Velvet, despite having historically clothed kings and princesses, has always seemed a little declasse to me. Perhaps it's the sad reputation of velvet Elvises. Or it could be memories of the raspberry-colored crushed velvet Lycra top I favored during my trashy phase in high school.
So there's something about seeing red velvet cake on the menus of classy restaurants that amuses me. Loaded with red food coloring, topped with cream cheese icing, and stealthily chocolatey, the cake only seems truly at home as a Valentine's Day novelty dessert. But after ordering it as a lark at Red Sage (hey, I'm nothing if not color-coordinated), I decided that my first real foray into traditional cake making would have to be velvety, red, and cream-cheesy. But unlike the offerings at chichi dining establishments, my red velvet cake would embrace its trashy side--it would Red Velvet Elvis Cake.
The icing must be made with Philadelphia cream cheese. The required use of a specific brand is, of course, in keeping with Nigella's rules for proper trashy food, which, "in its platonic ideal, should contain at least one brand-name product." She also writes that trashy food "should use one low-rent ingredient." Hello McCormick's red food coloring!
I started with this recipe, but discovered halfway though the baking that the recipe was rather incomplete. So, I'll give you my recipe and the made-up icing I painstakingly (and only semi-successfully) smeared on top:
Red Velvet Elvis Cake
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour whatever pan(s) you have on hand. The recipe called for two 9 inch round cake pans. I didn't have two, so I used a 9x13 (see below for explanation of this insanity).
In a large bowl, cream:
1/2 cup butter
1 1/2 cups sugar
2 eggs (add one eggs at a time)
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 Tablespoon McCormick's red food coloring
In a separate bowl, blend:
2 1/2 cups flour (the recipe says cake flour, I used all-purpose)
1/4 cup cocoa (I used a mix of Hershey's baking cocoa and some Ghirardelli hot chocolate I had lying around--though the Ghirardelli may have violate my rules of engagement)
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon salt
Slowly add dry ingredients to creamed butter and sugar, alternating with:
1 cup buttermilk or sour milk
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 Tablespoon white vinegar
They'll fizz like the fake eruption in the volcano you had to build in fourth grade science. Fold the fizzy mess into the cake batter. Don't beat it, just stir until everything's more or less uniform.
Pour into pan(s) and bake for about 30 minutes, or until the top is springy. Cool. When my 9x13 was cool, I cut it in half and made a rectangular layer cake.
For the frosting I used:
3 (8 oz.) packages of Philadelphia cream cheese
1-2 cups confectioners sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla
4 Tablespoons butter
The Joy of Cooking says that the key to successful cream cheese frosting is to keep everything at the proper temperature. When using an electric mixer, the cream cheese must be cold, the butter room temperature. Also, don't beat it too much. Just run the mixer until the stuff in the bowl completes the mysterious metaphysical transition from cream cheese to frosting.
Incidentally, some googling reveals that red velvet cake actually has a pretty decent pedigree. For a history of red velvet cake, go here.