I realized last week, not quite simultaneously, that a) I had never baked anything for my roommate's birthday, b) I only had two kinds of flour in my cupboard (clearly not enough flours), and c) I wanted to make something rather more technically ambitious than chocolate chip cookies (even the kind that contain bacon. really they're simple, go make them.)
So I asked Josh what he wanted, and he mentioned red velvet cake. Which, chance had it, one of my friends had done a version of for a friend's wedding shower just a couple weeks back. Of course, Steph being Steph, she carved several layers of the cake into a rough semi-oblique and then colored and hot-knifed and cross-hatched some frosting to make the thing look perhaps uncannily like a ham:
I do not love my friends this much. Sorry, friends, but the only pork involved in my desserts will be internal.
But I'd never made a layer cake from scratch, so I manned up, bought some cake flour, and made it go. The process was a bit time consuming for me, personally, and overall I felt like the cakey result wasn't particularly better than a store-bought cake. (I suppose even matching store-bought is sort of a feat, though, so I'm proud of me.) The frosting I made, however -- a vanilla'd cream cheese deal -- was completely worth making from scratch. Next time I'll probably buy a box of cakemix, but from now on I might make from-scratch frosting all the time (regardless of whether there's a cake involved).
Now, okay, here's The Thing with the frosting recipe that I've just talked up. I got it from Cook's Illustrated, which puts enough time & effort into testing and writing their recipes that they (quite rightfully!) copyright them. And while I changed the ingredient ratios, I really can't say that I adapted it enough to let myself publish it here. So, I'll give you a link to the recipe and the directions for a very similar recipe from a free site, but if you want the exact thing, you'll have to go sign up at Cook's Illustrated Dot Com. You can sign up for a 14-day free trial -- for which you DO have to enter credit card information, but which you CAN cancel before the trial period ends, thus avoiding any charges. Though if you've got a spare $34.95 sitting around for a year's membership to the site, I'd say that'd be an excellent, well-spent $34.95. Really. The folks over there do brilliant, pertinent things with food and explain everything painstakingly, which you may have noticed is a schtick that I enjoy.
Red Velvet Cake with Vanilla Cream Cheese Frosting
From 28 oz. Wine Glass and Joy of Baking, and then also Cook's Illustrated and Simply Recipes
2.5 c. cake flour (finer grain than all-purpose! very worthwhile)
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
2 Tbsp. cocoa powder
1 oz. red food coloring
1 oz. water/booze (rum, vodka, whisky, Kahlua, blackberry gin, etc.)
1.5 c. white sugar
1/2 c. (i.e., 1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
2 eggs, room temperature
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 tsp. white vinegar (DUDE I KNOW)
1 tsp baking soda
1 c. (8 oz.) buttermilk
1/2 c. (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
8 oz. (1 package) cream cheese, room temperature
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
Scrapings from 1 or even 2 vanilla beans
2-3 c. powdered sugar
For the cake, set out your butter and eggs to let them warm to room temperature. Butter & flour either a 9x13" pan (what I used) or 2 9" round pans or even 3 8" rounds.
Measure your cake flour, baking powder, and salt into a medium bowl and whisk to combine. If you were very motivated/had a better sifter than me, you could sift them together instead.
In a small bowl/ramekin, measure out your cocoa powder and pour in the vanilla and the red food coloring. Then take the empty food coloring bottle and fill it up with either water or a clear/red/brown-colored liquor. (I used a blackberry gin that my friend Melissa made, pretty much entirely for the color, but I think whisky, Kahlua, rum, or plain ol' vodka would also do nicely. This'll get all the remaining food dye out of the bottle, and possibly will add a bit of bonus flavoring if you've used good booze.) Add the refilled bottle contents to the bowl and stir until smooth and lump-free.
Now might be a good time to get your oven preheating to 350 F.
In a large bowl, beat your butter and sugar until they're fluffy (about 3 minutes with an electric hand mixer on medium-high). Beat in one egg until completely incorporated, and then give your second egg the same treatment. (You're scraping down the sides of the bowl after each addition, yes? Good.) Next, beat in the vanilla-cocoa-coloring mixture. Take a moment to cackle maniacally after all those beatings, if desired. (It'll be very appropriate 'cause the mixture will be bright, bloody red.)
Pour 1/3 of your dry ingredient mixture into the wet ingredient mixture and stir to combine. (I don't like using electric beaters once the flour is involved 'cause doing so can make the glutens get all stiff & yicky.) Then stir in half the buttermilk, then 1/3 of the dry ingredients, then the last of the buttermilk, then the last of the dry stuff.
In a small bowl/ramekin, pour the vinegar over the baking soda and stir. Will be fizzy. Quickly fold it into the cake batter.
Pour your batter into your pan(s) and bake for 25+ minutes... might take a bit less for 8-inch pans or a bit more for a 9x13-incher. When it's done, a wooden toothpick/skewer should come out clean but for a crumb or two. (I get nervous about sheet cake and let my 9x13 go a little too long, maybe 31 minutes. It ended up a little dry. For the larger pan sizes, toothpick check at 25 minutes and estimate from there!)
Once the cake(s) are out of the oven, let them cool in the pan(s) until said pan(s) are cool enough to touch. Then turn the cake(s) out onto a cooling rack. Cake needs to cool completely before you frost it, and will do even better if it's fridge-cold. I let mine sit until it was room temperature, then cut it in half the short way (producing 2 9x6.5" cakes), wrapped the halves in parchment paper, and let them chill in the fridge for maybe half an hour.
While you're waiting for them to cool, set out your frosting-recipe butter and cream cheese to allow them to soften.
When your cakes are about ready to frost, make the frosting. First, scrape your vanilla bean(s): take a bean, cut it in half the short way, and then slice each half open the long way. (It's even easier to scrape, though might require knife skill, if you don't bisect them the long way, but only slit them open.) Check out all those sticky little black pod/seed thingies! Now stop staring and use the dull/nonoperative edge of a knife blade to gently scrape the black stuff out of the pod. (Reserve the pod, it's made of delicious! Chop it coarsely and either put it in a bag of sugar for vanilla-flavored sugar, or in a small container with enough vodka to cover for vanilla extract.)
Put your butter, cream cheese, vanilla extract, and any vanilla bean scrapings you're using in a medium-sized bowl and use your electric beater to beat them smooth (2-3 minutes?). Add powdered sugar in small amounts (maybe stir a little before beating each time to avoid sugar explosions) until you've got a volume, consistency, and sweetness level that seems awesome.
To apply the frosting, okay I'm inexperienced with this so other tutorials will be more helpful. But basically, you want to do this in two steps.
First, apply a thin layer of frosting to each section of cake as you stack them. This layer will be messy and full of crumbs, and is called a crumb coat, and will prevent your outer layer of frosting from being messy and full of crumbs. Once the crumb coat is on there, sticking the whole cake in the freezer for awhile will help it set! It's ready for the next step when the frosting is no longer tacky to the touch (maybe 30 minutes).
Second, apply your outer layer of frosting. Whee!
As long as it's tightly covered, this cake seems to do okay without refrigeration for a few days, despite the dairy in the frosting. Covering tightly and refrigerating will let it keep for a week or so, assuming that you don't have people like me around who will pretend that red velvet cake is part of a nutritious breakfast. (With the cream cheese, it's like a bagel, right?? Wait those aren't healthy either, crap.)