Red(dish) velvet cake

And the cakes just keep on coming.  Don’t judge; it was my birthday this weekend.

I had a conundrum when planning my birthday cake this year.  I was throwing a Communist Party–vodka drinks, red paper plates, Russian snacks and a 1960’s Cold War movie–and wanted to make a red velvet cake.  (Get it? Get it?) But the red in red velvet cake almost always comes from food coloring, and the quantity of red food coloring used tends to make cake taste metallic and sharp, like licking the side of a flagpole.  At least, it does to me.

So I wanted to try a dye-free cake.  I poked around for an alternative, and found a recipe for a cake infused with red wine.  Yum.

I don’t have a whole lot to say about the baking of the cake itself, except that I kept sneaking tastes of the batter and squeeing with childish delight. It was rich and cinnamon-spiced and just chocolaty enough to be grown-up, but also sweet and buttery and everything you want in a cake.  I knew it wasn’t going to be bad.

Also, let’s be frank: this was really an excuse to slather something with a half-inch layer of old-fashioned cream cheese frosting.  Ain’t a birthday kid in America who can’t identify with that impulse.

I’ll be honest, though: when I tasted the finished product, my socks weren’t quite knocked off.  The texture was perfect–crumbly and moist, the ideal midway point between dense and airy–and the combination of chocolate, cinnamon and butter is divine no matter how you slice it.  (No pun intended.)  But I think the unsubtle ping of wine in the background threw me a little.  I was expecting rich and moist, not so much tannic and fruity.  It was a delicious cake, festive and satisfying, but it didn’t quite scream “red velvet” to me.

Then again, maybe it was the lack of food coloring.  Maybe not tasting like red velvet is a good thing.

And besides, who cares when you’ve got a mouthful of cream cheese frosting and crumbs?  Not this birthday girl.

Red (Wine) Velvet Cake (makes an 8-inch round three-layer cake, or a 9 x 13 inch square cake)

Note: Despite the name, this cake actually turns out a rich cherry-wood brown.  It’s quite pretty as is, but if you’re looking for a truly RED velvet cake, you could certainly add an ounce or two of food coloring to the batter.

From Gilt Taste

2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 cup natural cocoa powder (not Dutch processed)

1 lb (4 sticks or 16 oz) butter, at room temperature

1/4 cup vegetable oil or other neutral oil

3 cups brown sugar, moderately packed

1 tsp salt

2 1/4 tsp baking soda

3/4 tsp baking powder

1/2 tsp ground cinnamon

Seeds from two vanilla beans, or 2 tsp vanilla extract

6 eggs, at room temperature

1 1/2 cups Zinfandel or other red wine

Special equipment: three 8-inch round cake pans, or one 9 x 13 x 2 baking dish

Preheat the oven to 350º F.  Cut parchment to fit the bottom of your chosen pan(s) and grease both the pans and the parchment.  (If you don’t have parchment, just grease and lightly flour the pans.  I hate flouring pans, so I take the easy way out.)

In a medium bowl, sift together flour and cocoa; set aside.

In a large mixing bowl, combine butter, oil, brown sugar, salt, baking soda, baking powder, cinnamon and vanilla.  Cream ingredients together until light and fluffy.  Beat in eggs, one at a time, making sure each one is fully incorporated before adding the next.

Add in about 1/4 of the dry ingredients, mixing until just combined.  Then add 1/2 cup wine and mix again.  Repeat, alternating dry ingredients and wine–you should have three additions of wine and four of flour and cocoa.  Mix just until the last of the flour disappears; your batter will now look like wet cement, but have faith.

Bake until the top of the cake is puffy and set but still soft, and a toothpick comes out with moist crumbs attached.  For 8-inch layers, this should take 30-35 minutes; for a 9 x 13 inch cake, 55 minutes to an hour.  Cool the cake(s) on a wire rack; the top will start out puffy and round, but settle down a bit as the cake cools.

If you made round layers, level them with a serrated knife, then assemble and frost your cake; if you made a big square cake, just slather the frosting on top.  Slice and serve.

Classic Cream Cheese Frosting (makes enough to generously frost one cake)

From Allrecipes

2 packages (16 oz) cream cheese, at room temperature

1/2 cup (1 stick or 4 oz) butter, softened

2 cups sifted confectioner’s sugar

1 tsp vanilla extract

In a medium mixing bowl, cream together cream cheese and butter until smooth.  Mix in vanilla extract, then stir in confectioner’s sugar 1/2 cup at a time.  Slather all over your cake.  Refrigerate if not using right away; let come to room temperature before using.


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9 responses to “Red(dish) velvet cake

  1. I’m down with the cream cheese frosting. Every time I pass it at the market I give it the eye and think about what it would be good with.

  2. Jennifer

    I love red velvet cake, but when I made it myself I was also astounded by the amount of food coloring that went into making it the “right” color.

    Why not just leave the food coloring out and call it “brown velvet cake”? That’s what I usually do when I make it now. It doesn’t look as pretty, but it still has the same taste. 🙂

    • Yeah, brown velvet cake is peachy-keen as far as I’m concerned. I think next time I’ll probably try a cake with buttermilk instead of wine, since that seemed to be where the weirdness came in.

  3. Veronika

    Zoe! I need your help!
    How, HOW in the world do you keep your cream cheese frosting from going runny?! I’ve tried it and sometimes it works and other times it just refuses to, and I have no idea what I do wrong when it doesn’t! I love cream cheese frosting, but I’ve even considered switching to buttercream out of frustration!

    P.S. Be happy it didn’t taste like the red velvet cake. The amounts of food coloring in it are staggering – the original, I believe, was supposedly colored using red cocoa powder and higher-acidity dough (makes it redder). But eh, with that much gorgeous cream cheese frosting, who cares?!

    • Hmmm…I’ve never had a problem. I’ve seen recipes that suggest having the cream cheese cold instead of at room temp, so it doesn’t break down as quickly. Maybe that would help?

  4. Olivia

    You could also use red beets as a natural food coloring, boil peeled beets in water then reduce the liquid. From what I understand, it doesn’t affect the flavor of the cake too much.

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