A Case for Red Velvet Cake

And its original frosting (not cream cheese, thank-you-very-much).

By: Eric Kim
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Photo by: Armando Rafael

Armando Rafael

Red velvet is to chocolate as Anne Hathaway is to Jennifer Lawrence.

Everyone loves to hate on red velvet cake. It's the pariah of cakes. It's the prom queen you don't want to like because she's populist, but you kind of like her anyway because she's pretty nice and hard to hate.

"Red Velvet" is also the name of Korea's most-popular K-pop girl group right now. Seoul's new It Girls have the most number-one albums on the Billboard World Albums chart. And they're named after a cake.

Remember the armadillo cake from Steel Magnolias? That was a red velvet cake.

"It’s the Dolly Parton of cakes," food writer Angie Mosier once said. Back in 2007, in The New York Times, Florence Fabricant called it "a cake that can stop traffic."

"Isn't it just chocolate cake with red food coloring?" everyone says. "What's the big deal?" everyone says.

Over the years red velvet has become an unfortunate paragon of "form over function" in cooking: Too often it's dried out from cocoa, improperly balanced and dyed inordinately, artificially crimson.

But actually, red velvet cake can be very, very good.


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Growing up in Georgia, I’ve had sponges that are toothsome and moist — accomplished, I think, from a fearless acid trip of buttermilk, vinegar and cocoa, which reacts with the baking soda to create a soft, fine crumb.

Contrary to popular belief, it isn’t just a diluted chocolate cake; it’s vanilla-y, salty, almost malted in taste, like a good black and white milkshake.

Also, contrary to popular belief, red velvet cake may not even be from the South. Most sources point to the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in NYC as the cake's original concocter. The hotel calls it the Waldorf-Astoria cake.

Regardless of whence the crimson confection came, everyone has a red velvet story. Some are devastatingly ordinary, others are more formative.

My first red velvet cake I had in the form of a cupcake at Magnolia Bakery, which, for better or for worse, infamously popularized the flavor in the early 2000s when I was in college.

But where everyone else was smothering it in an overly-saccharine cream cheese frosting, Magnolia laid a mere duvet of flour buttercream, also known as Ermine icing.

Anyone who's tried their hand at the uber-retro frosting knows what a weirdo of a recipe it is.

First, you boil flour and milk in a saucepan, creating a pseudo-roux. Then, you whip this gluey gloop into some butter, sugar and vanilla, and beat the living daylights out of it until it's almost effervescently white.

What you're left with is one of the moussiest, most texturally pleasurable, stabilized buttercreams you'll ever taste.

That first bite of red velvet cupcake informed all the core values I'd later acquire in regard to red velvet, and desserts in general: caramelization, an almost crust, on the outside; chewy softness on the inside; a careful balance of sugar and malt.

And the best part?

It's never too sweet. Not like chocolate, anyway.

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