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Subtly sweet, tender and tangy, this red velvet cake shines with or without food coloring

(Scott Suchman for The Washington Post/food styling by Lisa Cherkasky for The Washington Post)
Red Velvet Cake With Cream Cheese Frosting
Active time:30 mins
Total time:3 hrs 30 mins
Servings:12 to 14 (One 8- or 9-inch cake or 24 cupcakes)
Active time:30 mins
Total time:3 hrs 30 mins
Servings:12 to 14 (One 8- or 9-inch cake or 24 cupcakes)
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For the better part of the past century, red velvet cake has appeared in cookbooks and on menus, dazzling diners with its lipstick-red and snow-white layers. Popular year-round, today, the cake is often seen at celebrations and holidays where red makes a showing, including Christmas, Valentine’s Day and Juneteenth.

Scale and get a printer-friendly, desktop version of the recipe here.

This versatile version pulls from generations of red velvet recipes for a cake that’s well-balanced and not too sweet. It’s also supremely tender and, as the name declares, velvety in texture.

Red velvet cake is ‘the color of joy.’ Here’s how it rose into America’s dessert canon.

A combination of unsalted butter and vegetable oil give it flavor and ensure a moist cake. A bit of baking soda gives it just enough lift, but not so much that the batter bubbles over or domes as it bakes. Cocoa powder and lots of vanilla provide dark or fruity chocolate notes alongside musky vanilla.

The only question is, how red do you like your red velvet? This recipe can do it all.

For a mahogany-colored cake, use raw cocoa powder in combination with buttermilk. The acidity in the buttermilk will react with the anthocyanins in the cocoa to give the cake a reddish hue.

Want a deeper magenta tint? Use beet juice. Easily found at most supermarkets, it adds moisture and natural color, but thanks to its interactions with the other ingredients in the cake batter, leaves the earthy flavor of beets behind. (You can also use a combination of beet juice and buttermilk.)

The only thing that will deliver a cake red as Santa’s suit is food coloring. Two ounces of liquid Red 40, found at most grocery stores, will do the trick, whether you decide to use buttermilk — for its tangy flavor — or beet juice — for some semblance of added nutrition.

Bake this cake into two 8- or 9-inch layers, three 8-inch layers or 24 tidy cupcakes. Then, make the cream cheese frosting. It’s easy to whip up, and just needs a quick chill before it’s ready to use. This recipe makes a very generous amount of frosting — enough to go between, on top and around three layers — so if you’d like less, feel free to halve it.

Where to Buy: Beet juice can be found at well-stocked grocery stores; it may contain lemon juice, which is fine.

Storage: Leftover cake may be stored, wrapped airtight or in a covered container in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.

Make ahead: Cake layers may be baked up to 3 days in advance. Allow them to cool completely before wrapping airtight and refrigerating. The cake layers may also be frozen, wrapped airtight, for up to 3 months. Once frosted, the cake can be carefully covered and refrigerated for up to 3 days.

NOTES: For best results, use finely granulated sugar such as Florida Crystals, Domino or C&H. Some brands have larger crystals, which may require a longer creaming time. If you’re concerned about crumbs in your frosting, you can first apply a thin coating, called a crumb coat, and let it chill before applying the rest of the frosting.

You may bake the cake in three 8-inch pans: Each pan will get about 500 grams of batter and take about 30 minutes to bake. You may also bake it in two 9-inch pans, but the layers will be somewhat shorter. You may also bake this batter into 24 cupcakes: Line a standard muffin tins with paper cupcake liners and fill each with 1/3 to 1/2 cup (approximately 60 grams) of batter. Bake at 325 degrees for 20 to 22 minutes, or until each cupcake springs back when lightly poked. Cool completely in pans set on a wire rack before frosting.

Ingredients

For the cake

  • Oil or softened butter, for greasing pans
  • 2 1/2 cups (315 grams) all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 cup (20 grams) unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
  • 1 1/2 cups (355 milliliters) well-shaken buttermilk or beet juice, or a 50-50 blend of the two, at room temperature
  • 2 tablespoons to 1/4 cup (30 to 60 milliliters/one to two 1-ounce bottles) liquid red food coloring, such as McCormick brand (optional if using beet juice)
  • 2 cups (400 grams) granulated sugar (see NOTES)
  • 1 stick (113 grams) unsalted butter, softened but cool to the touch
  • 1/2 cup (120 milliliters) neutral oil, such as grapeseed or canola
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 4 large eggs, at room temperature

For the frosting

  • 1 pound (455 grams) cream cheese, at room temperature
  • 2 sticks (225 grams) unsalted butter, softened but cool to the touch
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
  • 4 1/2 cups (540 grams) confectioners’ sugar
  • Crushed pecans, for decorating (optional)

Step 1

Position a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees. Grease two 8-inch cake pans and line the bottoms with parchment paper (see NOTES).

Step 2

In a medium bowl, sift together the flour, cocoa, baking soda and salt.


Step 3

In a 2-cup liquid measuring cup or small bowl, combine the buttermilk or beet juice and red food coloring, if using.


Step 4

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment — or, if using a hand-mixer, in a large bowl — combine the sugar, butter and oil. Beat on medium speed until light and fluffy, 1 to 2 minutes, stopping to scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl to ensure the mixture is evenly creamed. Reduce the mixer speed to medium-low and add the vanilla, followed by the eggs, one at a time, beating until each is emulsified into the batter before adding another. Scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl as needed, and after the last egg is added, mix until no streaks remain, but no longer than another 20 seconds to avoid beating too much extra air into the batter.

Step 5

With the mixer on low speed, add about half of the buttermilk mixture — carefully, as it may splash — and allow it to fully emulsify into the batter. With the mixer running, sprinkle in half of the flour mixture, followed by the remaining buttermilk mixture. Stop to scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl as needed and add the remaining flour mixture. Increase the speed to medium and mix until just a few streaks remain, no longer than 15 seconds. Remove the bowl from the mixer and, using a rubber spatula, fold the batter, ensuring it is evenly mixed and no streaks or lumps remain. Do not overmix, or your cake will be dense and tough.


Step 6

Divide the batter between the cake pans; each pan should get about 750 grams of batter. Using a small offset spatula or spoon, level the batter in each pan. Grasp each pan by the rim on opposite sides, lift it up about 3 inches and drop it onto the counter 2 or 3 times to release any large air bubbles.

Step 7

Bake the cakes for 40 to 50 minutes, or until the cakes pull away from the sides of the pan and the top springs back when lightly pressed or a skewer inserted in the center comes out with a few moist crumbs.


Step 8

Let cakes cool in their pans on a wire rack for 20 minutes, then run a thin knife around the edge and gently invert onto a wire rack. Remove the pans and parchment and allow the cakes to cool upside-down, for at least 2 hours, before cutting or frosting. To make it easier to frost the cake, you may wrap cooled cake layers airtight and freeze for 30 minutes (or up to 3 months). (If you let cakes cool completely in their pans, they may become damp.)

Step 9

Make the frosting: In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment — or, if using a hand-mixer, in a large bowl — combine the cream cheese, butter, vanilla and salt. Beat on medium to medium-high speed until well combined and fluffy, about 1 minute. Turn the mixer off, and add 1 cup of the confectioners’ sugar. Starting on low speed and increasing to medium, beat to combine, then turn the mixer off. Add the remaining confectioners’ sugar, 1 cup or so at a time, and beat, starting on low and increasing to medium, until the frosting is fluffy and begins to stiffen, about 2 minutes, scraping down the sides as needed. Cover and refrigerate the frosting for at least 1 hour or until ready to use.

Step 10

Assemble the cake: If the frosting has stiffened, beat it briefly, by hand or using the paddle attachment on your mixer, until it’s fluffy and spreadable.

Lay one cake layer on a plate or platter and top with about 1 1/2 cups of the frosting. Spread the frosting into an even layer, then top with the second cake layer. Coat the top and sides of the cake with the remaining frosting, starting with a crumb coat (see NOTES), if desired. Decorate with the pecans if desired.


Nutrition Information

Per serving (1 slice), based on 14:

Calories: 736; Total Fat: 40 g; Saturated Fat: 20 g; Cholesterol: 143 mg; Sodium: 283 mg; Carbohydrates: 88 g; Dietary Fiber: 1 g; Sugar: 69 g; Protein: 7 g

This analysis is an estimate based on available ingredients and this preparation. It should not substitute for a dietitian’s or nutritionist’s advice.

From staff writer G. Daniela Galarza.

Tested by Becky Krystal and Ann Maloney; email questions to voraciously@washpost.com.

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