This past weekend, I accepted a challenge. The task at hand? Bake two cakes for my coworker's baby shower.
Okay, to be fair, I was asked to bake one cake. Red velvet, specifically. The second cake was because I wanted to show off. There, I said it. Well, kinda... okay, not really. Okay, so I chose to bake two cakes because I had something a little bit specific in mind. And it wasn't red velvet.
When my coworker first asked me to bake a cake, I agreed enthusiastically. Great! After all, I had recently gone through some sort of bizarre, completely unrestrained, mad shopping spree where I bought absolutely every cookbook I had been coveting for the last few months (with the exception of Mastering the Art of Chinese Cooking, for some reason). In a matter of days and quite a few Amazon boxes later, my bookshelf was filled with new cookbooks from famous bloggers and local restauranteurs. I couldn't wait to try out a cake recipe from one of my new books! And of course, that's when I tuned back into the conversation and realized that my coworker had requested a red velvet cake.
Damn. Red velvet?! Flipping through my new cookbooks, I realized that not a single one of them had a red velvet recipe! What the hell? So it was back to the foodgawker drawing board for me. Flipping through the extensive archive of red velvet recipes, I realized that most of them had the same few distinctions: some were made with butter, others made with oil. Some cakes were purely flavored with cocoa powder, others had strongly brewed coffee added for flavor.
The additional coffee was a bit intriguing to me. Now, here's a dirty little secret: I'm not the world's biggest fan of red velvet cake. Often times when I've made it in the past, it's been too... well, bland? Is that the right word for it? Not really a whole lot of flavor, if you get what I mean. Not enough vanilla to be vanilla, not enough cocoa powder to be chocolate. In fact, the only red velvet cake I actually enjoyed was from this now-closed BBQ place in New York. Sad. But I digress. So is coffee the key ingredient that my red velvet cakes had been missing all along?!
So I wanted to try a cake with coffee in it, I really did... but I couldn't do it. This was for my coworkers after all. Our guest of honor had specifically requested a red velvet cake — what if the coffee deviated too much from what she requested?
And that's when I remembered I had a jar of espresso powder in my cupboard from a previous recipe for chocolate crinkles. The jar promised that espresso powder was "chocolate's best friend", and that it did nothing but enhance the chocolate's flavor without adding any of its own.
Interresting. Could this, and not a cup of coffee, be the missing piece that would fix everything? Without questioning any further, I rolled up my sleeves and threw in a 1/2 teaspoon, figuring that such a small amount wouldn't affect the cake too much.
And it was a good call.
My coworkers LOVED the cake, with many of them asking for the recipe and claiming that it was the moistest red velvet cake they'd ever had. The guest of honor especially loved it, explaining that she'd been trying to make red velvet cake on her own for some time now, but to no avail. How did I get the cake to be such a vibrant red color? How did it taste so moist, yet remain so fluffy? How is it so chocolatey. What was my secret?
And here it is, the top 3 secrets to an epic red velvet cake:
- Espresso powder.The jar was right. The espresso powder enhanced the cocoa powder in the recipe, without adding any additional coffee flavor. Forget any recipe that calls for a cup of strongly brewed coffee to add to your cake; a half-teaspoon of espresso powder is all you need. This is the secret ingredient I'm talking about. It's honestly like magic.
- When in doubt, use butter.With a myriad of red velvet recipes ahead of me, I knew I had to limit it somehow. So I decided to go with a recipe that used butter instead of oil. Why? Completely arbitrary... well, okay not really. WHO DOESN'T LOVE BUTTER?! Besides, the cakes with oil in them tend to be too intense anyway, right? And weirdly greasy, which is not a texture you want from your cake.
- Mix the food coloring with the cocoa powder.Almost all red velvet recipes call for a little bit of cocoa powder and red food coloring. But not all recipes ask you to mix the cocoa powder and red food coloring together to form a paste:
This is actually a trick I learned from the Hummingbird Bakery Cookbook's recipe for red velvet cupcakes. Doing this seems to evenly disperse the red food coloring when it gets mixed into the batter. And if your mixture is lumpy, I've found that a rubber spatula works best in bringing it all together:
Just keep mashing until the lumps dissolve.
And there you have it. The three steps to making an epically delicious red velvet cake, minus a $350 bill from the Waldorf-Astoria. And without further ado, I present to you the recipe:
Secret Ingredient Red Velvet Cake
For the Red Velvet Cake:
(makes two 9-inch cake cakes)
- 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 tablespoon natural (non-Dutched) unsweetened cocoa powder
- 1/2 teaspoon espresso powder
- 1 1/2 tablespoons liquid red food coloring
- 2 cups granulated sugar
- 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 2 eggs, at room temperature
- 1 cup buttermilk, at room temperature
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 tablespoon cider vinegar
For the Cream Cheese Frosting:
(makes enough for one 9-inch layer cake)
- 16 oz. cream cheese, softened but still chilled
- 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened but still chilled
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 5 cups confectioner's sugar, sifted
For the Red Velvet Cake:
- Preheat the oven to 350 (F). Grease and lightly flour 2 round, 9-inch cake pans.
- In a medium bowl, whisk together 2 1/2 cups flour and 1 teaspoon salt. Set aside.
- In a small bowl, use a rubber spatula or the back of a spoon to combine 1 tablespoon cocoa powder, 1/2 teaspoon espresso powder, and 1 1/2 tablespoons red food coloring until a thick paste forms and all the lumps are gone. Set aside.
- In the bowl of a freestanding mixer with a paddle attachment, combine 2 cups sugar and 1 cup butter until light and fluffy.
- Add 2 eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each addition.
- Add a third of the flour and salt mixture (from the second step) before adding 1/2 cup buttermilk, mixing until just combined. Add another third of the flour mixture, before adding another 1/2 cup of buttermilk, again mixing until just combined. Finish by adding the remaining third of the flour mixture, mixing until just combined. Be careful not to overmix and just keep mixing until everything is just combined, or your cake will be hard and fudge-y and I will cry for you!
- Add the cocoa powder and food coloring mixture (from the third step) until the color is evenly dispersed. Again, mix well, but just until everything is combined.
- In a small bowl or ramekin, quickly stir together 1/2 teaspoon baking soda and 1 tablespoon cider vinegar. This will foam and should be put into the batter immediately after being mixed. Blend on medium-high speed until the batter is consistent.
- When finished mixing, spoon batter evenly into pans — it will be surprisingly thick, so don't worry! Bake for 25 - 30 minutes, or until the cake springs back when pressed in the center. Let cool in pans on a cooling rack for an additional 15 - 25 minutes, before turning out to cool on the cooling rack completely.
For the Cream Cheese Frosting:
- In the bowl of a freestanding electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, beat together 16 oz. cream cheese, 1 cup butter, and 2 teaspoons vanilla until smooth.
- Turn the mixer down to a low speed and gradually pour in 5 cups confectioner's sugar. When all the sugar is added, increase the speed to medium-high and beat until light and fluffy. Be careful not to overbeat, or the frosting will get too liquidy!
- Use immediately to frost the cooled cakes.