A mission statement

Hello, and welcome to My Kitchen and I. Every year I choose a cuisine to explore. This year, it's the year of the Snake! And I'll be continuing to cook mostly Asian foods, particularly Chinese dishes. Have I finally found the best cuisine in the world? Come explore and cook with me and let's find out. Please feel free to share your stories and comment on anything you see here, and thanks so much for visiting. Hope you enjoy the Year of the Snake in food!


Monday, December 19, 2011

A detailed guide to the ultimate Red Velvet Cake

Solving dry red cake with a little cake science 

The Red Velvet Cake of my memory was soft and fluffy. Perfection on a plate topped with buttery, creamy vanilla icing. The ultimate Christmas Cake.

The cake on this plate, however, was not my Grandmother's Red Velvet Cake. Oh, it was pretty enough. It was sweet enough. And it tasted OK. But it was dry. Very. Dry. Compared to my Grandma's cake, this cake was a piece of the Sahara desert on my tongue.
My first attempt at Grandma's Red Velvet cake.

I had followed grandma's recipe to the letter, of course. I measured the ingredients exactly. And I followed all the typical cake advice. My ingredients were at room temperature. I didn't over-mix the cake or over-bake it. I waited a full 30 minutes before taking it out of the pan. I'd done none of the things experienced bakers advise against. Yet the cake had still gone wrong. Why was my Red Velvet Cake so dry?

Now I don't, as a rule, bake cakes often. I am an occasional cake baker at best. There's just too much fat and sugar in a cake for me to feel good about eating even one piece of such confections, much less baking a whole cake to eat! But this cake is very special. My grandmother has made it for as many Christmases as I can remember. It goes back easily more than 30 years in our family. Grandma died earlier this year, so I volunteered to bake this special cake for Christmas at our family's celebration. I really really wanted things to come out well with this cake.

I asked friends who are experienced bakers what they knew about Red Velvet.

"I tried one of those once," one said. "It turned out very dry. I have no idea why. I didn't over-mix it."

"I just use a mix," said another.

I scourged the Web with Auntie Google, looking for clues. In blog comments, many bakers said their attempt at this cake was dry as well. Fellow bakers offered tips to address the issue of course, but none that differed from advice I'd already followed. I also asked professional bakers if there was anything about the red dye that made the cake prone to dryness, but none knew of any such issue. I turned next to my trusted,"Science and Lore of the Kitchen," by Harold McGee, and reread the section on cakes.

And finally began to understand what had happened.

The secret to this great cake
Of course we have all been told many times not to over-mix batters. That develops gluten in the flour and toughens the end result. My grandmother always said the less you handle any dough the better. And that advice has always proved true in general and yet ...

The thing is, Red Velvet Cake is a nearly impossible confection. You can only stuff so much fat and sugar into a moistened flour mixture before the whole structure becomes impossibly weak and collapses to its knobby little knees. So a bit of gluten in that sort of cake is not necessarily a bad thing. It can strengthen the flour structure, keep it light and airy and tall. Grandma's recipe didn't say how long to beat the cake, but looking at recipes online, most recommended times I found quite surprising. One popular blogger's recipe advised a minute on medium and two on high!

So I mixed up a new cake, making an experiment of beating times. I poured off one layer using the old method, beat one layer for a minute on medium,  and beat the third and last layer an additional two minutes on high, cringing a bit as I did so. It seemed like sacrilege to beat a cake for so long!

But the winner ultimately was indeed the third layer, beaten one minute on medium and two on high.

And then a new mistake is committed ...

Having settled on that beating time, I baked a new cake for a party I was going to that evening. I couldn't resist nibbling a corner of the finished warm cake, just to see how I'd done. It was so light and fluffy and delicious! My cake was going to work! I danced around the kitchen a little, I was so happy.

This became a Red Cake Disaster Trifle. Looks a bit
like an earthquake, doesn't it?
And then I made a terrible mistake.

See, this whole cake-baking thing was taking way longer than expected, and I was kind of in a hurry by now. The cake was still a bit warm to touch, but it had sat the recommended 30 minutes. So I went ahead and started constructing my party idea for the cake. And the whole blessed thing fell apart on me when I went to put the top down! It had still been too warm and tender to handle. *sigh*

So the whole mess became Red Cake Disaster Trifle instead. This earthquake dessert was in fact well-received despite the mess it truly was— but of course, that's not the result I wanted to achieve Christmas day!

Finally perfection is reached ...

So Sunday, continuing my little personal quest, I baked grandma's sacred Red Velvet Cake once again. This time I was patient. Very. Very. Patient. I did not touch those cooling cake layers for 45 minutes! No cake corners were nibbled! I didn't even so much as breathe near that pretty little cake! I went in the other room with a glass of wine and distracted myself with Christmas carols and Twitter. I tried not to even think about my cake, lest the weight of my thoughts prove too much for it!

Once the layers were completely cool and firm, I constructed the cake -- gently -- icing it with care. Cut myself a tiny piece. Drew a deep breath. Closed my eyes and took a tiny nibble. The buttery icy hit my tongue first, followed by that taste of light and fluffy chocolate perfection beneath.

Ahhh ... the taste of bliss.

That taste is why there was always a piece of cake missing from the center of grandma's cake every Christmas. This was the cake of my memory. Grandma would have been proud.

As for whether I can do it again ...

I am hoping so, but please, keep your fingers crossed for me on Christmas day!

Grandma Bibb's Red Velvet Cake
(also referred to in urban legends as the $200 chocolate cake)

Ingredients, from left clockwise:
1/2 cup crisco & 1 1/2 cup sugar;
1 cup butter milk; 1 tsp baking soda;
1 tsp vinegar; 2 1/4 cups flour & 1 tsp salt;
1/4 cup cocoa, 1oz food coloring,
1 oz water; 1 tsp vanilla extract
For a moist Red Velvet Cake first preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a medium-sized bowl, cream

1 cup crisco
1 1/2 cup sugar

Make sure to measure all dry ingredients so that they are level and thus as exact as possible.

Once the sugar mixture seems light and fluffy, a bit like whipped cream, Add:

2 beaten eggs at room temperature

Continue beating this well, scraping down the sides. The purpose of this step, essentially, is to mechanically beat as much air into the ingredients as possible, to help the cake stay light and fluffy.

A note about the choice of Crisco for the shortening. You can of course use other fats such lard and butter, but modern shortenings like Crisco contain small bubbles of nitrogen and emulsifiers which helps disperse more air into a cake upon baking.

My grandmother always swore by Crisco in this cake, though I don't think she knew that information necessarily. These days they have butter-flavored Crisco, so that is an option. Or you might try 1/2 cup butter and 1/2 cup crisco as another option. Butter creams best at 65 degrees, while creams Crisco best at 75 degrees. I would just stick with Crisco.

Add in alternating batches, folding gently to avoid pressing any air out of the mixture:

1 tsp salt mixed in
2 1/4 c sifted flour
1 cup buttermilk at room temperature

Make a paste out of

3 T to 1/4 cup cocoa
1 oz red food coloring
1 oz water

Grandma's original recipe only calls for 1 tsp of cocoa, however, 1 tsp of cocoa doesn't make anything like a paste with 2 oz of liquid. Most of the Red Velvet Cake recipes call for a quarter cup of cocoa, which does make something more like a paste with 2 ounces of liquid. So I tried the recipe with both 3 T and then 1/4 cup cocoa. Both seemed acceptable taste-wise. I'd go with 1/4 cup because I love chocolate. Make sure it is not dutched cocoa, however, as that will change the chemistry of this cake entirely.

The more usual amount of food coloring in the cake is 2 oz, so I made a test batch both ways. Two ounces does produce a deeper red, but I don't particularly like the idea of all the red dye in the cake, and it's an expensive ingredient. I found one ounce sufficient red for me. I'm even thinking it's possible to get buy with half a bottle of dye or less. Will test this out in future.

Add the paste of cocoa and red dye to the batter along with

1 tsp vanilla

Now beat the cake on medium speed one minute, then two minutes on high. You'll notice the cake batter begins to get smoother, kind of glossy. The ridges from the beating no longer disappear. These seem to me signs that the cake has developed enough structure to hold together.

One last step for a little more air in the cake. Measure out in separate containers:

1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp vinegar

Mix the vinegar into the baking soda, holding it over the cake batter to catch everything. Quickly add this mixture, stirring to incorporating it evenly. I stop the beating 30 seconds early, add the vinegar and baking soda, and then continue beating for  the last 30 seconds. I don't think you would want to do this step before you mix the cake for three minutes as you'd just be using up all the reaction perhaps. But I could be wrong about this. I would appreciate any opinions from more experienced cake bakers on this point.

I dust the rims of the cake pans
with cocoa then place a square
of aluminum foil on the bottom.
This way the cake slides out very easily.
The best pans are probably going
to be plain old square or round.
Grandma always used a  rectangular
pan and made a single layer cake.
I tried it with a xmas tree pan
and found the ends get too done.
You can cut the nubs off and eat them
I suppose, but if you want a christmas
tree shape it's probably best to just
use a rectangular pan
and cut it to shape after it bakes.
Pour the batter into two cake tins that have been dusted with cocoa powder. I like to put a square of foil on the bottom of the cake pan so that the cake turns loose easily once baked. When you invert the pan, the cake will slide out very easily and the foil can be peeled off the bottom of the cake without any damage to the layer's integrity.

Bake the cake in two layers at 350 degrees for between 30 and 45 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Granny used to bake the cake in a single sheet, so that can work, too. The original recipe says this takes 30 minutes, but I found it took more like 45 minutes, hence the wide range I'm giving you.

I have an oven thermometer to check the temperature for me, and if you don't have one, you need to get one. The thing is, accurate temperature is very important with any cake. You don't want to bake the cake too much below 350, or the cake will set too slowly. Air bubbles will build slowly, grow too large, coalesce even, and that results in a coarser, denser texture. If you are too much higher than 350, the outer edges will set long before the center is done. You'll have a dry cake that is too brown on top.

So preheat the oven to 350 and make sure the baking rack is in the center of the oven. Slide the cake in quickly and close the door. Don't open that door until the cake gets close to being done. Test each layer with a toothpick without sliding the rack out, if you at all can. The less motion with this cake the better. Cake is a tender structure. The egg and starches that will ultimately hold the cake in place are very soft and pliable until the cake has cooled.

So when you do take the cakes out, minimize any jiggling. Smoothly slide the cake out with one potholder while holding the other level with the baking rack. That way the cake slides onto the potholder without any wiggling. The cake can then be gently slid off the potholder in the same manner onto another level surface, preferably away from the hot oven. Let the cake layers rest a full 30 to 45 minutes before you try to do anything with them. They will smell great and highly tempting to nibble on a corner, but it's still too delicate. Trust me, things can still fall apart quite easily from here!

While you are waiting, make the icing for the cake.

Measure out

3 T flour
1 cup of milk

Stir a little milk into the flour to make a smooth paste. Gradually add more milk until the mixture is smooth and uniform. Cook the mixture until thick and cool, stirring constantly. If it should decide to lump up on you, you can put it in the blender for a few seconds and smooth it back out. No worries.

In a medium sized bowl add:

1 cup sugar
The contents of two vanilla bean pods
1 stick butter at room temperature

Yes you can use vanilla extract of course. But this will taste ever so much better with real vanilla, trust me! And if you want to know where you can get a cheap supply of beans, check out the Indrivanilla folks, linked at right. I purchased a pound of beans from them at 33 cents a bean in bulk.  This is quite a bargain, and they even gave me a couple free samples! Amazing customer service, and the quality of the beans was just fine.

I use one less stick of butter than the original recipe calls for. I think it tastes better this way, and it still makes plenty of icing for one cake.

Cream the butter sugar and vanilla so that it is light and fluffy, then blend it gently with the flour mixture once it has cooled to room temperature. Don't blend too soon or beat this too much. You don't want your icing to taste more like a floury tapioca pudding!

The finished cake! The test cake was
still acceptably moist and tender four days later, so it
should keep fairly well if made the night before.  Just wrap
it well in plastic wrap. Don't put your cake in the refrigerator
however. Refrigerators speed the staling process for breads
and cakes. You can freeze the cake, but the cake
becomes a little bit denser, and to me not quite as fresh.
Once the layers are fully cooled, you can construct the cake, or you can wrap them in aluminum foil and heavy plastic wrap to freeze for up to three weeks. When you're ready for the cake, take the layers out of the freezer and unwrap. They will take about three hours to thaw.

To construct the cake, put one of the cake layers on a serving platter and spread a generous layer of icing over the top. Place the second layer of cake on top of this. Now spread the entire cake with a very thin layer of icing. Crumbs will likely get stuck in the icing and it will look messy. Not to worry. Put the cake in the freezer for a few minutes to harden the icing. Now take the cake back out and put a thicker layer of icing on. It will be beautiful and crumb free!

Have a question I didn't answer? Post a comment and I'll try to see if I can help you with your cake.


  1. This is kind of a long post, I know, but I wanted to be very detailed in instructions for those who are trying to problem solve a Red Velvet Cake. Hope you all enjoy the story and the post!

  2. Wow! That could be the core part of "The Red Velvet Bible"! Great read and happy to know the cake turned out better in the end! :)

  3. hehe thank you Gregoire! I think I have probably baked more cakes in the past two weeks than I have in my entire lifetime! Really appreciated your advice and encouragement while I was struggling, too.

  4. Ok, that's it. Grandma's red velvet recipe is mine now. :P

  5. glad you got it to turn out! I do remember that cake I made for your birthday this year (the one that actually got eaten completely in one night! a first in our family I think) I actually spent quite a bit of time beating that cake as well. It was also light and fluffy. Good job. :)

  6. Hope you enjoy the cake, zenchef. ; )

  7. Thank you for your post. I've been making tough Red Velvet Cake for years and my family is so afraid I'm going to try it again. I think with your help I'll make a perfect cake. Just one question, why cake tins and not cake pans?

  8. is it 1/2 cup Crisco or 1 1/2 cups? List of ingredient says 1/2 cup but the writing in the blog says 1 cup


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