Monday, May 23, 2011
First and foremost let's get one thing out of the way - I've never eaten red velvet cake prior to this one. The amount of food coloring in it gives me the heebie-jeebies and I wasn't sure if I ever want to dig into a piece of cake that looks like it has gone to war and back. In fact I posted this on my Facebook exactly a year ago going "Red velvet cake freaks me out. Why make something chocolate red?!" The fact that the red in the cake can't actually come from any natural chemical reaction set me even further apart from this American classic. Needless to say I stopped giving it much thought after that till recently, when my good friend Najah's birthday was around the corner and I realized (in a state of panic while I was still in Hong Kong for work) I hadn't gotten her anything.
See, last year I baked her this humongous tower of chocolate goodness as a present and not only did she go head over heals at it with her fork, she proceeded to make the cake more than a couple of times. This year I wasn't sure how to trump that and since the domestic goddess in her already resulted in a very well equipped kitchen, I couldn't just lift something off the shelves of ToTT for her and call it a day. By the time I was back in Singapore, she was already celebrating her sixth wedding anniversary so that meant only one thing - I have to bake her another cake she'd love - which also meant I have to make my peace with the red velvet, her recent favorite.
So out I went to get two bottles of red gel coloring - just in case one wasn't not enough - I've learned to get backup ingredients when I'm baking to deadlines. Since we're both chocoholics I settled on Deb's recipe, the only one I've come across using more than a few tablespoons of cocoa. The possible inaccurate assumption that more is more didn't occur to me as I was convinced that half a cup of cocoa against 3 1/2 cups flour wins over the typical two tablespoons against 2 1/2 cups. Aiming to please, I had an urge to build a stacked cake with four corners instead of the boring round, especially after seeing this piece of art. And while we're at it, I thought why not up the ante and swap some of the cream cheese in the frosting with some mascarpone?
I know some purist out there (no offense to any Southern readers from the States reading this) would shake your finger at me going "Cream cheese? Cream cheese?! Girl, haven't you heard of my mother's cooked frosting?" Well, I have. It's just that while we're at it with half a cup of Dutched cocoa instead of the traditional meager-why-bother two tablespoons, who are we kidding? I want my frosting with some luxury and less sugar in it. Dutched cocoa you say? Yes, I decided to maverick it out by using our favorite Valrhona instead of the called for natural product. This was the first time I made a virgin attempt at a baking recipe by not following the recipe.
As it turned out, I'm glad I took some of the risks. The cake smelled incredible out of the oven and the cocoa came through its moist crumbs. If this is what red velvet is supposed to taste like, I thought to myself, I could learn to live with the food coloring. However as my most trusted food critic also concurred, there was a slight cocoa aftertaste to the cake which may require a bit of tweaking either in the cocoa or the baking powder. As for the frosting, it took only one cup of sugar for a balanced sweetness as opposed to some crazy five-cups concoctions out there and the mascarpone made it dreamily smooth. I was excited as the cake made it to Najah's dining table, hoping to reenact that "Weeeee, I'm in cake heaven!" moment she had last year and knock her out of her socks.
But alas, it was not meant to be. Apparently she had already found a better recipe than this, one that yields a visibly denser cake with a richer taste. One that's really traditional, uses three spoons of cocoa, butter instead of oil, with cooked frosting and all. Yes you Southerners, I see your point and yes, I would definitely give Magnolia's recipe a go soon - so far I've never heard a bad review on their recipes. To say that I was disappointed at failing to make the birthday girl swoon would be to put it mildly but hey, sometimes you can't win them all. At least I've discovered the red velvet in my own kitchen and actually want another piece of it now. As for you, who most likely have eaten or baked more red velvets than I, the only way to find the best one for you is to try this one out as well.
Red Velvet Cake
Cake recipe adapted from Deb Perelman's Smitten Kitchen, originally from “The Confetti Cakes Cookbook” by Elisa Strauss via the New York Times 2/14/07.
Yields 9-inch round 3 cake layers OR one 9x13 inch sheet cake and 12 cupcakes.
Note: I've modified Deb's recipe for two purposes - to use Valrhona cocoa powder (Dutch processed) and to bake a sheet cake to be layered into a rectangular block cake. If you're aiming for a standard round cake and have natural cocoa on hand, hop over to the original recipe. I couldn't find buttermilk at the store (they're stocked rather slowly this part of the world) so I mixed 1 1/4 cups whole milk with 1 1/4 tablespoons vinegar and let stand for 10 minutes before using. Since Valrhona cocoa produces much darker baked results, I used a whole bottle of this (to my horror but I took consolation in the brand and 'tasteless' claim) to get the color of this cake; so you'll have to experiment with your combination of cocoa powder and food coloring.
Dutch Cocoa Powder: While I did have a can of natural cocoa in my pantry, I wanted to use Valrhona for this cake. It's not that I'm a cocoa powder snob but for a friend who's a Valrhona fan herself, I wanted the best deal for her. It's possible that the recipe may not even require baking powder as it contains enough acidic components to work the baking soda but not wanting to risk a flat cake I replaced a quarter of the soda with baking powder. Feel free to try the recipe with just the baking soda.
Sheet Cakes: I wanted to bake two cakes - a Swiss roll for us (or rather, just me) to savor slowly and an oblong layered cake for Najah. The rolled cake stuck to my dry tea towel as it cooled and broke when I unravelled it. At this point I'm unsure of a few things - if this recipe is suitable for a rolled cake or if using a moist tea towel and icing sugar instead of cocoa powder would help. Shall I succeed in the next attempt I'll update this section. There are other red velvet rolled cake recipes out there but I'm leaning towards the taste and texture of this one to consider a compromise, so do let me know if I'm being silly and this cake will never roll properly. In the meantime, I've modified the recipe to bake 2/3 of the cake batter into a sheet cake and the rest into cupcakes.
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter (for greasing pans, I skipped this and used Pam flour spray)
- 3 1/2 cups cake flour
- 1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa (I used Valrhona, a Dutch process)
- 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
- 2 cups canola oil (I used corn oil)
- 2 1/4 cups granulated sugar
- 3 large eggs
- 6 tablespoons/3 ounces red food coloring or 1 teaspoon red gel food coloring dissolved in 6 tablespoons of water
- 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
- 1 1/4 cups buttermilk
- 1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
- 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
- 2 1/2 teaspoons white vinegar
Preheat oven to 350°F/180°C. Grease a 9x13x1 inch baking sheet or jelly roll pan and line the bottom with parchment. Line a 12-cup standard muffin tin with cupcake liners. Whisk cake flour, cocoa, baking powder and salt in a bowl.
Place oil and sugar in bowl of an electric stand 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, the batter may splash. Add in the vanilla. Add the flour mixture alternately with buttermilk in two batches (starting and ending with the flour). Scrape down bowl and beat just long enough to combine.
Place the baking soda in a small bowl, stir in vinegar and add immediately to batter with machine running. Beat for 10 seconds.
Divide 2/3 of the batter onto the baking sheet and the rest into the muffin tin. Place in oven and bake until a cake tester comes out clean, 15 to 20 minutes each for the sheet cake and cupcakes. Let cool in pans for at least 20 minutes. Remove the sheet cake from the pan by flipping it over and peel off the parchment. Trim of the curved sides if necessary (doing this will yield an 8x12 inch sheet) and divide the cake along the longer side into three 8x4 inch portions. Cool completely cakes completely before frosting. (I froze the sheets for two hours before icing.)
Mascarpone Cream Cheese Icing
Adapted barely from Joy of Baking.
Makes about 2 cups.
Note: This recipe was just enough to ice the three layered 8x12 inch cake you see here, spare a couple of tablespoons. To frost the original three layered 9-inch round cake or this cake plus the 12 cupcakes you'll need to double the recipe. The next time I do this I may just replace all the cream cheese with mascarpone. As this is a whipped cream frosting, if you, like me, live in a place blessed with natural sauna weather, fridge the frosting overnight to thicken before using to make your icing process free of traumatic meltdowns.
- 1 block/8 ounces/227 grams cream cheese, at room temperature
- 1 tub/8 ounces/227 grams mascarpone cheese, at room temperature
- 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- 1 cup/115 grams confectioners/icing/powdered sugar, sifted
- 1 1/2 cups/360 ml cold heavy whipping cream (double cream, 35-40% butterfat)
In the bowl of your electric stand mixer or with a hand mixer, at medium speed beat the cream cheese and mascarpone cheese until smooth. Add in the vanilla and icing sugar and beat until smooth. Using the whisk attachment, gradually add in the heavy cream and whip at increasing speed until the frosting is thick enough to spread. Be careful not to overwhip or you'll end up with mascarpone butter. If necessary, add more sugar or cream as needed to get the right consistency. Chill to thicken before using.
To assemble the cake, remove the layers from the freezer and frost each layers with about 4 tablespoons of cream in between each layer. Spread a thin layer of frosting over the entire cake with a crumb coat and freeze uncovered for 45 minutes to an hour. Repeat with a second crumb coat if necessary before frosting the final coating. Ice the cupcakes with the rest of the frosting.
Decorate accordingly, I used some cocoa nibs on the sides and top of this cake. I find that refrigerating the frosted cake overnight keeps the frosting stable at room temperature for many hours when the cake was served the next day. Cakes keeps covered and chilled for up to 3 days.
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