Seeing red, Part Two: The (cream cheese icing) stands alone: Column
Let's be honest: Most of us are not eating red velvet cakes for the cake part. The cake part, that deep, rich, moist red crumb, is usually the vehicle for as much cream cheese icing as we can get on the fork. I have over the years developed a super easy cream cheese icing recipe that I’ll share with y’all because I one day hope to eat this icing without having to have made it myself first:
Get out two 8-ounce blocks of cream cheese (Philadelphia only, you savages), three sticks unsalted butter (Land O’ Lakes, when Kroger’s has its butter sale, and unsalted only! You use salted and you might as well just set your icing outside in place of a deer lick for hunting season.) and one 32-ounce bag (yes, I said bag) of powdered sugar (any kind — they’re all the same).
Let the still-wrapped cream cheese and butter get soft on the kitchen counter. Depending on the temperature of your kitchen, it usually takes about an hour or two. But you can also put the unwrapped cream cheese (remember, cream cheese comes in a foil wrapper, so do not forget to unwrap it, lest you cause an electrical fire in your microwave) on a plate for 10 seconds or so in the microwave, and the wrapped butter on for the same amount of time, and that should be soft enough. “Soft enough” is if you can press your finger into the cheese and butter and it gives. If your finger presses in too easily, it's too soft, and you have to put your butter and cheese back in the fridge to harden up some.
I feel like I need to point out in this juncture that cream cheese is on that list of “perishable” foods that health departments hate because it is dairy, but unlike butter, lacks the ingredients that make it safe to leave out for hours at a time. So since health departments are in the habit of trying to keep us all alive, they’d tell you never to leave out cream cheese longer than two hours, ever, ever, ever. So if you take longer than two hours to get this icing together, you do so at your own risk.
Put your softened cream cheese and your butter in your mixer bowl, then whirl them together on high until smooth. On low (seriously now — do not forget to put your speed on low!), gradually pour in all your powdered sugar so it's blended, and once it's mixed in, crank it up to high for three minutes to four minutes so the icing gets really fluffy and totally blended. And don’t skimp on the time — it needs 3-4 minutes on high, so set a timer if you need to.
And that’s it. No vanilla, because I don’t like my cream cheese icings really sweet and because vanilla can add an ivory tinge to icing, and no milk or cream, because cream cheese icing can get pretty runny on its own. I actually like to make this the day before I make the cake, let it sit in the fridge overnight, then warm it back up in the microwave in 30-second increments until it's soft enough to spread again; I think it sets up better that way. You can make this icing up to a week ahead and leave it in the fridge until you need it, either for a cake, or just for a treat. It’s your frosting; you use it however you need it.
Now you’re ready to frost, the techniques of which vary, but your basic frosting job is:
Cut the domed tops off your cake layers with a serrated knife so the tops are flat. This might be the hardest part of the whole job if eyeballing what “flat” is isn’t your strong suit. I have a cake turntable I use for cutting and frosting, which I place on top of the turned-over bottom of the biggest soup pot I own so the cake is at my eye level, but I used to make cakes a lot. If you’re just making this for funsies, give it your best shot, but don’t worry if your layers are slightly askew. No one getting free cake is going to have the bad manners to point it out. And if they do, guess whose cake they aren’t getting?
On your bottom layer, cut side up, put about half a cup of icing on the top (I just usually use a rubber spatula and put one dollop down), then using a small offset-icing spatula (they sell them at Walmart in the cake aisle), spread your icing around. I like my icing layers thin, but you can make them as thick as you want; just remember the more icing in your layers, the less you’ll have for the outside of your cake. Stack a cake layer on your icing layer, and repeat icing process. Then add your top layer, cut side down, because you want that flat bottom part on top.
Ice the outside of the cake. I do two layers: the crumb coat and the final layer. The crumb coat is just that: a super-thin icing layer that helps keep crumbs from coming off the cake. You don’t have to do this part if you don’t want, but it does help keep little red velvet crumbs from getting in your icing, and thereby ruining that pure-white look. So if you’re crumb-coating, do your thin layer all around (You’ll still see parts of the cake — that’s okay. This is just to hold the crumbs in.), then pop the cake in the fridge for a half hour or so.
There’s enough icing in the above recipe to do a crumb coat and a final outside layer without the final layer being too thin, but if you’re planning any elaborate icing decorations, you’ll need to make more icing. My usual ratio if I’m doing a decorated cake is that I’ll make an extra half-batch of frosting (one cream cheese, two sticks of butter and half a bag of powdered sugar (or one 16-ounce box) and the same mixing instructions as above), and that’s usually enough for whatever design I do. If you just did a square cake, just dump all of one batch of frosting on the top and spread around till it looks fairly even. Your ratio of cake to frosting will be about one to one, but for frosting junkies, that’s almost enough icing for them.
Now some people like to gussy up a red velvet cake with crushed pecans sprinkled in the center, which are not for taste, but just because pecans are the quintessential southern nut, and red velvet is a quintessential southern cake, so someone thought they belonged together. You could sprinkle walnuts, hickories or cashews, and it wouldn’t make a difference to the cake. So I would just leave them off entirely; if you think your cake needs some extra decoration, maybe put a fresh flower on the top. But honestly, the beauty of red velvet cake is how it looks when it's cut: that bright red next to that stark white is so visually stunning, all you need for decoration is to cut a slice out for everyone to see.
If you aren’t serving your cake in the next hour or so after you frosted it, cover it and pop it back in the fridge until you’re ready to serve it, because cream cheese icing gets runny if it's left out for too long (And seriously: cover it. Frosting picks up flavors from your fridge, so if your dinner the night you made this cake was catfish and sauerkraut, your lovely red velvet cake will taste like an Octoberfest fish fry.). Even if you are going to serve sooner, I’d pop it back in the fridge, because that firms everything up and makes it easier to cut. This cake serves six to eight people with nice-sized wedges, so invite four to six people you like a lot to a red velvet cake party, and cut yourself the biggest piece for all the work you did.
I will share a small tip with you: Even though the food coloring is purely for looks, coloring a red velvet cake anything but red will oddly result in the cake not tasting the same. I made a blue velvet cake one time, and my dad insisted it wasn’t the same taste, even though it was the exact recipe and exact frosting, and the only thing different was the color. Which I think is a great example that people eat with their eyes, so if you serve a red velvet cake that isn’t red, it will throw people off, and they will talk about your inferior cake, often to your face. So if you need a cake that’s a color other than red, use a white cake recipe and color it. Unless it’s the Big R white cake recipe — you leave that one pristine as a tribute to every cake lady who made it before you.
And if any of the people you invited to your red velvet cake party looks at the slice you cut them and asks you to “slice them a smaller piece — they’re watching their diet”? Slice them a smaller piece this time, then never invite them to a cake party again. The only thing worse than someone calling a red velvet cake a chocolate cake is a person who asks for a smaller piece of cake. Those people are suspect, and we don’t need them in our life.
More red velvet cake for the rest of us, y’all.