For Valentine’s Day I’m baking an old-fashioned Red Velvet Cake. Yes, from scratch. It’s chocolate, red in color, sentimental and one of my all-time favorite cakes.
Red Velvet Cake is very light and moist, with a slight chocolate flavor and a red color (perfect for Valentine’s Day) and a creamy icing.
For the cake, I’m reaching back into my recipe box from growing up. I really don’t remember where the recipe came from. It is typed on an index recipe card with our family’s typewriter.
I remember learning to bake cakes from scratch. It was very much an exacting process including measuring the ingredients carefully; sifting the flour–this recipe calls for the flour to be sifted three times–leveling the flour off with a knife, creaming the ingredients and carefully baking the cake. Sentimental memories. It was also an art form in the way the cakes were decorated.
I always thought this cake was fun to make. It calls for mixing vinegar with baking soda. Wop, there’s a bubbly reaction as the soda turns to gas. This gives the “lift” to the cake. The reaction with the cocoa powder also makes the cake reddish in color as the red anthocyanin pigments in the cocoa turn red in acid. This was particularly true before alkaline “Dutch Processed” cocoa became the norm. Now red food coloring is usually added to red velvet cakes.
Origins of the Red Velvet Cake
The origins of the Red Velvet Cake are unclear. A similar cake is a Chocolate Devil’s Cake which was made early in this century. Recipes for Red Velvet Cake started appearing during the depression. Familiarity with the recipe was probably helped by the John A. Adam’s Extract company in Gonzales, Texas. The Adam’s Extract family began to market a red food coloring during this time period to help boost sales. The red food coloring extract package included a recipe for Red Velvet Cake which was placed in displays in stores; thus the recipe spread across the country.
The cake wasn’t popular, however, with some well-known chefs/cooks. Irma S. Rombauer who wrote the “Joy of Cooking” stated in her 1943 addition that she was not a fan of the cake. James Beard thought it was “bland and uninteresting”. However, the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City served it on their menu claiming the “original cake.” The 1989 movie, “Steele Magnolias”, used a Red Velvet Cake as a grooms cake; perhaps helping with its familiarity with the younger generation.
Notes on Making the Recipe
The cake calls for “shortening.” This was probably solid Crisco shortening–rich in trans-fats. The nice thing about this shortening is that it creams well and makes a moist cake. I was curious about the product and purchased a package of Crisco. The shortening has been reformulated; it contains no trans-fats and it has more polyunsaturated fats than saturated fats. Here are the cake ingredients (missing the vanilla extract.)
This recipe uses buttermilk. However, we never had buttermilk when growing up and made sour milk by adding a little vinegar to the milk.
To sift the cake, I found my old-fashioned flour sifter high up in a shelf. And it still works! It probably isn’t necessary to sift the flour with modern processing methods; but that is part of the fun.
After beginning to mix the cake I discovered that my red food coloring was used up and so I substituted a red coloring gel. My cake didn’t turn out bright red. Next time I’ll need to check the box to make sure all the food colors are still there.
To make 4 layers, I split the cake crosswise with a very long knife after the cake was completely cool. It makes for a fancier cake; but also uses more icing, (I used 1 and 1/2 the recipe) and definitely takes more skill to ice.
The icing for this cake is made with butter, milk and powdered sugar. However, a cream cheese icing is often used with this cake and I adapted a recipe from the Kraft WEB site for this cake. The cake should be kept refrigerated if using a cream cheese icing.
Here are the baked cakes. For these cakes, I increased the recipe by 50%. But the cakes are over the edges of the cake pan; so I won’t do this again. The recipe included here is for the original cake volume
I’m not the best at icing cakes, but managed to get the cake covered with the cream cheese icing. It’s helpful to use a spatula and keep it dipped in hot water to help the icing spread evenly.
For Valentine’s Day, I always try to cook a fancy dinner. And my husband surprises me with flowers. This year we’ll have a sentimental cake, too.
Red Velvet Cake
- 2 oz red food coloring
- 3 Tbsp instant cocoa powder
- 1/2 cup shortening
- 1 1/2 cups sugar
- 2 eggs
- 1 cup buttermilk
- 2 1/4 cups cake flour (sifted 3 times)
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 tsp vanilla
- 1 tsp vinegar
- 1 tsp soda
Method and Steps
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour two layer pans.
- Mix together the red food coloring and the cocoa and set aside.
- Cream the shortening and sugar; add the eggs and the coloring paste; beat 10 minutes in electric mixer.
- Add buttermilk; slowly add the cake flour, salt and vanilla.
- Remove from the mixer and add the vinegar and soda.
- Spoon into layer pans. Bake at 350 degrees for 30-35 minutes.
- Cook cake layers completely on wire rack before removing and icing.
Icing for Red Velvet Cake
- 1/2 pound butter (1 stick)
- 8 tbsp shortening
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- 3 Tbsp flour
- 2/3 cup milk
- 1 tsp vanilla
Method and Steps
- Cream butter, shortening and sugar well.
- Add flour (1 tbsp at a time), milk and vanilla, beat 12 minutes with an electric mixer.
Cream Cheese Icing adapted from Kraft Food Products
- 8 oz cream cheese, room temperature
- 1/4 cup butter, room temperature
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 1 lb powdered sugar
- dash salt
- 1 – 3 Tbsp milk
Method and Steps
- Add cream cheese, butter and vanilla extract to mixing bowl. Beat on medium speed until well mixed.
- Lower speed of mixer, gradually add powdered sugar and dash salt. Mix and scrape sides of bowl until well blended.
- Add milk, 1 Tbsp at a time, if icing is too stiff to spread on cake.