One of my earliest memories of cake was my mom asking me what flavor I wanted for my birthday cake. “Red velvet!” I exclaimed.
I have absolutely no idea why at six years of age I would have asked for such a flavor when I’m quite positive I had no idea what it tasted like. It wasn’t a family favorite, and it certainly wasn’t a traditional food of Arizona, where we lived at the time. I’m pretty certain the fact that it was ruby red was good enough for me.
Fast forward to today, and red velvet is still one of my favorites. It’s essentially a vanilla buttermilk cake with just a hint of chocolate…it’s the best of both cake worlds. I’m not a huge fan of artificial colorings and their crayon-esque flavor, but achieving this cake’s namesake color is an absolute must. I use Wilton’s “No-Taste Red” gel food coloring, usually meant for icings, but it works well in cake batter too and doesn’t leave any trace of bitterness.
I love this cake for the Fourth of July because of its festive colors, fresh summer berries, and the silky frosting reminiscent of homemade whipped cream. Everyone always says the best part of red velvet cake is the cream cheese frosting (well, except for my soon-to-be brother-in-law who inexplicably detests cream cheese frosting). Even he might enjoy this frosting, which in addition to cream cheese, also uses mascarpone cheese, an Italian sweet cream cheese. It’s less tangy than regular cream cheese and adds a rich complexity to the frosting. The other modification to this frosting is that it uses heavy whipping cream instead of butter. The end result is light, airy, and not too sweet – perfect for hot weather occasions. That is, for eating, not for displaying in the hot sun.
Ironically, the very thing that makes this frosting so light is the very thing that can ruin it. The last time I tried to make this frosting, it was for my in-laws’ 40th wedding anniversary party. We were only a couple hours away from the start of the party, and I was making the icing to frost the “ruby” cupcakes. Murphy’s Law prevailed, and my frosting broke. It was a curdled mess. My sister-in-law and I frantically ran to the only grocery store in the two-stoplight town and were surprised to find that they actually had mascarpone cheese. We loaded up on the ingredients once again and headed to the party site where a successful second attempt was made.
The problem was that the heavy whipping cream was whipped too long, thus causing the curdling. You would think after that disaster I would have learned my lesson. Not so. It happened again while I made this cake and it will most likely happen again in the future. Ugh.
The main thing to remember is to not over-whip the frosting once the heavy cream is added. This is tricky, since the finished frosting will still look somewhat softer than most other icings. Resist the temptation and only whip ‘til the frosting is spreadable! You can do it! I have faith!
A word of warning: this frosting is VERY soft. If you live in a place that does not have AC, I would not attempt to ice a cake with it. If your house is well above 75 degrees F, the minute you take the frosting out of the fridge, it will start to melt and become a gloopy mess. If you don’t have AC, try baking your cake layers the night before, then making the icing in the cooler morning hours, if you can. Or choose a different icing all together. Trust me on this one.
Red Velvet Cake with Mascarpone Frosting and Fresh Berries
Cake recipe from Martha Stewart’s Red Velvet Cupcake recipe
Frosting recipe from Joy of Baking’s Cream Cheese Frosting recipe
Yields: one 9” two-layer cake
For the cake:
About 2-3 cups fresh blueberries and raspberries
2 ½ cups cake flour, sifted
2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 ½ cups sugar
1 ½ cups vegetable or canola oil
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
½ teaspoon red gel food color (I use Wilton’s “No-Taste Red”)
1 cup buttermilk
1 ½ teaspoons baking soda
2 teaspoons distilled white vinegar
For the frosting:
1 - 8 oz package cream cheese, room temperature
1 - 8 oz tub of Mascarpone cheese, room temperature
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 cup confectioners' sugar, sifted
1 ½ cups cold heavy whipping cream (be sure it says HEAVY)
To bake the cake layers:
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees F
- Spray 9” round cake pans with nonstick spray, line the bottom with parchment paper, and spray again.
- In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with paddle attachment, combine flour, cocoa powder, salt, and sugar….mix for about 30 seconds.
- Add vegetable oil, blend until incorporated.
- Add eggs, one at a time, and scrape down bowl in between additions. Mix only until incorporated.
- Whisk together buttermilk, red gel food coloring, and vanilla in a small bowl or measuring cup. Add to batter and mix just until incorporated and red color is vibrant.
- Mix together baking soda and vinegar in a separate bowl (it will fizz up) and add to the cake batter. Mix into batter for a few seconds until incorporated.
- Pour cake batter into prepared cake pans, evenly distributed.
- Place cake pans on center rack and bake for 20-25 minutes or until done, rotating halfway through the baking process. You will know the cakes are done when the center springs back when touched, the sides start to pull away from the edges, and a toothpick inserted to the center comes out clean.
- Cool the pans for about 10 minutes, then run a knife along the edges to loosen and turn out the cakes onto a flat surface. Remove the parchment paper from the cake layers. Let cool completely before frosting (or before wrapping in plastic wrap and freezing for later use).
To prepare the frosting:
- Combine the cream cheese and mascarpone cheese in the bowl of a stand mixer. Use the paddle attachment to beat the cheeses together until they are soft and smooth.
- Add the sifted sugar and vanilla and blend into the cheeses (start on the lowest setting to avoid the “mushroom cloud effect”)
- Switch to the whisk attachment.
- Gradually add the COLD heavy whipping cream with the whisk on low. Turn the speed up to med and whisk just until the frosting comes together and is spreadable. It will resemble a heavy whipped cream. Do not over-whip! It will curdle!
- Put the whole bowl of frosting in the fridge or freezer for about 30 minutes to firm up a bit before frosting the cake.
To assemble the cake:
- If the cakes have rounded tops, use a serrated knife to level them.
- Spread about ½ cup of frosting on top of the first layer. Arrange one layer of berries on top of the frosting.
- Add second cake layer and plenty of frosting to the top. Use an offset cake spatula to spread the frosting around. If you have a turntable, it will make this much easier by spinning the cake while keeping the spatula in place. Cover the entire cake (top and sides) with a crumb coat first, then pop the whole cake into the fridge for about 20 minutes to firm up a bit. Add a second layer of frosting and refrigerate a second time. Finally, take the cake out and use the spatula to smooth the top and sides or create a rustic look by running the spatula tip up and down all the way around the sides of the cake.
- Top the cake with plenty of fresh berries and enjoy!
- When frosting a cake, use two bowls for the frosting. One with the main supply, and a smaller one to use as you go that you can dip the spatula in. That way the main supply stays free of crumbs.
- If you don't have time to let the cheese come to room temp, just start mixing them together with the paddle attachment, and wrap a wet, hot kitchen towel around the metal bowl. It will give off just the right amount of heat to get things going. You can keep reheating the towel with hot water as necessary. You basically want the bowl to feel cool, not cold, to the touch.
- To achieve a more vibrant red hue in the cake, subtract 1 teaspoon cocoa powder and substitute with flour (you will be sacrificing some of the chocolate flavor, however).
- For some reason, I always run out of Pam whenever I go to make a cake. If this happens to you, just use a paint or pastry brush to brush some vegetable or canola oil all around the inside of the cake pans (don't use olive oil...its flavor is too strong for cake).
- You can bake the cake layers up to a couple weeks ahead of time and store in the freezer until you are ready to use them. Just be sure to wrap them tightly with plastic wrap before freezing, and let the layers thaw most of the way before frosting.