Roll Out the Red Velvet

It has been a bit of a tradition for me to give people cakes or other food gifts on their birthdays. I think it started in college when I was a poor student and making a cake was a lot cheaper than buying a gift. Besides, the gift of food to a student is typically well received and always appreciated. 

Recently a friend and coworker celebrated a milestone birthday, the big 4-0. When I asked her what she wanted, I received a definitive “Red Velvet Cake”. In all the years, I’ve been cooking and baking, I realized that I had never actually baked a red velvet cake. Time to do a bit of research and find a good recipe.

Finding a recipe

I came across today’s recipe on foodnetwork.com which is one of my “go-to” websites when looking for a specific recipe. When I did my keyword search, I received 114 results for red velvet cake! I had to whittle this down so I started looking for recipes with high ratings (stars) and a significant number of total reviews.

It may be the scientist in me, but if something has been highly rated by a lot of people then chances are that you have a winning recipe. I chose a recipe with 577 reviews and an average of 4.5 out of 5 stars.  My friend nor I were disappointed with the results.

What makes it red?

Well the story goes that red velvet cakes were originally colored by a chemical reaction between the vinegar and buttermilk – it’s the anthocyanin in the cocoa that gave it a red color.  Anthocyanin is a water soluble, naturally occurring pigment that appears red, purple, or blue depending on the pH of the solution. An extract of beetroot has also been used to give the cake a dark red hue.

Modern Dutch processing of cocoa keeps the anthocyanin from turning red, so we now rely on red food coloring to give it the cake it’s color! I was kind of surprised at the amount of coloring I needed for this recipe. I’ve used food coloring before and a little goes a long way but you need almost a full fluid ounce (or 2 tablespoons) for this cake to get that nice dark red.

Do I need to sift my flour?

Sifting flour and confectioners’ sugar helps to introduce air and minimize clumps. If you don’t have a flour sifter, you can use a wire strainer or sieve over a bowl. Just be careful or the light powder will be everywhere before you are finished.

It’s also better to weigh your flour instead of just going by volume measurements like cups if included with the recipe. Your results will be more consistent and weight doesn’t care if the flour has been sifted or is packed.

How do I keep my cakes from sticking?

Sticking cakes and cookies were a problem until I discovered parchment paper (not wax paper). You can find it in the foil section of your grocery store. Grease pans like you would normally and you can even flour but also line the bottom with parchment paper. When the cakes cool, the cake and paper all come out cleanly, and you can easily peel off the paper without damaging the cake. The paper isn’t exactly edible so please remember to remove it before icing or serving the cake.

I have always enjoyed celebrating birthdays whether they are mine or my friends or family. Baking a cake for someone allows me to show them a bit of love. Live, Laugh, Love and Eat Well.

Southern Red Velvet Cake

Courtesy of Cakeman Raven from foodnetwork.com

Yields 6 to 8 servings (depending on how much you like cake)

Cake Ingredients

  • Vegetable oil (spray) for pans
  • 2 ½ cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 ½ cups sugar, granular or caster
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp fine salt (I use non-iodized for baking)
  • 1 tsp cocoa powder
  • 1 ½ cups vegetable oil
  • 1 cup buttermilk at room temperature
  • 2 large eggs at room temperature
  • 2 TBSP red food coloring (almost 1 ounce)
  • 1 tsp distilled white vinegar
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract

Icing Ingredients

  • 1 pound cream cheese, softened
  • 4 cups sifted confectioners’ sugar (aka powdered sugar)
  • 2 sticks unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • Crushed pecans for garnish

Preheat oven to 350 F with rack near the upper half of the oven. Lightly oil and flour three 9-inch round cake pans. (Line if parchment paper if you have it)

In a large bowl, sift together the flour, sugar, baking soda, salt and cocoa powder. In another large bowl, whisk together the oil buttermilk, eggs, food coloring, vinegar and vanilla.

Using a standing mixer, mix the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients until just combined and a smooth batter is formed.

Divide the cake batter evenly among the prepared cake pans. Place the pans in the oven evenly spaced apart. Bake, rotating the pans halfway through the cooking, until the cake pulls away from the side of the pans, and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, about 25 to 30 minutes.

Remove the cakes from the oven and run a knife around the edges to loosen them from the pan. One at a time, invert the cakes onto a plate and then re-invert them onto a cooling rack (bottom of the cake on down on the rack). Let cool completely.

Frost the cake by placing one layer with rounded (top) side down. Using a palette knife or offset spatula, apply about a ¼ to ½ inch thick layer of icing. Repeat this for the second and third layers and cover the sides with the remaining icing. Sprinkle the iced cake with the pecans.

Making the frosting

In a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, or a hand-held electric mixer in a large bowl, mix the cream cheese, sugar and butter on low speed until incorporated. Increase the speed to high and mix until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes. Occasionally turn off the mixer and scrape down the sides with a rubber spatula.

Reduce the speed to low and add the vanilla. Raise the speed to high and mix briefly until fluffy (scraping down the bowl occasionally). Store in the refrigerator until somewhat stiff, before icing. May be stored in refrigerator for up to 3 days.

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