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This moist, mildly chocolate cake, much in demand from the 1940s through the 1960s, has had a resurgence in popularity in the past year or so. While most agree on the cake itself–yes, red food coloring is a key element–the frosting is another matter. Some say the traditional frosting was based on a cooked flour-and-water paste, to which sugar and butter are added. Some say only cream cheese frosting will do. Since this is such a ’50s cake, we’ve chosen to offer it with good old-fashioned buttercream icing, the type supermarket cakes are frosted with. If none of these three icing suggestions floats your boat, select your own favorite. The history of this burgundy-colored cake is “shrouded in the mists of time,” as they say. Urban legend has it that the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City charged a customer an outrageous fee when she requested the recipe, and she then typed it into a chain letter (for those of you younger readers, the years-ago equivalent of a mass e-mail), and shared it with a wide audience. Like the $250 Neiman-Marcus chocolate chip cookie recipe, there’s no truth to this, though it does seem to make the rounds repeatedly.
1/2 cup (4 ounces, 8 tablespoons) butter
1 1/3 cups (9 3/8 ounces) sugar
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon gel paste red food color; or 1/4 cup (2 ounces) liquid red food color; or 2 tablespoons (1 ounce) Red Velvet Cake Flavor
3 tablespoons (1/2 ounce) Dutch-process cocoa
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon vinegar
2 1/4 cups (9 1/2 ounces) King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour
1 cup (8 ounces) buttermilk or low-fat plain (not Greek) yogurt
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Lightly grease and flour two 8" round cake pans. Or lightly grease the pans, line the bottom with parchment rounds, and lightly grease the parchment, too.
In a large mixing bowl, beat the butter and sugar till smooth, then add the eggs one at a time, again beating till smooth. Stir in the food color, cocoa, salt, baking soda, and vinegar. Gently beat in the flour alternately with the buttermilk or yogurt, beginning and ending with the flour. The point is to keep the mixture smooth, which is more easily accomplished if you add the flour and yogurt in portions. Scoop the stiff batter into the pans; wet your fingers, and spread it to cover the bottom of the pans, smoothing the top a bit in the process.
Bake the cakes for 25 to 30 minutes, until the tops feel set and a cake tester inserted into the center comes out clean. Remove them from the oven, and allow them to cool for 10 minutes before turning them out of the pans onto a rack to cool completely.
When the cake is cool, slice each layer horizontally, to make a total of four layers. Spread each layer with icing, stacking them as you go. We like to show off the lovely contrasting colors of this cake by frosting only the top, not the sides.
Quick Buttercream Frosting
As much as you may eschew using shortening, it’s critical here, as it prevents the frosting from becoming unpleasantly soft in warm weather.
1/2 cup (4 ounces) unsalted butter
1/2 cup (3 1/2 ounces) non-trans-fat vegetable shortening*
a scant 1/4 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons (1/2 ounce) meringue powder (optional, for a smoother icing that holds its shape a bit better)
2 teaspoons vanilla extract or 1/4 teaspoon cream cheese flavor
6 cups (24 ounces) confectioners' sugar or glazing sugar
3 tablespoons (1 1/2 ounces) milk, or enough to make a spreadable frosting
*Or substitute an additional 1/2 cup butter for the shortening.
Cream together the butter and shortening until fluffy, or beat the butter until fluffy. Beat in the salt, meringue powder, and vanilla. Add the confectioners' or glazing sugar and 3 tablespoons milk, and beat well.
Scrape the sides and bottom of the bowl. Adjust the consistency of the frosting as needed by adding more sugar or milk. If you're not going to use the frosting right away, keep it at room temperature, covered, to prevent it from developing a crust. Yield: 5 cups frosting.