The red velvet cake is infamous for being overexposed, unashamedly gaudy, and chock full of bright red colour. It is indeed all of those things, and yet, delicious down to the very last crumb. When you look beyond the startling red colour, there’s a more complex cake at work. If I was still in school, this would be the cake I’d bring as a project to the science lab to show the violent reaction of vinegar and baking soda, thus producing carbon dioxide. Introduced at the very end, this is what gives the cake both its lift and light airiness. The cake must stay moist despite this reaction and this is where fat plays a very crucial role, as well as acid. Acid, which in our case would be both yoghurt as well as cocoa neutralises the taste of this soda and vinegar mixture producing a lovely tang characteristic of the red velvet, whereas butter and eggs are the good fat that adds richness and fluffiness to the cake, keeping it moist as it rises. Nerd talk aside, the perfect red velvet would have to be one that is moist even before a soak is introduced, and light enough to balance out the rich butter and cream cheese frosting.
CREAM IT LIKE YOU MEAN IT
I never tire of preaching this because it’s really the foundation of your entire cake. A well creamed mix of butter and sugar is crucial for so many cake and cookie recipes. Packing air into this mixture produces lovely air pockets as you fold these strands of sugar and butter onto each other with a beater. When we say light and fluffy in recipes, we actually mean that the creamed mixture should look and feel much lighter than the grainy lump you started off with. This final mixture should be a bit billowy like buttercream, and that’s when you know you’re off to a great start.
FOR EGG-CELENT RESULTS
While I have used 2 eggs in the past to yield two 9-inch red velvet sponges, I find that three is much better with Indian eggs. Adding that extra egg really helps with the final result. This, when measured should be somewhere close to 140-150ml. The eggs add structure to the cake as you know, and contribute so much to the texture, which for a red velvet should be neither overly crumbly nor soft and dense- you’re not making a brownie.
SIFT, DON’T WHISK
You’re making cake flour, which is 2 tbsp removed from every cup of all-purpose flour you’re using and replaced with 2 tbsp cornflour. Cake flour is much lighter and you need to aerate this so double sift if you have to. Just this once, forego the whisking of your dry ingredients. Sift all your dry ingredients (flours, cocoa powder, salt) and see the difference.
THE YOGHURT RUNS RED
Add your red colour to the yoghurt you’ll be adding. Two tablespoons should do the trick, but you could use less. Frankly, I’m even content with a brown cake if that means having to use less food colour in the process, because let’s face it, red velvet cakes bleed colour. If using gel, go drop by drop till your batter looks a bit like the one in the picture below. Do the same for powder. Start with a tablespoon and see if you need more.
EYES ON THE RISE
There are a lot of recipes on the internet that will ask you to use baking powder as well as baking soda in their red velvet recipes. I made two sponges, one with and one without the baking powder and preferred the latter because obviously the vinegar reaction occurred with the teaspoon of baking powder in the cake as well, making it overly reactive. This gave me a drier final result, though definitely a bit more height.
While the following has always been the recipe for my red velvet, I always keep improving my recipes. My next mission, when I can afford to make it, would be a red velvet recipe that plays around with the fats. It is yet to be seen if the addition of butter and oil together would yield a better result, or whether butter alone carry the cake through.
Red Velvet Cake
The perfect red velvet is one that is moist even before a soak is introduced, and light enough to balance out the rich butter and an orange flavoured cream cheese frosting.
Cake Flour 2 1/2 cups (to make you own cake flour, read above)
Salt 1/2 tsp
Cocoa powder 2 tbsp
Caster sugar 300g
Vanilla essence 1 tsp
Red food colour 2 tbsp, or less depending on what colour you’re using (check the note above)
White vinegar 1 tsp
Baking soda 1 tsp
Cream Cheese Frosting
Butter 150g, softened
Cream cheese 200g, at room temperature
Icing sugar 3/4 cup
Orange 1, zested
Black colour (optional) use by eye to dye the frosting
Sugar syrup soak made by mixing together equal parts sugar and water. Approximately three tablespoons each.
Preheat the oven to 180 degrees celsius.
Next up, grease and flour two 9-inch baking pans or line with baking paper. If you own an oven where two 9-inch pans won’t fit side-by-side, halve the recipe and make it instead because this is not the kind of batter you want to be sitting around once it’s ready
Cream together the butter and the sugar till light and fluffy. Incorporate the eggs one at a time into the creamed butter and sugar mixture. Beat in the vanilla in last.
Sift the dry ingredients — the cake flour, salt and baking powder twice at least, and whisk the food colour into the yoghurt and set aside.
Using a hand blender on low speed, slowly incorporate the dry ingredients alternating with the coloured buttermilk till all the dry ingredients as well as the buttermilk have been used up.
In a small bowl, add the vinegar and baking soda and quickly add to the batter and mix briefly, for 10 seconds and quickly transfer to the tins and bake for 15-20 minutes or till a cake tester comes out just clean.
For the icing, beat the butter and sugar till fluffy. Then add the cream cheese, the colour if using and the orange zest and beat by hand till just smooth, being careful not to over beat.
To make the cake, torte the tops to get more even flat layers using a sharp knife. Set any crumbs aside if you want to fill up any mistakes you make when frosting the cake.
Start with the base layer of cake and drizzle over some of the soak on top. Next, dollop a generous layer of icing on top and using an offset spatula, ease the frosting towards the ends of the layer to spread it evenly. Repeat with the rest of the cake layers alternating between soak and frosting. Next, smear some frosting on the sides of the cake and using a cake scraper or a spatula, neatly pack the crumbs of the cake in moving around the cake. Freeze the cake for ten to fifteen minutes before taking it out again to lay on the final bit of icing, or just leave it at the crumb stage for a rustic finish. I go with the latter on most days. Refrigerate the cake till it’s time to slice.