Red Velvet Cake

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Preparation info

  • Difficulty

    Medium

  • Makes:

    12

    Servings

Appears in

Never has an American cake caused such a stir as the red velvet. From the name to the ingredients to the place and time in which the first red velvet cake landed in America, historians and cooks have disagreed about its origin. It is from Texas. No, it’s from Indiana. It should have cream cheese frosting. No, only the cooked Ermine Frosting. What is known can be found in the pages of old cookbooks, newspapers, and magazines, and they reveal the cake dates back to the 1920s. Cora Scott shared a recipe for a “Velvet Cake” in the Fort Scott, Kansas, newspaper in June 1921, and it called for a tablespoon of red food coloring, but no cocoa. “Velvet” was a common adjective for cakes from the 1870s on, implying they contained cornstarch or rice flour to soften the hard wheat flour and thus had a fine texture. But the “red” color was originally that chemical reaction between an acid (cocoa, buttermilk) and a base (baking soda) that created a naturally reddish batter. Hershey’s shared a Demon Cake with such a color in 1934. Interestingly, a popular lipstick hue was “red velvet” in 1936. And chocolate cakes with a reddish tint had come to be known as red velvet cake by 1951. Throughout the 1950s, cakes baked with or without the red food coloring were called “Red Velvet” or “Waldorf Red Velvet.” One such cake won first prize at the Maryland State Fair in 1960. That year in Terre Haute, Indiana, columnist Beatrice Biggs writes that she is indebted to a local cook for sharing a Waldorf Red Velvet Cake, containing both cocoa and red food coloring. Down in Texas, red velvet cakes are everywhere, and Texas has always had a strong connection with the cake. From the Austin-based Adams Extract company that claims it provided homemakers with the first recipe to use with its red coloring, to the 1989 movie Steel Magnolias in which the groom’s cake is an armadillo-shaped red velvet, this cake has been as big as Texas. Patricia Adam of Navasota, Texas, remembers teaching in 1960 in Port Arthur, and sampling one of the first red velvet cakes. “It was baked by a lady who supposedly created the recipe,” Adam says, and “the cake was absolutely delicious.” But the heavy use of the red food coloring? Makes you wonder, what were they thinking? The late John Egerton summed it up best when he said, “To me there seems no culinary reason why someone would dump that much food coloring into a cake.” Unless they were trying to sell you food coloring, and extract companies like Adams have contributed much to the staying power of this recipe. Or you might rationalize that the red velvet is a Depression-era cake, and the red food coloring made up for the lack of cocoa. But reason is not an ingredient of the red velvet. It was popular in postwar times and has remained an American favorite, baked for Christmas, birthdays, the Fourth of July, and potlucks across the country.

Here is a recipe adapted from the Adams Extract company and the New York Times. It is frosted with the classic Ermine (cooked) Frosting. If you prefer, use Cream Cheese Frosting on your red velvet. The Adams method calls for vegetable shortening, but you can use butter, if desired.

A plausible story goes that the red velvet started in the 1930s at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York, a place awash in red velvet decor.

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Prep: 1 to 1½ hours
Bake: 16 to 18 Minutes

Ingredients

Cake

  • Butter or vegetable shortening and unsweetened cocoa powder or flour for prepping the pans
  • ½ cup unsalted butter or shortening, at room temperature
  • cups granulated sugar
  • 2 large eggs, at room temperature
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 2 tablespoons red food coloring
  • cups all-purpose flour, sifted
  • 3 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup buttermilk, at room temperature
  • 1 tablespoon white vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda

Ermine Frosting

  • 5 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup cold whole milk
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • Pinch of salt
  • 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 1 cup granulated sugar

Method

  1. For the cake, place a rack in the center of the oven, and preheat the oven to 350°F. Grease three 9" round cake pans, and dust them with cocoa or flour. Shake out the excess cocoa or flour, and set the pans aside.
  2. Place the butter and sugar in a large mixing bowl, and beat with an electric mixer on medium speed until light and creamy, 3 minutes. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Blend in the vanilla and red food coloring. Set aside.
  3. In a separate bowl, stir together the flour, cocoa, and salt. In a small bowl, stir together the buttermilk, vinegar, and baking soda. Add the dry ingredients and the buttermilk mixture to the batter alternately on low speed, beginning and ending with the dry ingredients. Scrape down the bowl, and stir to blend the batter one last time. Divide the batter between the pans, and place the pans in the oven.
  4. Bake the cakes until they just begin to pull away from the sides of the pan, 16 to 18 minutes. Remove the pans from the oven, and place them on a wire rack to cool for 10 minutes. Run a knife around the edges of the pans, give them a shake to loosen the cakes, then turn the layers out once and then again onto the rack so they cool right side up.
  5. While the cakes cool, make the Ermine Frosting. Whisk together the flour and milk in a small saucepan over medium heat until it is very thick and puddinglike, 4 to 5 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat, and whisk in the vanilla and salt. Pour the mixture into a small heatproof bowl. Cover the surface of the mixture with plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator to cool for 1 hour.
  6. Place the butter and sugar in a large mixing bowl, and beat with an electric mixer on medium speed until light and fluffy, 4 minutes. Remove the milk and flour mixture from the refrigerator, and slowly add it to the butter and sugar while beating on medium. Continue to beat until the mixture is light and fluffy and resembles whipped cream, about 2 minutes.
  7. To assemble the cake, place 1 layer on a cake plate. Spread about ¾ cup of the frosting evenly to the edges. Place a second layer on top and repeat. Place the third layer on top, and spread a thin layer of frosting on the sides and on top, making what is called a skim coat. Chill the cake for 15 minutes. (This seals in the crumbs and prevents them from being dragged into the frosting and turning the frosting pink.)
  8. Remove the cake from the refrigerator and, with the remaining frosting, frost the top and sides of the cake. Slice and serve.

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