Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Red Velvet Cake, with Traditional Cooked Milk Frosting (Wheat Free, with Dairy Free Option)

I can't think of anything more American than red velvet cake, apart from possibly root beer or barbecue chicken. And now, it's a global sensation.

I've avoided the red velvet craze for a few years now, because I was sick of the sight of it. However, I was on Pinterest one day and I came across a kind of icing I wanted to try: Ermine frosting. Traditionally, this icing goes with red velvet cake, not the cream cheese icing that people would initially assume. So, I thought if I'm going to try making that icing, I'd may as well make the cake that traditionally goes with it!

As someone who's never eaten a homemade red velvet cake, I was really pleasantly surprised at how delicious it is: it's like a mild chocolate muffin, but bigger! And its luminous redness is really, really appealing. The first one I made, however, went into the oven red but came out brown. After some research, I learnt that this was because I used natural food dye. To keep the red colour throughout cooking, it has to be artificial colour. Which isn't ideal, but this is a sometimes treat.

The icing was also a delicious surprise: it turned out remarkably like a Swiss meringue buttercream, but without the hassle of cooking egg whites. It's super silky smooth, not super sweet, spreads like a dream, and makes beautiful sharp edges when cut. It sort of tastes like a sweetened whipping cream. The first time I made it I used salted butter, and it wasn't very nice at all: as such, I strongly urge you to use only unsalted butter to make this icing.

I took a detour from the original recipe, that uses a flour roux, and made a cornflour custard instead. Also, I decided to make it taste mildly reminiscent of a cream cheese icing, which is nowadays more commonly associated with red velvet cake, by adding some buttermilk. You can leave that out and use normal milk, if you prefer.

For one 8 inch (20 centimetre) two-layer cake

For the cake,
  • 8½ ounces (240 grammes) white spelt flour, or gluten free flour
  • ½ ounce (15 grammes) cocoa powder
  • ½ teaspoon baking powder
  • ¾ teaspoon baking soda
  • 3 medium eggs
  • 9 ounces (250 grammes) caster sugar, divided in two
  • 3 fluid ounces (90 millilitres) sunflower oil
  • 3 ounces (85 grammes) butter, at room temperature, or margarine
  • 6 fluid ounces (180 millilitres) buttermilk, or milk alternative mixed with 2 teaspoons of lemon juice or white vinegar; or dairy-free yoghurt thinned down with water to buttermilk consistency
  • Artificial red food colouring*
  • 2 teaspoons (10 millilitres) vanilla essence
For the icing,
  • 8 ounces (225 grammes) unsalted butter, or margarine**
  • 8 ounces (225 grammes) caster sugar
  • 10 fluid ounces (240 millilitres) milk, or milk alternative
  • 2 tablespoons (30 millilitres) cornflour
  • 2 teaspoons (10 millilitres) vanilla essence
  • 3 to 4 fluid ounces (90 to 120 millilitres) buttermilk***, at room temperature, or dairy-free yoghurt
* Artificial red colouring doesn't evaporate in the oven, whereas natural colouring does. If you use natural colouring, your cake will come out brown. Artificial red colours include E110, E122 to E129, E161 (c,d, h, and j), E162 and E180.

** If you can't get unsalted butter in your area, just use a mixture of equal parts salted butter and white vegetable fat

*** If you want your icing not to taste slightly sour, just use normal milk.


First, prepare the cake.
  • Preheat the oven to 170°C (325°F, Gas Mk.3), and grease and flour a tall round 8 inch (20 centimetre) cake tin.
  • In a large mixing bowl, cream butter with an electric mixer until very pale. Take one half of the sugar and gradually add it, beating all the time, until it's light and fluffy
  • In a jug, beat together the oil, eggs, and remaining sugar with the electric mixer (you don't have to change the beaters) until completely incorporated and slightly pale.
  • Return to beating the butter mixture, gradually adding in the egg mixture a little at a time until it is all beaten in.
  • In a separate bowl, mix the flour, soda, power, and cocoa together. Sieve half of the dry ingredients into the butter and egg mix, and fold through until nearly mixed.
  • Add in the buttermilk and a little food colouring, fold a little bit, and finally the remaining dry ingredients. Fold until completely combined. If you want the cake to be redder, add more colour a little at a time until you get the shade you like.
  • Pour the mixture in the prepared tin, and bake on the centre shelf of the preheated oven for one hour, checking for doneness at 45 minutes.
  • Cool for 15 minutes in the tin, then unmould and cool completely on a wire rack before leveling and cutting in half.
While the cake is cooling, start on the icing.
  • Mix the cornflour and milk in a small saucepan until completely smooth and place over medium high heat. Bring to a boil, and cook at boiling for 2 minutes, until it has thickened well.
  • Transfer the mixture to a small bowl to cool fully, mixing occasionally to preventing a skin forming. It will be very thick when cool, almost like a jelly.
  • Beat the butter in a mixing bowl very well using an electric mixer until almost white; this should take about 3 or 4 minutes. 
  • Then, beat in the sugar gradually until fully mixed and fluffy. This should take another 4 minutes or so.
  • Add the cooled custard and continue to beat until it comes together into a fluffy mass, about 2 or 3 minutes. Add enough of the remaining buttermilk to adjust the consistency until it becomes like whipped cream; you don't have to use it all.
  • Use the icing to sandwich the cakes together, and to ice the top and sides. If you like, you can do some piped decorations and add some sweets, too.
If you want to make a plain milk, without butter milk, you can replace the buttermilk with regular milk and replace the baking soda with 1½ teaspoons (7 millilitres) of baking powder, making 2 teaspoons (10 millilitres) in total.

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