Red Velvet Cake, Red Velvet Cupcakes, Red Velvet Ice Cream, Red Velvet Cookies, Red Velvet Waffles, Red Velvet ... Everything is all the rage, and has been for a few years now. Back in the day it was considered a regional dessert, common enough in the South but not well-known elsewhere. There's a bit of a joke there as the original Red Velvet Cake was developed at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City. There is no definitive story about how it came to be popular in the South, but it was certainly a fixture at my grandmother Dorothy's Christmas table during my youth. In fact, it was such a hit with my brother Dale that to this day it's the cake he wants for his November birthday.
I'm not sure why RVC caught the imagination of the rest of the country a few years ago, but it's certainly entrenched now. I'm sure the current fad for Southern cuisine has helped keep it front and center. The problem, though, is that even when you are presented with an actual layer cake (as opposed to any other red velvet treat), it has often been bastardized. The "improved" version then often gets a reaction along the lines of "I don't understand why people make a fuss. It's just mediocre chocolate cake with a metric ton of artificial dye."
Well ... yes and no. It's true, this is a cake that was invented before concern about artificial ingredients and trans fats were even conceived of. It's a cake that seems out of place in our modern deepest-dark-chocolate, pound-of-sugary-frosting, extreme-flavor-bomb world. The original cake is a light chocolate, with vinegar, buttermilk, and baking soda providing leavening, a tender crumb, and a little tang. The base of the icing is a cooked sauce that's allowed to cool then beat with butter. The result is not a thick stiff buttercream, but a smooth creamy frosting.
And then we come to the many many modern versions. Most common is the use of cream cheese icing. I love cream cheese icing, and I'll happily eat it on my RVC, but I still actually prefer the original icing. I've seen versions that pump up the chocolate (not a horrible idea), that omit the buttermilk and the vinegar, that are basically a standard mediocre layer cake with a metric ton of artificial dye. I've even seen versions that used beet juice instead of the red food coloring. I don't even ... *sigh*
For all its brilliant color, the fact is that a real Red Velvet is a subtle little cake with an interesting, but not overwhelming flavor. Finally, not only is it still perfect for Christmas, but the silky white robe and scarlet heart are perfect for Valentine's Day.
I thought to post this recipe after a query from a fellow Nashville food blogger on Twitter. Alexandra of Sweet Betweens asked about Red Velvet, and I stepped up to the defense. It later struck me that the advent of Valentine's Day, this was the perfect time to feature this treat here.
Note: I DO highly recommend using the buttermilk called for and not a milk/acid substitute. If you don't normally buy buttermilk, it keeps forever, long past the sell-by date, and can be frozen. If you absolutely refuse to buy buttermilk, a better sub would be plain regular (not Greek) natural yogurt.
Original Waldorf-Astoria Red Velvet Cake
2 cups flour
2 Tbsp cocoa
1 tsp soda
1 tsp salt
1/2 cup shortening
1 1/2 cups sugar
2 oz. red food coloring
1 tsp vanilla
1 cup buttermilk
1 tsp white vinegar
1 cup milk
1/4 cup flour
1 pinch salt
1 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup shortening
1 stick butter
1 tsp vanilla
Grated coconut (optional)
Preheat oven to 300. Grease and flour two 8" round cake pans. Sift together the flour, cocoa, soda, and salt; set aside. In an electric mixer, cream the shortening and sugar. Add egg, food coloring, and vanilla, and mix well. Mix together the buttermilk and vinegar. Add the dry ingredients and buttermilk alternately in batches, starting and ending with the dry ingredients, mixing well but take care not to overbeat. Divide the batter between the prepared pans and bake for 30-40 minutes, checking for doneness at 30 minutes. Cool in the pans for about 20 minutes. Turn out of cake pan to finish cooling.
Pour milk into a small pan. Add flour to milk a little at a time, whisking to avoid lumps. Cook over medium heat to a very thick paste. Add salt. Pour into a small bowl and cover with plastic wrap pushed onto the surface to prevent skin from forming. Set aside to completely cool. When ready to prepare the icing, beat the sugar, shortening, and butter until fluffy. Add the cooled milk mixture and beat well. Add vanilla.
Garnish iced cake with coconut if desired.