanced out the sweetness. If my rendition of the frosting had been slightly firmer, it would have been just about perfect. I would definitely make it again for a special occasion. Thanks for posting this recipe, Elle!
These last few photos were taken by my five-year-old who secretly started playing around with the camera while I was changing little brother’s diaper. For a first-timer, he did pretty well! He took eight photos, and these were the first two. Can you spot his reflection in my grandmother’s old cake keeper? (Don’t look at the messy counters behind…)
Red Velvet Cake
- 2 (9-inch) round cake pans, greased, bottom lined with parchment paper, then greased and floured
- stand mixer with paddle attachment
- small bowl
- 8 tablespoons unsalted butter (softened)
- 1½ cups granulated sugar
- 2 eggs
- 1/4 cup natural unsweetened cocoa
- 1 tablespoon cold strong coffee
- 1 ounce red food coloring (I used 1 ounce liquid and 1/2 ounce Wilton No Taste Red.)
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 2¼ cups cake flour
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1 cup buttermilk (I substituted 2 tablespoons white vinegar + skim milk to equal 1 cup.)
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 tablespoon white vinegar
- 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter (softened)
- 12 ounces cream cheese (at room temperature)
- 1/4 cup sour cream (whole milk, not lowfat or fat free)
- 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
- 2 cups sifted powdered sugar (or more depending on texture)
- 1 cup finely chopped pecans (toasted)
- Set the oven rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 350 F.
- In the bowl of the stand mixer, cream the butter and the sugar.
- Add the eggs, one at a time, mixing after each.
- In the small bowl, stir the cocoa, coffee, and food color to make a smooth paste. Add this mixture to the egg mixture and mix until the color is consistent throughout the batter.
- Add the buttermilk, vanilla, salt, and cake flour. Mix until the dry ingredients are fully incorporated. Add the baking soda and vinegar and stir gently. The mixture will bubble and froth a bit.
- Pour immediately into the prepared pans and smooth the batter. Bake in preheated oven for 25 to 30 minutes, until a toothpick comes out clean and the center springs back when gently depressed. Remove from oven and cool in the pans on a wire rack for 10 minutes. Run a plastic knife around the sides and turn the layers out, then turn them back over so they are upright. Level with a sharp knife as necessary just before frosting.
- FROSTING: Cream the butter, cream cheese, sour cream, and vanilla together until fluffy. Gradually mix in the powdered sugar, starting with 2 cups. Continue adding more sugar 1/4 cup at a time until you have the desired flavor and texture. Spread between layers, on top and on sides of cake. Because the crumbs are so bright red, I recommend starting with a thin crumb layer of frosting. Allow it to set up, then add the final thick layer of frosting all around.
- Decorate the sides of the frosted cake with finely chopped toasted pecans.