Extraordinary celebrations call for extraordinary confections. You’ve heard that one before, haven’t you? No? Well, let me share a recent example verifying the words of this age-old adage. In my case, the extraordinary celebration was a triple birthday party held last Sunday honoring my mom, sister and brother-in-law. The triple birthday party was further rendered extraordinary because one of the three was celebrating a milestone birthday (I’ll leave you to guess which one). What cake could match this momentous occasion and pay due homage to all three birthday guests? Nothing but Red Velvet Cake, the darling of Southerners and cupcake connoisseurs, and I, dear friends, was assigned (and happily accepted) the formidable task of making it.
Aside from seventh grade home economics class when six of us girls each took a turn stirring, I had never made a Red Velvet Cake. I wasn’t even sure I liked Red Velvet Cake. Could I endorse a confection whose chief virtue is derived from food coloring? There, however, I was mistaken: I discovered that Red Velvet Cake’s chief virtue does not lie in its intense color, though that may be the initial lure. It’s chief virtue lies in the flavor and texture of the cake itself: the structured yet tender crumb; a moistness that can only be wrought by buttermilk; and the faint chocolate flavor that somehow manages to satisfy as much as “death by chocolate” though it has no where near as much chocolate in it. In a word (or three), it tastes good.
Now that I have given my defense of Red Velvet Cake, let’s look at the actual recipe. After comparing several recipes, I settled on Alton Brown’s Red Velvet Cake recipe because
(1) it only used 1 oz. of food coloring unlike other recipes, which called for 1.5 -2 oz. of food coloring,
(2) it called for flavor-inducing butter and brown sugar instead of flavor-reducing Crisco or oil and white sugar,
(3) it used cake flour, so likely would have a more tender crumb due to cake flour’s lower protein content and
(4) it used weight measurements, which is a huge plus considering accuracy is so important in baking.
I followed Alton Brown’s detailed instructions to a “t” and even made a run to the corner store mid-baking to account for the tablespoon of vinegar. If you take your time and follow the recipe, there’s no reason your cake shouldn’t turn out well.
Here are some helpful tips I discovered while baking the cake:
- Buy cake flour. You can use it for other cakes and it really goes a long way in making the cake tender (or at the very least, look up a substitution for cake flour online using all-purpose flour and cornstarch).
- If you have a scale, measure the cake pans with the cake batter in it to make sure you put an equal amount of batter in each pan. If there is not an equal amount of batter in each pan, they may have different cooking times.
- Smooth out the top of the batter the best you can. I did not do this well and my cakes were lopsided. Thankfully no one noticed because I just piled up the cream cheese frosting to make it look even (see next point).
- If you have extra cream cheese, make the frosting recipe 1/3 larger. It brought such peace of mind to know I would have enough frosting to frost the entire cake.
Have I reconciled myself to the vibrant yet artificial color of this cake? For the most part, yes, if it’s eaten on extraordinary occasions. After all, an extraordinary cake must be extraordinary in both taste and appearance, and when it comes to appearance, Red Velvet takes the cake.
Recipe from Alton Brown on FoodNetwork.com
Note: If you don’t have a kitchen scale, click on the link above to the original recipe and view the readers’ comments. A few kind bakers have taken the effort to convert the weights to volume measurements. For the best and most consistent results, however, measure the ingredients by weight.
5½ ounces all-purpose flour
4 ounces cake flour
½ ounce natural cocoa
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup low-fat buttermilk, room temperature
1 fluid ounce red liquid food coloring
1 tablespoon white vinegar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
10½ ounces dark brown sugar
4 ounces unsalted butter, room temperature
2 whole eggs, room temperature
Cream Cheese Frosting, recipe follows
Make the Red Velvet Cake
1. Set a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 325°F. Spray 2 (9-inch) round pans with nonstick spray, line the bottom of the pan with a parchment paper round, spray the parchment with nonstick spray, and set aside.
2. Whisk the flours, cocoa, baking soda, and salt together in a bowl and set aside. Whisk the buttermilk, food coloring, vinegar, and vanilla together in a small bowl and set aside.
3. Combine the brown sugar and butter in the bowl of a stand mixer with the paddle attachment and cream on medium speed until lightened in color, 2 minutes. Stop the mixer and scrape down the sides of the bowl with a spatula. Return the mixer to medium speed and slowly add the eggs and beat until they are fully incorporated.
4. With the mixer on low, add the flour mixture in 3 installments, alternating with the buttermilk mixture, beginning and ending with the flour mixture. Stop the mixer and scrape down the sides of the bowl between each installment. Mix on low speed until smooth, 30 to 45 seconds.
5. Divide the batter evenly between the prepared pans and bake until the cake springs back when pressed or reaches an internal temperature of 205 °F, 30 to 35 minutes.
6. Cool in the pans on a rack for 10 minutes, and then remove the cake from the pans and cool completely, about 1 hour, before frosting.
Cream Cheese Frosting
13½ ounces powdered sugar
12 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
3 ounces unsalted butter, room temperature
1½ teaspoons vanilla extract
Pinch kosher salt
Combine the cream cheese and butter on medium speed, just until blended, in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Stop and scrape down the sides of the bowl. Add the vanilla and salt and beat until combined. With the speed on low, add the powdered sugar in 4 batches, beating until smooth between each addition. Refrigerate for 5 to 10 minutes before using.