The Hunt for Red Velvet

Since last we spoke, remember that unemployment thing? Yeah, that ended. And how. I suddenly found myself working 6 days a week and 10 to 12 hour days and finding time to actually cook things was slim. There have been a lot of boneless, skinless chicken breasts (woo) and rice mixes. Then I decided it was time to take off this college/unemployment weight. Enter the salad and reduced calorie dressing (woo again). My food life has been really bleak lately.

And then, I realized: there a whole office of people that I see every day that I can foist my wares on! Yay for peer pressure! So as of late I have dusted off my baking cook books and been catching up on my blog reading making endless lists of delicious recipes to try and make other people shower me with their “oh my god”s and “this is amazing”s. This is fun.

Then when a good friend/coworker turned to me and said, “Make me a red velvet cake” I knew what I must do. I really can’t explain why this blood red cake is always so well received. I’ll admit, it’s a very pretty cake when executed well, but as of late I’ve noticed the quality significantly lacking. I remember red velvet as a child and it was a completely different cake. Perhaps the haze of time has altered my memory, but when I bite into a piece of red velvet now I still expect the smooth and soft velvety texture with the not too sweet cream cheese frosting. And chocolatey, without being chocolate cake. The store bought red velvet that keeps showing up around my office is just sacrilege. It’s a crappy chocolate cake with red food coloring and flavorless cream cheese frosting. I may be harsh, but this is just a waste of my dieting calories.

I’ve never made red velvet, and my memories of good red velvet are tenuous at best, (I know, bad southern girl) so I wasn’t sure what to do when I began my hunt for the best red velvet recipe out there. I started by researching red velvet and its origins only to find that no one knows for sure where it came from. So I looked to family recipes. Nothing is better than a time tested, old fashioned recipe, but holy crap. There are more old family recipes for red velvet than, well, something there a whole lot of. And none of them looked quite right. They weren’t very chocolatey, even though by many accounts red velvet started as a devil’s food cake that took on a red tint thanks to the cocoa powder used at the time.

But I had to try one.

I selected an old southern recipe that had pages of comments singing its praises and I followed the recipe exactly. It came out spongey and not very chocolatey, but very good. When people tell you it’s the best red velvet cake they’ve ever had in their life, you know something must be right. I unfortunately paired it with a super sweet buttercream (the ORIGINAL frosting) that, while gorgeous and totally spreadable was just too sweet for this subtle cake.

For the second time around (less than a week later, HA!) I went for exactly the opposite type of cake. I chose a chocolate-rich recipe and a frosting with nearly no sugar. And I made cupcakes. This one was AWESOME. It really is the only word applicable. I’m not a big sweets person, nor do I very much like chocolate. But these were AWESOME. I totally went off the diet for these babies. They actually went so fast, I couldn’t take a picture of them. Just imagine rich red cupcakes topped with a smooth, glistening Swiss buttercream bathed in a halo of heavenly light. Cause that’s what I saw.

Not-So-Chocolate Red Velvet Cake
Adapted from Pinch My Salt

2 1/2 cups flour*
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
2 Tablespoons cocoa powder (unsweetened)
1 oz. red food coloring
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
1 teaspoon white vinegar
1 teaspoon baking soda

Instructions

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour two 9-inch round cake pans or three 8-inch round cake pans.

2. 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.

3. In a large bowl, using a hand mixer or stand mixer, beat butter and sugar together until light and fluffy, about three minutes. Beat in eggs, one at a time, then beat in vanilla and the red cocoa paste, scraping down the bowl with a spatula as you go. Add one third of the flour mixture to the butter mixture, beat well, then beat in half of the buttermilk. Beat in another third of flour mixture, then second half of buttermilk. End with the last third of the flour mixture, beat until well combined, making sure to scrape down the bowl with a spatula.

4. Make sure you have cake pans buttered, floured, and nearby. In a small bowl, mix vinegar and baking soda. Yes, it will fizz! 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. Check early, cake is done when a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.

5. 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.

Chocolate-Rich Red Velvet Cake
a.k.a The Awesome

Adapted from Smitten Kitchen who adapted it from “The Confetti Cakes Cookbook” by Elisa Strauss via the New York Times 2/14/07

3 1/2 cups flour*
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa (not Dutch process)
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
2 cups canola oil
2 1/4 cups granulated sugar
3 large eggs
1 oz red food coloring dissolved in 5 tablespoons of water
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
1 1/4 cup buttermilk
2 teaspoons baking soda
2 1/2 teaspoons white vinegar.

Instructions

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

2. Whisk flour, cocoa and salt in a bowl.

3. Place oil and sugar in bowl of an electric mixer and beat at medium speed until well-blended. Beat in eggs one at a time. With machine on low, very slowly add red food coloring. (Take care: it may splash.) Add vanilla. Add flour mixture alternately with buttermilk in two batches. Scrape down bowl and beat just long enough to combine.

4. Place baking soda in a small dish, stir in vinegar and add to batter with machine running. Beat for 10 seconds.

5. Divide batter among pans, place in oven and bake until a cake tester comes out clean, 40 to 45 minutes. Let cool in pans 20 minutes. Then remove from pans, flip layers over and peel off parchment. Cool completely before frosting.

*I used unbleached all purpose flour for both recipes, like I do with everything, since I don’t keep any other flour on hand. There’s not enough storage space in my tiny kitchen! I think it worked just fine, but the original recipe calls for cake flour.

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