Red velvet is a crowd-pleasing, impressive cake, but it can also be a slightly daunting project, with lots of 'watch-outs'. The red food colouring makes the cake batter prone to splitting, and turns everything it touches red; a couple of grams over on the cocoa powder and the cake goes brown instead of a rich red; the cream cheese frosting has a tendency to turn to gloop at the very last minute for no apparent reason; and the list goes on.
What is a red velvet cake?
Is red velvet cake really just a chocolate cake with added red colouring? No! It's so much more than that. It does have a mild chocolate flavour, and cocoa powder plays a crucial role in getting that deep red colour, but a red velvet cake is not a chocolate cake. It has far less cocoa powder in it than a traditional chocolate cake recipe, and a few added flavour notes from other ingredients that wouldn't feature in a traditional chocolate cake (mainly buttermilk and vinegar).
What is the difference between chocolate cake and red velvet cake, apart from the colour?
Red velvet cake has less cocoa powder added to it (a very specific amount, to get the deep red colour without turning the cake brown) and contains no actual chocolate, so the chocolate flavour is mild.
Buttermilk is a key ingredient for red velvet cake, giving it a slightly tangy, very distinctive flavour.
It also has vinegar and red food colouring added to it, to add acidity and the classic red colouring.
- Red velvet cake is normally frosted with CREAM CHEESE ICING! It's tangy, sweet and gives red velvet cakes their classic, very striking white-on-red look.
So yes, it is a little bit more complicated than a generic chocolate sponge cake. BUT, it's totally worth it. And I'm a sucker for anything with cream cheese frosting. Let's do this.
Baking a red velvet cake - my top tips:
1. Use room temperature ingredients
This is a good rule of thumb for almost any sponge cake, but it's particularly important if you're working with a delicate sponge mix that's prone to splitting. Cold eggs, or buttermilk, can interfere with the binding and cause the sponge to curdle. While this isn't a deal-breaker - I've baked split sponge mix with decent results on many occasions - it does make it harder to whisk air into the sponge, which can result in a cake that's stodgy instead of tall and fluffy.
2. Don't skimp on the quality of the red food colouring
It needs to be bake stable, and it needs to be gel. A cheap, liquid red colouring might be okay for making pink frosting, but it won't work for this. Many supermarket brand liquid colours are not bake-stable, meaning that they lose their pigment at high temperatures (fine for colouring icing, for example, but not cake). Liquid colouring also doesn't have the strength that you need for this, you'd have to add so much of it into the mix that it would interfere with the texture. Use a good quality gel colour to turn the mixture bright red, and then the dark brown cocoa powder will turn the colour deep red.
I use Sugarflair Poppy Red - it can be bought online or in many kitchenware / craft shops.
3. Don't over-whisk the sponge batter
In fact, lose the whisk once you're past the egg stage and mix in the dry ingredients using a spatula or wooden spoon instead. This is a great tip for all sponge cakes - over-whisking once you've added the flour is the main reason why cakes go dry and crumbly, as it causes the gluten in the flour to develop. There's nothing worse for cake batter than when you leave it to whisk away in a stand mixer after adding the flour. As soon as it's incorporated, stop.
4. Make sure the cake and frosting are COOL before cutting and decorating
The red velvet sponges are delicate - if you try to slice or handle warm sponge, it'll fall to pieces. Let it cool on the side for 2 hours, then wrap each sponge in cling film and lay flat in the fridge for another 1-2 hours. It'll make them stiffer and easier to slice (if you're slicing them to create layers), and also help keep the frosting cool when you go to decorate the cake.
If you try to decorate the cake with the cream cheese icing while the sponge is (even just a tiny bit) warm, the icing will turn to gloop and soak into the cake.
5. Get the cream cheese frosting right
Cream cheese frosting is notoriously tricky to get right. Whereas in the United States you can buy 'block' cream cheese, which is much firmer, here in the UK cream cheese is always 'spreadable' - it contains more water, and makes it harder to get cream cheese frosting that's thick enough to spread and pipe neatly.
Cream cheese frosting never really goes as stiff as a buttercream icing, but you should be able to get cream cheese frosting to a perfectly workable consistency using some basic tips and a little bit of patience. You won't be able to pipe intricate designs with it, but it'll hold together, allow you to create a simple design and look lovely (and it tastes AMAZING, which in my opinion, is far more important than looking intricate!).
My number 1 tip here would be to use a cloth or tea towel to 'wring' the cheese (yes, really!) and squeeze as much moisture out of it as you can, before making the frosting. Even 1-2 teaspoons of liquid make a huge difference to the final texture of the frosting. If I have time, I'll put the cheese in a sieve lined with a tea towel overnight, and by the morning the tea towel is soaking wet.
Tip number 2 is to make sure you've allowed enough time to fridge the cream cheese frosting before decorating the cake. The butter in it will be firmer when cold (think about the texture of butter at room temperature, compared to when it's cold), which will make the frosting stiffer and easier to pipe.
Be realistic, though. If you want to make a simply-decorated but incredibly delicious red velvet cake, and are willing to spend time getting it right, the cream cheese frosting will work. But if you're after a multi-tiered, highly decorated celebration cake, you're better off using a different type of icing (a buttercream, or swiss meringue buttercream). It'll still taste good, and the stiffer consistency will make it far easier to decorate the cake.