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The Skeptical Yankee Bakes: Red Velvet Cake

Confession time: I have always looked very much askance at red velvet cake, particularly the modern version currently en vogue, like, everywhere. You see, what had historically been a tribute to the creativity and good taste of Southern bakers challenged with stretching their ingredients as far as they would go–deliciously–has now largely become a red-dyed monstrosity that’s purely an excuse to eat poorly made cream cheese frosting… with confectioner’s sugar. *CAKERAGE*

Whew, ok, breathing… Ahem.

Right, but as I was making preparations for our aforementioned Southern vegetarian new year’s day dinner, my original plan to make pies got tossed RIGHT out the window when I realized that we were expecting 25-30 guests. I only had a day to bake and so needed something delicious and monumental that would take less time that sixty-badillion pies. So… cake. And Southern. Red Velvet was the obvious choice. Adored. Emblematic. Problematic. Frig.

If I was going to make it, I was going to make it right, and it was going to be good. How fortunate, then, that I found the perfect recipe courtesy of Julie Richardson. A northerner like myself, she’d shared my skepticism over the edibility of red velvet cakes as well but included a recipe in her new book, Vintage Cakes.

And, fiiiine, it’s a good cake. Rich and moist, with a bouncy, even crumb and a nice lactic tang from the buttermilk that enhances the cocoa flavor. The latter is of particular importance because red velvet cakes were originally CHOCOLATE cakes, with the redness emerging from the ph reactions in the batter. So, hooray for a cake that tastes like something other than, you know, red 40. That said, I did feel compelled to add the requisite food coloring, not wanting to rain on anyone else’s parade. Hrmph.

For the party, I doubled the recipe and baked it in two 9″ x 13″ pans (slightly decreasing the baking powder to prevent cratering). The version below hews to the original proportions and will produce two 9″ rounds. I also swapped in my standard–and AWESOME–white chocolate cream cheese frosting for Richardson’s mascarpone version. The combo was pretty awesome, and there was veeeery little cake left. Always a good sign, even for this skeptical Yankee.

Red Velvet Cake with White Chocolate Cream Cheese Frosting
Julie Richardson, Rose Levy Beranbaum
Yield: 10-12 servings

10 oz cake flour
2 oz Dutch-process cocoa
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
3/4 c canola oil
1 tbs red food coloring (liquid, less if using gel or powder)
6 oz unsalted butter, softened
12 1/4 oz sugar
4 eggs plus 2 egg yolks, at room temperature
1 c buttermilk, at room temperature

Center two racks in the oven and preheat to 350°F. Butter two 9″ round cake pans, line them with parchment rounds, butter again, and flour. Set aside.

Sift! the flour, cocoa, baking powder and salt into a bowl. You might want to do it twice. Cocoa lumps. Then whisk it together to ensure that the ingredients are evenly combined. Set aside.

Combine the oil, vanilla, and food coloring in a liquid measuring cup or small bowl. Mix carefully to combine–mind the splashes, red stains. Set aside.

In the bowl of a stand mixer with the paddle attachment, mix the butter and sugar together on medium speed till light and fluffy, about 5 minutes, scraping down the bowl occasionally as you go. Turn the mixer down to low and gradually pour in the oil mixture. Carefully increase the speed back to medium and beat till glossy and evenly mixed. Scrape down the bowl again, being sure to get down to the bottom.

Crack the eggs and egg yolk into a bowl. With the mixer on medium, add the eggs one at a time, giving just enough time for each to be fully incorporated into the batter before adding the next.

Turn the mixer to low speed and add the flour mixture and the buttermilk in alternations. 1/3 of the flour, 1/2 of the buttermilk, 1/3 of the flour, 1/2 of the buttermilk, and ending with the remaining 1/3 of flour. After each addition, mix just long enough to combine the ingredients into the batter. After the last addition of flour, remove the bowl from the mixer and complete the mixing by hand, scraping down the bottom and sides of the bowl as you go.

Divide the batter between the prepared pans and bake 20-30 min, rotating front to back and top to bottom halfway through the baking time. When done, a cake tester or skewer will come out clean having been stuck into the center of the cake.  Let cakes cool in their pans on a rack for 10 minutes before loosening and inverting onto the rack to complete cooling.

9 oz white chocolate
12 oz cream cheese, softened
6 0z unsalted butter, softened
1 1/2 tbs lemon juice, freshly squeezed

Make sure the cream cheese and butter are softened! And, if the butter gets TOO soft–melty instead of slightly waxy–put in back in the refrigerator for 5 minutes or so.

Gently melt the white chocolate over a double boiler or very carefully in the microwave, zapping in short bursts and stirring frequently. Pull from double boiler of microwave before completely melted and stir to finish it off. Set aside to cool slightly.

In the bowl of a stand mixer, beat the cream cheese till perfectly smooth, 3-5 minutes. (PERFECTLY. If there are any lumps left now, they will be impossible to get out of the completed frosting.) Scrape down the bowl. With the mixer on medium, gradually beat in the cooled chocolate. Scrape down the bowl and beater, getting down to the bottom of the bowl. Beat in the butter and lemon juice. Rebeat at room temperature to ensure smoothness before frosting.

Trim the tops of the cake layers flat using a serrated knife and a gentle sawing motion to even the tops. (If you like, reserve the trimmings to coat the outside of the cake. Place the trimmings in a food processor and buzz to get fine crumbs. Put in a bowl and set aside.)

Dab a tbs of frosting on your cake plate or cardboard round. Brush any crumbs from a cake layer and center it on the befrostinged plate. Now, you can do the whole crumb coat, chill, and then fill and frost routine for this, but you can also just plop half the frosting onto this first layer, spreading it evenly over the top and sides, then putting the top layer on and repeating with the remaining frosting. Up to you. If your frosting is very soft, you may still want to chill it a few minutes before putting on the top layer, but this is supposed to be pretty down home anyway.

To coat the sides in reserved cake crumbs, hold the finished cake over a lipped baking sheet and using a cupped hand, gently press the crumbs into the frosted sides of the cake.

Chill to set before wrapping in plastic wrap and bring back to room temperature before serving.


Richardson, Julie. Vintage Cakes: Timeless Recipes for Cupcakes, Flips, Rolls, Layer, Angel, Bundt, Chiffon, and Icebox Cakes for Today’s Sweet Tooth. (Berkeley: Ten Speed Press) 2012. 

Beranbaum, Rose Levy. The Cake Bible. (New York: William Morrow Cookbooks) 1988.

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