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You're disappointed, aren't you? You read the title "red velvet cake" and don't see the shade of lipstick red you've come to expect. Well, get over it. If you really look inside your soul and search your tastebuds, you will, like me, come to the harsh realization that red velvet is a fiction. Those bright carmine cupcakes peddled by overhyped bakeries are dry, stale, and lacking in flavor and substance. Sure, they're pretty, but wouldn't you rather bite into a buttery, fine-crumbed cake that's got a surprising blend of flavors, even if it comes in a less saucy shade of red?
Stella Parks, aka Bravetart, recently wrote an article about the history of red velvet cake on Gilt Taste, and I was so gratified to reconfirm that originally, red velvet cake was dubbed thusly because it contained "red" sugar, which today we know as dark brown sugar. The "velvet" alluded to the cake's plush crumb. Red food coloring, responsible for today's gaudier reincarnation of the recipe, made an appearance in the late 1800s and the velvet cake has blushed from warm cocoa to rose red since then.
Red is my favorite color and I do use artificial dyes to tint my lips and nails, so perhaps I'm being a bit hypocritical in my refusal to add a few drops of ruby ink to my cake batter, but I truly wanted the focus to be on the cocoa-tinged cake instead of its outward appearance.
This cake is impossibly buttery and melt-in-your mouth with moist dark brown sugar. In an attempt to bolster the reddish tint of the cocoa powder in the cake, I experimented with pureed beets, which didn't go all that well. The batter looked bold and sassy, but emerged from the oven looking decidedly glum and drab. A small amount of beets remain in the final version, however, as I did love the earthy sweetness they lent to the cake, and how effortlessly their flavor mingled with aromatic almond extract. A splash of red wine coaxed the cocoa and beets out a bit more, and added an unexpected refinement to the cake.
The icing is a boiled milk recipe—I'm having an I-hate-cream-cheese-frosting moment. I often rely on this flour, cornstarch, sugar, and milk pudding-like base when making chocolate icings at home because of how billowy it is and especially how it melts upon contact with your lips. No doldrums vanilla here, though—blood orange juice and a bit more red wine for bolder flavor.
Make this not-so-red velvet cake and tell me it's not better than the sorry excuse for it you've been having all this time.