Red Velvet Cake, How to Make a Southern Classic
This recipe makes two 9 inch layers. You can cut each layer in half if you wish, double the frosting amount, and make a four layer cake. Even better though is to double the cake recipe itself, and bake off four 9 inch layers. The resulting cake will be about a mile high - and covered with that fluffy, creamy frosting is truly impressive. That's the favorite birthday cake at my house!
How to Make Vanilla Extract
I first began making red velvet cakes when I was a little girl - most likely no older than seven or eight. Because I was born with some hardwiring regarding food in my brain gone haywire, I had already been cooking for a couple of years at that point. My first cakes were simply chocolate cakes (usually the recipe off the back of Hershey's Cocoa) with about a half a gallon of red food coloring thrown in, and topped with plain vanilla frosting. Uh...I've grown since then. And learned quite a lot.
Most of the cakes I made when little weren't really red at all - the most that could be said for them were that they were a rather rusty dark brown. Mainly because a true red velvet cake isn't really a chocolate cake to begin with. It's made with cocoa, yes, but not very much, and the red food coloring makes most of the ingredients pop with that bright scarlet color that Southerners adore. I've got to say - I've never seen a red velvet with any icing that wasn't bright white - although I guess you could. If you want to be branded a heretic. The classic I grew up with was a cream cheese frosting, although I've seen lots of seven-minute frosting, and several beautiful whipped marshmallow versions. I think any would work just as well, but I use cream cheese, so that's what you get with me. Over the years I tweaked any number of recipes, and finally came up with this one. This one defines Just Right.
This cake has been a classic for decades - appearing on the menu of the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City as early as the 1920s, but having been known in the South for several decades earlier. Try it yourself - this version has the perfect 'velvet' texture that's so wonderful, as well as the hint of cocoa, the fullness of vanilla, and the faintest tang from the buttermilk. It's a luscious combination of flavors and it's a favorite my kiddos. Try it during the holidays as well - blue sparklers make a great Fourth of July desert, and holly round out a beautiful Christmas table. Or do nothing and still have your Valentine follow you anywhere...
By making a paste of the cocoa powder and food coloring before you add them to the wet ingredients, you're far less likely to have brown steaks in the even, red coloring of your cake, than if you mix the cocoa powder with the dry ingredients, and add the food coloring to the wet ones. Going a step further and whicking this paste into the buttermilk makes the color even more a sure thing.
For the cake:
- 2 tbl unsweetened cocoa powder
- 1 ounce (usually 1 little bottle) red food coloring
- 1 cup buttermilk
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 1 cup vegetable oil
- 2 cups sugar
- 2 large eggs
- 2 1/2 cups all purpose flour
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
For the frosting:
- 16 ounces cream cheese - two packages
- 2 cups confectioner's sugar
- 1 stick (1/2 cup) butter
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- Preheat oven to 350F. Grease and flour two 9 inch cake pans and set aside.
- Make a paste of the cocoa and red food coloring.
- In a large bowl, sift together flour, salt, and baking soda. Set aside.
- In the bowl of a stand mixer, beat together oil and sugar. Add eggs, one at time, beating until incorporated. Whisk cocoa paste into the buttermilk and stir to combine. Add buttermilk/cocoa mixture to the sugar and oil, and continue beating until all is incorporated. Add vanilla and stir. Fold in the flour, and transfer batter evenly into the pans.
- Bake cakes for 30 minutes, until a tester inserted into the center comes out clean. Let them cool in their pans for 10 minutes, then turn out onto wire racks. Allow them to cool completely before frosting.
- To make the frosting, beat the cream cheese and butter together until light and fluffy. Add the powdered sugar, and beat until fully incorporated. Add vanilla - and you're ready to frost your cakes!
- If you double the recipe to make four layers, try using a small dowel or large wooden skewer inserted into the middle of the cakes to make sure they stay straight and tall. Use kitchen snips to trim the skewer before you frost - just don't forget it's in there and serve it to someone!
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