For years, a good friend of mine with roots in the South has complained of her inability to find a respectable red velvet cake in the Northeast, even when she makes them at home. And, for nearly as long, I have vowed to one day lead her to the object of her desire.
This past weekend, since she would already be in my midst for a long-planned John Cusack movie marathon, I decided there was no time like the present to try to make good on my promise. I traipsed around the neighborhood pulling together a few of my favorite classic red velvet slices and then headed a few neighborhoods over to score a few off-beat, cinnamon-scented cupcakes—red velvet with a twist. Then I set about deciding which recipe to use to make my version. I had never made a red velvet cake before, and though I could probably have winged it, adding a little cocoa powder and a lot of food coloring to any standard white or yellow cake recipe, I wanted to be sure to find a legitimate recipe for this occasion.
Having always associated the cake with the South, I began my search by sifting through a number of local recipe collections from North Carolina that I’d acquired from my husband’s grandmother—Surry County Extension Homemakers’ Favorite Recipes and Elkin’s Treasure of Personal Recipes, to name a couple. Eventually I made my way to one of Justin Wilson’s books, widening my search with Chamberlain’s Regional Sampler, then Mom’s trusty, battle worn Fanny Farmer, and on to a few general cake and baking books.
I was surprised in all of this at the paucity of recipes I was able to find for this cake, which is downright ubiquitous these days. I was still more surprised when the most promising recipe, which I found in Jean Hewitt’s New York Times Heritage Cook Book, was credited to Indiana, but I decided to give it a go anyway.
I had been intrigued in the past by the occasional cake recipe that required combining a prescribed amount of baking soda and vinegar before mixing them into the batter. Recalling grade-school volcano explosions, I had wondered how the cake would turn out when the powers of its chief leavening agent had been largely spent before incorporation into the batter. This recipe utilized that method, which I considered altering, dispersing the baking soda in the flour, perhaps omitting the vinegar altogether (after all, wouldn’t the acid in the buttermilk be acidic enough to activate the baking soda?), but in the end, I decided to stay relatively true to the recipe.
I wanted to make a cake of which my friend would approve, but I really wanted to see how this vinegar-soda thing played out. So, I went for it, my only concession being to substitute cake flour for half of the all-purpose flour called for as added insurance for a final product with fine texture and tender crumb.
Because red velvet doesn’t generally have a distinct flavor of its own, icing plays an even more important role with this cake than most. And though the cake recipe that I had chosen was printed along with a recipe for "Red Velvet Cake Frosting"—a boiled, flour-thickened affair—to my mind the only frosting choice for red velvet is cream cheese. Even at that, the flavor and consistency of cream cheese icings vary widely, and I’m always tinkering with my own recipe to find the perfect balance of sweet, creamy, and tangy.
This time around, I used slightly more cream cheese than butter (both at room temperature), added less confectioners’ sugar than most recipes advise, and no milk. The result had a light, creamy soft texture and a good flavor that was rounded and brightened with a healthy addition of good-quality vanilla extract and a pinch each of finely ground salt and granulated citric acid (I have it around for making cheese and candy, but it’s also great to add to water in a flower vase to prohibit mold growth, or, as was the case this time, to add an acidic bite to foods without introducing additional liquid to the mix).
Stacked a towering four layers high, the finished cake was a success. Mitigating the sweet richness of the assemblage, the mild acidity of the icing played off of the subtle vinegar-buttermilk tang of the cake, which turned out to be well-risen, tender, and pleasantly textured. My friend was sated, and I’d lived up to my word. Now we could get on with the show.
About the author: Amanda Clarke is a recovering restaurant pastry chef with a background in architecture. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, where she writes, tests, and develops recipes and works on freelance food-styling gigs between walkings and feedings of her two dogs and husband.
Red Velvet Cake
Adapted from The New York Times Heritage Cookbook.
- 1/2 cup shortening
- 1 1/2 cups sugar
- 2 eggs
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
- 1 cup cake flour
- 1 tablespoon cocoa powder
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 cup buttermilk
- 1 teaspoon red gel food coloring (or 2 ounces of red liquid food coloring)
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 tablespoon vinegar **
- 2 8-ounce blocks regular cream cheese
- 3 sticks unsalted butter
- 1 pound plus 1 cup confectioners’ sugar (about 5 cups total)
- Pinch fine salt
- Pinch granulated citric acid
- 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease and lightly flour two 9-inch cake pans and set aside.
Cream shortening and sugar together until light and fluffy. Beat in eggs.
Sift together flours, cocoa powder and salt and add alternately with the buttermilk and food coloring to the creamed mixture.
Dissolve the baking soda in the vinegar and fold into batter. Divide evenly between the prepared cake pans and bake for approximately 20 minutes, or until the tops of the cakes spring back when gently pressed and a toothpick inserted in the centers comes out clean.
Allow baked cakes to cool for 5 minutes in pans. Turn cakes out of pans and allow to cool completely on racks before frosting.
Cream Cheese Frosting
- makes enough to frost a 4-layer cake -
Have all ingredients at room temperature. Sift sugar thoroughly.
Combine first five ingredients and beat with an electric mixer until mixture is smooth and light. Add extract and beat to incorporate.
If frosting is too soft to adhere to cake properly, refrigerate briefly to thicken before spreading.