Seeing red, Part One: Column

Ceason Ranson
Ranson Ritings

One of the awesome people in my office brought in a red velvet Bundt cake this week. With cream cheese icing. And chocolate chips. So frankly, it’s amazing I’m not still in a red-velvet induced euphoric coma.

It pains me when I hear people say they don’t like red velvet cake, and I imagine it’s because they’ve never had a really good one. If you say you don’t like red velvet cake, it’s probably because you got one from some northern bakery who describes their red velvet cake as “A chocolate cake, but red!” If you encounter such a description in a bakery, back away from that establishment slowly, then run to your nearest police station and report them, because they are committing a high culinary crime.

Red velvet cake is not a chocolate cake. Red velvet is a white cake, with a teaspoon of chocolate powder, and that chocolate powder is only there to react with the other strange ingredient in red velvet cake: white vinegar. For whatever reason, that reaction between the white vinegar and the chocolate powder is what gives red velvet cake its subtle flavor and texture difference that sets it apart from a plain white cake. Those two ingredients mix with buttermilk, and all that is what creates that smooth, moist, “velvet” texture. Red velvet is like the most scienc-y of cakes, delicious proof of what happens with an acid hits a base.

I don’t know that all y’all know this about me, but for about 10 years, I made cakes for people for fun, and red velvet was one of my most popular requests. Even my mother likes my red velvet cake, which I adapted from a Food Network recipe, and that’s saying something, because her birthday cake requests were always “Betty Crocker yellow cake. From the box. I said from the box, Ceason.” So for all y’all who are looking for a good cake to take to all those fall potluck activities (perhaps a cake walk? Man, I miss cake walks), here you go:

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees, and find three 8-inch round cake pans. I guess you can do this is in a big square pan too, but don’t try and lessen your dish load by dumping all this batter into one round cake pan. Three rounds or one big square. Set your pans aside.

Get out the following dry ingredients:

2 1/2 cups of all-purpose flour

1 1/2 cups of white sugar (don’t sugar substitute!)

1 teaspoon of baking soda

1 teaspoon of salt

1 teaspoon of cocoa powder (I use Hershey’s, so you should too).

Put all that into a bowl, or my preference, a big 4-cup measuring cup. Then get a wire whisk and whisk it all together until it's smooth and blended and the whole thing is the color of mocha. Set aside.

Now get out the following wet ingredients:

1 1/2 cups vegetable oil

1 cup of buttermilk (not low-fat. This ain’t the time to count calories)

2 eggs

1 teaspoon of white vinegar

1 teaspoon of vanilla extract.

Put all that either into a mixing bowl or the bowl of your stand mixer (I like Kitchenaids myself). Start your mixer on low, then work up to medium-high. I let it mix until it’s all nicely blended and a pretty yellow color from the eggs.

Bring over your dry ingredients, and slowly add them in with the mixer running on low. Seriously, don’t go dumping all your dry ingredients in at once, because that’s a great way to send a shower of mocha-flour all over your kitchen, and a great way to leave lumps. Keep adding until all the dry ingredients are just combined with the wet ingredients. Now go get your red food coloring.

I need to stop here a minute so I can tell you that while using grocery store liquid red food coloring won’t ruin this recipe, I highly recommend for all your red food coloring needs that you purchase a gel food coloring from a company like AmeriColor. First off, it's much more concentrated, so you don’t need as much, and thereby, you won’t mess up your cake texture by adding too much liquid color. And two, they make a “no-taste” red food coloring gel, which if you’ve ever had the acidic, pucker-inducing taste of red icing that was not “no taste,” then you’ll understand why having a red coloring that doesn’t make you want to cut out your taste buds is so important. So next time you’re on Amazon, get a bottle of gel red coloring.

Now this part is purely visual, so start with a good squeeze of coloring into the batter, then run your mixer on high so it gets blended well. Then take a good look: If your batter is the color of a Ravenswood home jersey, it’s the right color. If you think it’s too light, give another squeeze, but don’t go overboard, because you’ll mess with the texture. Let it mix on high for two minutes or so, then stop.

Go prep your cake pans. I keep it simple here: Pam cooking spray with the flour added in it (it’s the blue label one). Spray that on the bottom and sides of your pans really well. If you truly fear getting a cake stuck, then cut yourself some parchment paper rounds the size of your cake pan and put them in the bottom.

Divide your batter equally among your three pans, then put two cake pans on your bottom oven rack and one cake pan on your top over rack (that way, you keep good air circulation among your pans). Shut the oven door, and turn on the oven light so you can see what’s happening without continually opening the door and letting the heat out.

Set a timer for 25 minutes. Check your cakes when the timer goes off: If the middles are almost completely dry, and the cake edges have pulled slightly away from the sides of the pans, they’re ready. If the middle still looks wet or jiggles when you shake the pan, give it another five minutes. If you prefer a more tactile check: Put a butter knife into the middle of each cake and if it comes out clean, they’re ready (a few red crumbs stuck to the knife is okay too, but not a bunch of uncooked cake). Thirty-five minutes should be the most you have to bake the batter, but that’s dependent on your oven temperatures being consistent.

Pull out your cakes and place them, still in the pans, on a wire rack. Wait five or so minutes, then turn your cakes out upside-down onto the wire racks to cool completely (if you prepped the pans correctly, they should fall right out. If some parts stick to the pan, don’t panic — that’s why the good Lord had us make icing — to fill in cake gaps). Give them a good hour or two on the racks to cool completely before you frost them, or you’ll regret it, mightily. Personally, I let them sit all day so I’m sure they’re ready for the icing to come.

This feels like a good place to stop, so hold on for next week when I tell you my super-easy cream cheese icing recipe. Or you can contact Myra Watts, who makes the World’s Greatest Carrot Cake, and ask her to whip up a batch of her fantastic cream cheese frosting and save yourself a step. Or better yet, just order a carrot cake from Myra to tide you over until next week’s column, and remind yourself while you’re eating it that it has carrots in it, so if you want to be really healthy, you’ll need to eat two slices to get all that Vitamin A.

Healthy eating habits are important, y’all.