Everyone is familiar with a red velvet cake, that Southern standard that melts in your mouth with that luxurious feel, hence the name. Since I took a turn from the traditional this week and made a BLUE velvet cake, I thought I would share some of the research I've gleaned on the history of these cakes and a couple of pointers to make your velvet cake oh so yummy!
The red color may be the trademark of a velvet cake, but how it came about is really a case of an oops gone wonderfully right. Look at just about any red velvet cake recipe and you will see that in addition to the red food coloring, it calls for cocoa powder. Why might this be? Back when the cake was first developed, it was actually a chocolate cake recipe. But because the quality of cocoa powder back then was so poor, it would react with the acid in the buttermilk, causing oxidation during baking and creating that rusty red color we all know and love.
Of course, the quality of cocoa powder has increased considerably and we no longer have that reaction during baking prompting the addition of food coloring in the recipe now. Should you ever stumble across a recipe that does NOT include cocoa powder, I'd steer clear. Part of the joy of a velvet cake is not just the velvety texture (thanks to using vegetable oil in lieu of butter) but the subtle taste of chocolate. You can swap out the red for any color you want, but because of the cocoa powder, you're better off to sticking with darker colors like red, blue, green, or even purple!
On a technical note, I strongly recommend that you use a gel coloring when doing a velvet cake. It's concentrated formula means you will use less of it which won't alter the cake flavor. Using food coloring from the grocery store will water down the recipe since you have to use so much of it and that's no good. I also recommend that you mix the gel with the buttermilk thoroughly prior to adding to the batter. One, this will ensure even color distribution (I did not do this and ended up with little chunks of bright blue gel on the bottom of the cakes which I had to pop out), and two, you won't over beat the batter trying to get it all incorporated. That would increase the gluten bonds in the cake making it tough and dense instead of smooth and light.
In regards to the icing, this kind of cake requires a crumb coat. I had to ice mine in three different rounds to make sure that none of the cake showed through. Make sure you're icing is room temperature (in fact, nuking it in the microwave for about 15 to 20 seconds on medium power might not be a bad idea) and spread on the crumb coat. Pop it in the fridge for about 20 minutes, then repeat with another layer, a little thicker than your crumb coat. Pop it back in the fridge for another 20 minutes or so, and then slap on your last layer and there you go!
I hope you enjoyed that little history lesson and that my notes help you out. Good luck and enjoy a slice of Southern goodness, y'all!