The Red Velvets I ate as a Southern child had garish color and dryness worthy of a “Got Milk” commercial—they tasted about as good as eating actual velvet. But recently, I found that the cake has a more dignified history: The “red” in the name originally referred to “red sugar,” an old term for what we know as brown sugar. At its heart, Red Velvet was a cocoa cake with a warm, molasses-like sweetness. I set out to reclaim that goodness with a recipe that harkens back to the original.
But with some twists, of course. This cake is loaded with vanilla beans for complexity. Pre-food coloring Red Velvets had a slight reddish hue because of a reaction between an acidic liquid and cocoa, so I decided to nudge that along with some red wine – a complex, subtle pairing with chocolate. It ain’t Grandma’s recipe, but Red Velvet aficionados will recognize it at first bite. And for longtime Red Velvet-phobes like me, it’s like finally coming home.
Cream Cheese German Buttercream
Makes about 10 cups, enough to generously finish a 3-layer, 8-inch cake
I highly recommend making the buttercream before making the cake itself; the frosting will benefit significantly from a little refrigeration before use.
The average buttercream is 50 percent butter (or more!) but German buttercream, with its custard base, clocks in around 25 percent, making it rich (but dangerously consumable). And it’s not dissimilar to Red Velvet’s traditional cooked flour frostings (also known as ermine or boiled milk frosting), making it something that even our great grandparents would love.
16 ounces whole milk
2 vanilla beans, split and scraped, seeds reserved for cake
10 ounces sugar (1¼ cups, by volume)
1½ ounces cornstarch (6 tablespoons by volume)
2 egg yolks
16 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
16 ounces unsalted butter, room temperature
¼ teaspoon salt, or more to taste
- Bring the milk with the vanilla bean pods (not the seeds; save those for the cake) to a simmer in a medium pot. Turn off the heat and set aside to steep for at least one hour, or as long as time allows.
- After steeping, remove the vanilla bean pods, using a rubber spatula to extract the thick vanilla milk from inside each. Return the milk to a simmer. Meanwhile, whisk together the sugar, cornstarch, eggs, and yolks in a medium bowl.
- Whisk about a half cup of the hot milk into the egg mixture—it will be thick at first but will loosen as the milk incorporates. Whisk in more hot milk until the egg mixture is fluid and warm. Next, whisk the tempered egg/milk mixture back into the pot of hot milk, putting on medium heat whisking all the while. Once the mixture starts to thicken and bubble sluggishly, continue whisking and cooking for a full minute more, then remove from heat and pour into a bowl.
- The custard may be cooled quickly by mixing it continuously in a stand mixer. If time isn’t an issue, press a layer of plastic wrap against its surface and refrigerate until cool.
- In either case, once the custard has cooled, use a hand or stand mixer fitted with a whisk attachment to whip it until creamy. Begin whipping in the cream cheese, one tablespoon at a time, until it has fully incorporated. Then repeat with the butter. Add the salt and whip a minute more.
- Refrigerate until needed. When ready to use, whip until creamy and proceed.
Red (Wine) Velvet Cake
Makes three 8-inch layers or about 42 cupcakes
Despite containing both “red sugar” and red wine, your batter will look purple-gray. Don’t worry! It bakes into a chocolaty brown cake.
12 ounces all purpose flour (about 2¾ cups if by volume)
2 ounces natural cocoa (½ cup if by volume)
16 ounces unsalted butter, room temperature
2 ounces safflower oil or other neutral flavored oil
18 ounces brown sugar (3 cups, moderately packed, if by volume)
1 teaspoon salt
2¼ teaspoon baking soda
¾ teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon, preferably freshly ground
scrapings from two vanilla bean pods or 1 tsp vanilla bean paste
6 eggs, room temperature
12 ounces red wine (Zinfandels work especially well)
1½ ounces vanilla extract
1 batch cream cheese German buttercream (See above)
5 ounces white chocolate, preferably in a block or bar
½ ounce cocoa nibs
- Preheat the oven to 350° F and line three 8” by 2” cake pans with parchment rounds. Grease lightly with nonstick spray.
- Sift together the flour and cocoa, set aside.
- In a large bowl, combine the butter, oil, brown sugar, salt, baking soda, baking powder, cinnamon and vanilla bean seeds. Use a hand or stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment to cream the ingredients for 10 minutes on medium speed. Periodically, stop mixing to scrape the bowl down with a rubber spatula.
- Turn the mixer to medium low and add the eggs, one at a time. Continue mixing after each addition until the egg has fully incorporated before adding the next.
- Reduce mixer speed to low. Add the flour/cocoa mixture alternately with the red wine in about three additions. Add the vanilla at the end. Shut off the mixer and give the batter a few turns with a rubber spatula to ensure a homogenous mix.
- Divide the batter evenly between the three prepared cake pans (25 ounces each).
- Bake for 30 to 35 minutes. The oil in the batter makes the cakes slightly more forgiving of over-baking, but try not to let it come to that. Bake until the cakes have puffed but will still retain a slight impression if touched gently with a fingertip. A toothpick inserted into the center should have a few moist crumbs still attached.
- Cool the cakes on a wire rack. At first, they will have pronounced domes and a slightly gray-brown color, but as they cool the domes will settle down somewhat and the color will deepen. When they have cooled, run a knife around the sides of the pan and invert onto a parchment lined tray or cooling rack. Continue cooling until no trace of warmth remains.
- Before frosting, use a serrated knife to level the cakes. If you have found this step difficult in the past, refrigerate the cakes for 30 minutes beforehand, making them easier to handle and cut.
- Assemble the cake on a platter or cake stand, topping each layer with a generous amount of buttercream. Crumb coat by spreading a thin, smooth layer of buttercream over the tops and sides of the cake; this will prevent stray crumbs from flecking the finished layer. Refrigerate the crumb-coated cake for 30 minutes before applying the final coating of buttercream to the top and sides.
To finish the cake:
When I learned that Red Velvet’s traditional accompaniment was a boiled milk frosting, I suddenly had visions of royalty. You see, boiled milk frosting is also known as ermine, a name meant to evoke the fluffy softness of fur. Of course, ermine and red velvet are the traditional trappings of English royalty, and even today the Pope himself wears a cape of red velvet and ermine. I couldn’t resist the sumptuous connotations and created a finish for the cake that would give Red Velvet its proper ermine robes.
To do this, I dust the cake with copious amounts of white chocolate shavings and cocoa nib “spots.” The white chocolate shavings are so fine that the heat of your mouth melts them completely before they hit the tongue, leaving only a sweet whisper of flavor and no discernible texture.
To create this finish, grate 5 ounces of white chocolate with a Microplane or Parmesan grater and dust the top and sides of the cake until completely coated. It’s easiest to use a folded piece of parchment paper as a “scoop” to distribute the white chocolate as the warmth of your hands will melt the chocolate.
Scatter the cocoa nibs over the cake in a haphazard manner to mimic ermine spots. To make the nibs stick to the side, you truly have to fling the nibs at the cake; it’s incredibly fun. Try it.