FOODIE: Bleeding Armadillo and Other Good Uses for Red Velvet

I live in Fort Greene, Brooklyn and one of the neighborhood institutions is the bakery, Cake Man Raven. Don’t get me wrong, the cake is delicious and hiring young neighborhood kids to run your store is cheap admirable. But after the last few trips to the store ended in walking home cake-less, I christened the place the ‘No Cake Man,’ and I started looking online for a red velvet recipe. 

I’m by no means a pastry chef, so baking cakes from scratch is still a bit daunting for me. Despite the fact that my mother used to bake cakes for extra money, to my mind baking was still something best left to the professionals. I still have fond memories of her church-lady style cakes like Mississippi Mud, Better-than-Sex (tee hee), strawberry, caramel, coconut and of course, plain yellow cake with chocolate icing. I still call her for those recipes occasionally, mostly because they are good but also because they can be made with Betty Crocker.

To my knowledge, my mother never made a red velvet cake. I have memories of her friend Virginia making one in the shape of an armadillo with gray icing, a la Steel Magnolias, which, believe me, was even more astonishing in person than it was on the screen. But that was a degree too far to search for a recipe, so I was off to the wilds of the web.

Luckily enough, the New York Times had done a little investigative reporting on the best red velvet recipes and I had the good fortune to try this one out a couple of times. In fact, I became obsessed with it. For my boyfriend at the time, there were at least three trips to the supermarket with instructions to bring back no less than 3 ounces of red food coloring, which is more difficult than you might think around Valentines day. This procurement apparently involved taking all of the red food colorings out of most of the boxes on the shelf. My sincerest apologies if you were a victim of this color swapping.

Indeed, I fell in love with this cake. The crumb is so tender and light and the buttermilk gives it a wonderful twang. The other thing that most people don’t know about red velvet is that it is a type of chocolate cake. The background richness that distinguishes a true red velvet from a yellow cake with a bunch of red food coloring is a healthy dose of cocoa powder.

Since I am a modern New Yorker, I prefer my cake in cupcake form. The following recipe is for 3 layers, which will give you approximately 48 cupcakes. I usually halve the recipe since I have no kids and everyone in my office is on a diet.

Recipe: Red Velvet Cake
. Adapted from “The Confetti Cakes Cookbook” by Elisa Strauss (Little, Brown, to be published in May).

Time: 90 minutes, plus cooling

1 tablespoon unsalted butter
3½ cups cake flour
½ cup unsweetened cocoa (not Dutch process)
1½ teaspoons salt
2 cups canola oil
2¼ cups granulated sugar
3 large eggs
6 tablespoons (3 ounces) red food coloring
1½ teaspoons vanilla
1¼ cup buttermilk
2 teaspoons baking soda
2½ teaspoons white vinegar.

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place teaspoon of butter in each of 3 round 9-inch layer cake pans and place pans in oven for a few minutes until butter melts. Remove pans from oven, brush interior bottom and sides of each with butter and line bottoms with parchment.

2. Whisk cake flour, cocoa and salt in a bowl.

3. Place oil and sugar in bowl of an electric mixer and beat at medium speed until well-blended. Beat in eggs one at a time. With machine on low, very slowly add red food coloring. (Take care: it may splash.) Add vanilla. Add flour mixture alternately with buttermilk in two batches. Scrape down bowl and beat just long enough to combine.

4. Place baking soda in a small dish, stir in vinegar and add to batter with machine running. Beat for 10 seconds.

5. Divide batter among pans, place in oven and bake until a cake tester comes out clean, 40 to 45 minutes. Let cool in pans 20 minutes. Then remove from pans, flip layers over and peel off parchment. Cool completely before frosting.

Yield: 3 cake layers. Adapted from “The Waldorf-Astoria Cookbook,” by John Doherty with John Harrisson (Bulfinch, 2006)

Time: 15 minutes

2 cups heavy cream, cold
12 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
12 ounces mascarpone
½ teaspoon vanilla
1½ cups confectioners’ sugar, sifted.
1. Softly whip cream by hand, in electric mixer or in food processor. Cover in bowl and refrigerate.

2. Blend cream cheese and mascarpone in food processor or electric mixer until smooth. Add vanilla, pulse briefly, and add confectioners’ sugar. Blend well.

3. Transfer cream cheese mixture to bowl; fold in whipped cream. Refrigerate until needed.

Yield: Icing for top and sides of 3-layer cake.

This icing is a bit more involved than a normal cream cheese icing (which you can make by mixing in half a block of cream cheese with a box of confectioners’ sugar, if you don’t have time or mascarpone to do this version) but it is well worth the time because the result is a delicious creamy but light version of a classic cream cheese icing.

My not-so-mild obsession with this recipe yielded a really delicious riff when I finally ran out of red food coloring, a cocoa spice cupcake with burnt butter icing.

Cocoa Spice Cake

Use half of the recipe above substituting the red food coloring for ½ teaspoon of cardamom, ½ teaspoon nutmeg, ½ teaspoon cinnamon and increase the cocoa to ¾ of a cup.

Burnt Butter Icing

Melt 1 stick of butter over medium low heat and allow to brown to a nutty caramel color. Don’t allow to burn or you’ll have to start over.

Allow the butter to cool and mix with 1 box of confectioners sugar until icing consistency is reached.

Enjoy and tell me how yours turns out!


(i will concur that anything nichelle makes if kinda AWESOME, so try the recipe people.-jbaker)

Like this recipe? Try Nichelle’s first one here.

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