Ah, Saint Valentine, thank you for all you have given us. What would we do without red-foil-wrapped Hershey’s Kisses and poorly written Hallmark cards? Okay okay, I’m not one to be cynical about love and romance, but sometimes it’s hard not to feel a little left out when Starbucks cups and movie night advertisements in the SciLi continuously remind me that I’m (insert cough and awkward eye-contact deflection here) single.
Fortunately for me (and for all of us in college), I cannot complain about the lack of love in my life when my friends and the people I adore most in the world constantly surround me (seriously, I feel like I’m participating in a year-long sleepover with my roommates and I could not be happier). So, to show my roommates how much I love them and how much they mean to me (#sappy), I decided to celebrate Valentine’s Day with a baked treat: red velvet cake.
Red velvet cake is one of those bizarre American anomalies that attracts much conflict and has become the heart of food snobbery. Seriously, debates and forums have been held, at which arguments over coloring, ingredients, and historical origins are only the tip of the iceberg. To dye, or not to dye? Cream cheese frosting or flour frosting? And what’s the deal with that weird amount of cocoa powder? Does that make it chocolate cake?
The history of red velvet is convoluted and uncertain. Many believe tales that the cake can be traced back to the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in the 1920s and is therefore sometimes called the Waldorf-Astoria Cake. Others (read: Southerns) claim that this is a myth and that the cake is purely a down-home tradition (sorry, Yankee Doodle). Scientific bakers argue that the cake was named for the reddish color that results from a reaction of mixing cocoa with an acid (baking soda). Other sects claim the term “red” stems from original recipes using “red sugar,” probably an archaic name for brown sugar. These days, however, “red” simply means, “add an obscene amount of red food dye, mix and enjoy.”
Arguments over the cake’s origins are more often than not fleshed out in foodie communities, while regular Amurricans don’t really give a hoot and a half. The real battle happening in the heartland is a fight over frosting. Many Southerners agree that the true red velvet frosting is not a cream cheese frosting, but rather a stovetop-cooked base of flour, milk and sugar with butter beaten in after it has cooled. Rest assured, most fans of red velvet (and cake in general) agree that it doesn’t matter what frosting is supposed to go on the cake because cream cheese frosting kicks ass and should be eaten on anything and everything.
History lesson aside, I decided the color combination of red and white would be perfect for Cupid’s favorite day. I have made many versions of red velvet before, changing the recipe each time to try and find the happy place in my belly. Normally, I make cupcakes, but in light of my roommates finishing their LSATs on Saturday, I thought that a cake would be more climactic than some boring cupcakes. I’m still on the hunt for my favorite recipe, but this version was still a crowd pleaser. Let’s just say that the cake did not last very long…
Luckily, thanks to a well-stocked pantry, I only had to buy a couple of things to make this baby a reality (i.e. cream cheese and oodles of red food dye). Warning: everything in your kitchen (including your hands and clothes) will be red. Plan accordingly.
Red Velvet Cake (a.k.a. How to tell someone you love them/make people love you)
- 2 1/2 cups sifted cake flour (all-purpose flour is okay, too, but your cake may not be as fluffy)
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 2 Tablespoons cocoa powder (unsweetened)
- 2 oz. red food coloring (I used about 1.5 oz. because that’s all I had and the cake was still plenty red!)
- 1/2 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 1 1/2 cups sugar
- 2 eggs, at room temperature
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1 cup buttermilk, at room temperature (OR, 1 tablespoon white vinegar plus enough milk to make one cup; let sit for about 5 minutes until the milk turns a little sour)
- 1 teaspoon white vinegar
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour two 9-inch round cake pans or three 8-inch round cake pans (this should make around 24 cupcakes); make sure you have your pans buttered, floured and ready nearby because you will need to work quickly once you have your batter!
- Sift together the cake flour, baking powder, and salt into a medium bowl; set aside. In a small bowl, mix food coloring and cocoa powder to form a thin paste without lumps; set aside.
- In a large bowl, beat butter and sugar together until light and fluffy (about three minutes). Beat in eggs one at a time and then beat in vanilla and the red cocoa paste, scraping down the bowl as you go to make sure the color mixes evenly.
- Add one third of the flour mixture to the mixture, beat well, then beat in half of the buttermilk. Beat in another third of flour mixture, then the second half of buttermilk. Finish with the last third of the flour mixture and beat well until evenly combined.
- Using a small bowl, mix vinegar and baking soda. If it fizzes, you’re doing it right. Add it to the cake batter and stir well to combine. Working quickly, divide batter evenly between the cake pans and place them in a preheated 350 degree oven. Bake for 25-30 minutes. Make sure to check early (I checked at about 20 minutes because I had 9 inch pans and a thinner layer of batter cooks more quickly). Your cake is done when a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.
- Cool the cakes in their pans on a wire rack for 10 minutes. To remove the cakes from the pan, place a wire rack on top of the cake pan and invert, then gently lift the pan. Allow cakes to cool completely before frosting. Frost with a frosting of your choice (a.k.a., cream cheese frosting, recipe to follow). After about 15 minutes of cooling, I put my cakes in the freezer to quickly chill them so I can frost sooner (read: eat sooner).
- 16 oz. cream cheese (2 packages), softened
- 1/2 cup unsalted butter (one stick), softened
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 2 1/2 cups powdered sugar, sifted
- pinch of salt
With an electric mixer, blend together cream cheese and butter until smooth. Blend in powdered sugar, salt and vanilla extract. Beat until light and fluffy. Use (read: eat) immediately or refrigerate, covered, until ready to use. Feel free to keep adding powdered sugar until you reach your desired level of sweetness and stiffness. I prefer a tangier frosting, so this amount was sufficient, but some recipes call for as much as four or five cups of sugar!
After frosting the top of your bottom layer, position your top layer and then lightly frost the entire cake. This is called a crumb coat — aptly named so the extraneous crumbs will get caught in this initial layer and will therefore not infiltrate the final pretty layer. Place your crumb-coated cake in the freezer for about 30 minutes, then remove and continue frosting your cake. This is a recommended practice for any dark cake that you make with a light-colored frosting.
So, Happy V-Day, all ye Brunonians! Eat (cake), drink (daiquiris), and be merry (or not…)!