Red Velvet cake: We're sweet again on an old classic

Red velvet waffles, far left, are "incredibly popular" at Supper restaurant on South Street, says owner Mitch Prensky. The Red Velvet Layer Cake, left, is a sweet, true red version of the dessert.
Red velvet waffles, far left, are "incredibly popular" at Supper restaurant on South Street, says owner Mitch Prensky. The Red Velvet Layer Cake, left, is a sweet, true red version of the dessert. (From "Classic Southern Desserts" / Southern Living)
Posted: June 30, 2011

The cupcake craze of the last few years has brought bakers' creativity to the fore, allowing them to show off exotic and elaborate recipes on a tiny scale.

But the trend also seems to have revived a taste for an old American classic: Red Velvet, a mild chocolate cake dyed red, usually with food coloring, and layered with sweet cream-cheese frosting.

And, as bakeries throughout the region can attest, people go wild for it.

"People are always asking for them," said Elizabeth Halen, owner of the Flying Monkey Bakery at Reading Terminal.

Red velvet cupcakes top sales lists, and more people are ordering red velvet cakes for celebrations, including weddings, said Amy Edelman, owner of Night Kitchen bakery in Chestnut Hill.

The resurging popularity has led to many red-velvet-inspired creations.

The Flying Monkey, as well as Starbucks, makes red velvet whoopee pies. Supper, a restaurant on South Street, serves red velvet waffles with cream cheese mousse, toasted pecans, and bourbon cherries.

"They're incredibly popular," owner and chef Mitch Prensky said of the waffles, which have been on the weekend brunch menu for about a year and a half. "It's kind of taken on a life of its own."

Ben and Jerry's recently released a Red-Velvet-Cake-flavored ice cream: a red velvet cake-batter ice cream with red velvet cake pieces and a cream cheese frosting swirl.

"We've seen the flavor flying off the shelves," said Sean Greenwood, a spokesman for the company. The flavor, which came out in February, is already selling on par with classics like Cherry Garcia and Cookie Dough, he said.

And locally, in Berwyn, Handel's Ice Cream recently added Red Velvet to its long list of flavors.

There are red velvet truffles, red velvet lattes, and red velvet hot chocolate. There's even red velvet milk, which Halen saw at a Target store.

She didn't buy it.

"I was disgusted," she said. "I just thought, 'There's no bottom to this trend.' "

Maybe it's red velvet's mystique that makes it so desirable.

Both the South and the North lay claim to its invention. The Waldorf Astoria in New York City says it created the cake in the 1920s and has been serving it ever since.

But some doubt the luxury hotel's story, as the cake has always been associated with Southern food.

"Old Southern ladies have been making this for a long time," Prensky said.

As a flavor, red velvet is sometimes indistinct, even unremarkable. It has a mild chocolate taste with a slight bite of buttermilk. Some bakers minimize or leave out the chocolate to make the cake redder, rendering it even more bland.

It can be difficult to recall the taste even just after swallowing a bite.

But the icing is another matter. Traditionally, red velvet cakes are layered with rich cream-cheese frosting.

"Red Velvet is a vehicle for the cream cheese icing, which is awesome," said Edelman of Night Kitchen.

But ultimately, it's the color that makes red velvet so special.

James Beard, among others, has theorized that red velvet's signature hue developed because of a chemical interaction between buttermilk or vinegar and cocoa, before cocoa that was "Dutch-processed" became readily available. The cake would turn reddish brown, and some bakers enhanced this with red food dye.

But bakers have tried and failed to re-create a reddish hue this way, leaving another aspect of the cake's history up for debate.

For those who eschew red food dye, red vinegar or red beets can be substituted, although the cake will be more brownish than its dyed counterparts.

I've been obsessed with red velvet cake since college, and I've used every excuse to make it. I think at first I just wanted a reason to make a giant bowl of overly sweet frosting with the necessary extra cup to keep in the fridge for a post-exam sugar rush.

Now I like to make the cake for the response it receives. Somehow a red velvet cake always kicks it up a notch.

While all red velvet recipes are similar, they are not equal. Many end up too dry, and while the flavor is mild, it shouldn't be bland.

Of all the recipes I've tried, the recipe from The Waldorf-Astoria Cookbook is my favorite, although I think it works better for a whole cake than for cupcakes because the icing is not stiff. The texture came out perfectly, the cake had an actual taste, and the beets made it unbelievably moist. The icing wasn't too sweet, and the addition of whipped cream gave it a lightness that many cream-cheese frostings lack. Plus the cake was reddish but not overly red.

When I made the cake, I used an extra ounce of chocolate, since I've found many red velvet recipes not chocolate enough. I also used two extra tablespoons of red food dye, although the cake still came out more red-brown than the bright red some might be used to.

If you're looking for a redder, sweeter version of the cake or an all-around cupcake recipe, the Southern Living recipe is your best bet - although I couldn't bear to put in the amount of food coloring it called for. The frosting will appeal to your baser, sugar-crazed instincts, but that's not all bad. Part of red velvet's allure is an element of naughtiness, so go for it.

And lick the beaters while you're at it.


Red Velvet Layer Cake With 5-Cup Cream Cheese Frosting

Makes 12 to 16 servings

For the cake:

1 cup butter, softened

2 1/2 cups sugar

6 large eggs

3 cups all-purpose flour

3 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa

1/4 teaspoon baking soda

1 cup sour cream

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1 ounce red food coloring

For the frosting:

24 ounces cream cheese, softened (three 8-ounce packages)

3/4 cup butter, softened

48 ounces powdered sugar

3 teaspoons vanilla extract

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Beat butter at medium speed with an electric mixer until creamy. Gradually add sugar, beating until light and fluffy. Add eggs, 1 at a time, beating just until blended after each addition.

2. Stir together flour, cocoa, and baking soda. Add to butter mixture alternately with sour cream, beginning and ending with flour mixture. Beat at low speed just until blended after each addition. Stir in vanilla; stir in red food coloring. Spoon cake batter into 3 greased and floured 8-inch round cake pans.

3. Bake at 350 for 18 to 20 minutes or until a wooden pick inserted in the center comes out clean. Let cool in pans on wire racks 10 minutes. Remove from pans to wire racks, and cool completely (about 1 hour).

4. To prepare 5-Cup Cream Cheese Frosting, beat cream cheese and butter at medium speed with an electric mixer until creamy. Gradually add powdered sugar, beating until fluffy. Stir in vanilla.

5. Spead cream cheese frosting between layers and on top and sides of cake.

- Slightly adapted from Classic Southern Desserts (from the editors of Southern Living; Oxmoor House, 2010)

Per serving: 943 calories, 8 grams protein, 131 grams carbohydrates, 116 grams sugar, 37 grams fat, 152 milligrams cholesterol, 317 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber.


Red Velvet Cake

Makes 8-10 servings

For the cake:

4 ounces unsweetened chocolate, chopped

2 cups granulated sugar

4 large eggs

1 1/2 cups vegetable oil

1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract

2 cups all-purpose flour

2 1/4 teaspoons baking soda

1/4 teaspoon salt

11/2 pounds canned beets, drained and pureed

3 teaspoons red food coloring

For the icing:

2 cups heavy cream

12 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature

12 ounces mascarpone cheese

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

11/2 cups powdered sugar, sifted

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter three 9-inch round cake pans and line them with parchment paper or waxed paper.

2. Melt the chocolate in a metal bowl set over a saucepan of boiling water or in the top of a double boiler (or melt in a microwave for 20 to 25 seconds).

3. Meanwhile, place the sugar, eggs, oil, and vanilla in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment and mix on low speed for 2 minutes. In a mixing bowl, sift together the flour, baking soda, and salt. Add the dry ingredients to the egg mixture and continue to mix on low speed, scraping down the sides of the bowl with a spatula so everything is well incorporated. Add the melted chocolate to this mixture and continue to mix on low speed. Add the pureed beets and food coloring. Continue to mix on low speed until everything is thoroughly combined.

4. Evenly divide the batter among the 3 prepared pans and bake in the middle of the oven for 20 to 25 minutes or until the center of the cake springs back when touched, or when an inserted toothpick comes out clean. Remove the pans from the oven and transfer to a cooling rack. Let cool for 10 minutes in the pans, then turn the layers out onto the rack and let cool completely.

5. For the icing, pour the cream into a small bowl and whip to soft peaks. Set aside in the refrigerator.

6. Place the cream cheese in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment and mix on low speed until it is soft and smooth. Add the mascarpone and continue to mix on low speed until the cheeses are well combined. Add the vanilla and powdered sugar and mix until everything is just combined. Turn off the mixer and fold in the whipped cream by hand with a spatula. Keep refrigerated until ready to assemble.

7. To assemble, using a serrated knife, trim the top of each layer of cake so that it is flat. Place the first layer on a cake plate or serving platter and top with some of the icing. Repeat until all the layers are covered with icing, then ice the top and sides of the cake. Store the cake in the refrigerator until ready to serve.

- Slightly adapted from The Waldorf-Astoria Cookbook, by John Doherty with John Harrison (Bulfinch Press, 2006)

Per serving (based on 10): 966 calories, 14 grams protein, 89 grams carbohydrates, 64 grams sugar, 65 grams fat, 162 milligrams cholesterol, 561 milligrams sodium, 4 grams dietary fiber.


Contact staff writer Joelle Farrell at 856-779-3237 or at jfarrell@phillynews.com

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