Ah, Red Velvet Cake… it’s easily one of the prettiest cakes out there, whether you’re a fan of the taste or not. When I stumbled upon a red velvet cake recipe in my inherited recipe, I just knew I had to try it.
Why? Because the recipe claimed, on good authority, that it was THE Waldorf Astoria Red Velvet Cake with Ermine Icing… oh, dear sweet, sweet goodness.
But it turns out that the Waldorf Astoria Red Velvet Cake isn’t quite the same as most people know Red Velvet Cake. While the original recipe was a Depression-era recipe, it turns out that it died in popularity until a little movie called “Steel Magnolias.” Yeah, yeah, polish off that box of Kleenex while watching the film again, and notice the red velvet armadillo groom’s cake.
You’ll start making this famous cake by creaming together one softened stick of butter and 1 1/2 cups of sugar.
Following the Steel Magnolias related boost in popularity, the cake got more attention when the beautiful “chicken or fish” Jessica Simpson chose it has her wedding cake when she married Nick Lachey, the hottie from 98 Degrees.
Add in 2 eggs and a teaspoon of vanilla extract, stirring until it’s fully combined. Go ahead and add a lot of food coloring at this stage. I used half of a small container of Wilton No Taste Red, but you can use any food coloring you see fit.
When the cupcake trend became widespread and there was a cupcake shop opening on every corner, pretty much every one decided to feature a Red Velvet Cupcake. Why? Because it’s so darn pretty, that’s why! Heck, even Emma Stone, of Easy A, Marmaduke, and Crazy Stupid Love fame, once said “You’re a human being, and life is wonderful, so eat the d*mn red velvet cupcake.”
In a separate bowl, sift 2 1/2 cups of pre-sifted flour, 2 Tablespoons of cocoa, and 1 teaspoon of salt together.
Rumor had it that quite some time ago, a diner at the Waldor Astoria’s hotel was so in love with their Red Velvet cake that she requested the recipe. The hotel refused, but she insisted, asking if she could purchase the recipe instead. The waitress replied, “Of course! It’ll be three fifty.” The diner accepted, but was later mailed a bill… for $350.00! (In a time when that would buy 3 months worth of groceries or more for a family of four). She tried to fight it, but her lawyer insisted since she had received the recipe, she had to pay. To get even with the Waldorf Astoria by spreading the recipe far and wide to make sure that everyone had a copy of the recipe and wouldn’t have to pay like she did.
Grab your egg and sugar mixture and add in parts of the flour mixture and parts of 1 Cup buttermilk alternately until all of the flour and all of the buttermilk are added in. At the very end, add in a Tablespoon of vinegar and a teaspoon of baking powder. You know how when you make a volcano for the science fair, and you get that bubbly eruption when you mix vinegar and baking powder? That’s the same thing happening in this cake to give it that perfect velvety texture.
You want to know a secret about that Waldorf Astoria story? The one about how everyone came to know how to make red velvet cake? Yeah, so… it doesn’t happen to be true. The truth of the matter is, when the Depression hit and people had to cut back on unnecessary things, including food coloring and extracts.
Divide your red batter into three greased 8 inch pans. If you’re the type of person who butters and flours, you can substitute a light dusting of cocoa instead to erase that white layer from your cake. This will give you your layers. You’ll bake these at 350 degrees for 30 minutes, or until the cake tests done. Let these cool on a wire rack.
The truth of the matter about how Red Velvet Cake became popular in households in the Depression era is that it was actually a very clever marketing ploy. When people stopped buying coloring and extracts, it really sucked for the people at the Adams Extract Company, who, as the name implies, made their living from selling extracts and colorings. To try and gain back some income, the Adams Extract Company revamped an old recipe to make sure it used their red food coloring– a lot of it!
You see, Red Velvet Cake had been around, but the hue was very subtle, created by the way vinegar, cocoa, and buttermilk reacted in the cake, giving it a soft scarlet tint. Adams decided to pack a punch and make an impact AND make some money. When they revamped the cake, they added their own Red Velvet Coloring… TWO BOTTLES of it.
Now that Red Velvet Cake has become a “thing” again, with celebrity endorsements and cupcakery features galore, you see it slathered with Cream Cheese Icing. But no, no no, that’s not how Red Velvet Cake began. A real, Waldorf-Astoria style, Adams Extract Company Red Velvet Cake features something called an Ermine Frosting.
Ermine frosting is a silky cooked frosting that starts by mixing 1/4 cup of flour and 1 cup of milk in a saucepan over low heat. You want to stir it until it begins to thicken, basically making a roux. You’ll want to continue stirring constantly until you get a pudding-like consistency.
When it looks like this, you’re getting really close.
And when it looks like this, your roux is done, then it’s time to get started on part 2 of your frosting.
In a separate bowl, while your roux cools, you’ll want to beat 1 cup shortening and 1 cup sugar until it’s fluffy, like this, then add in a teaspoon of vanilla extract.
Once your roux has cooled fully, beat it into the shortening mixture until the frosting is silky. This frosting cannot be overbeat– it’s just going to keep getting a silky texture! It won’t curdle like a buttercream frosting.
You can take the cooled cakes and layer them with the Ermine frosting, giving it a generous coat, then dirty ice the entire cake. Dirty icing just means to put a really quick coating of frosting on the cake, covering it, before you cover it with other decor. You don’t have to smooth it out. For the technique I’m showing you today, though, you’ll want to be sure the top of your cake is smooth. The sides can be rough like mine.
The frosting technique I’m going to show you today is a stunning ruffled technique that takes very little effort. Take a piping bag and put a large round tip in. I used a Wilton 2A.
Holding the piping bag at a 90 degree angle to the cake side, you’ll pipe dots of frosting vertically down the cake.
Squeeze and release, keeping the dots as uniform as possible.
Grab a spoon or an angled spatula (again, I’m a big fan of Wilton’s small angled spatula) and drag the dot sideways. Repeat this all the way down the dot row you piped.
Pipe a second row of dots on top of the tail of your first row, then flatten those, the same way you did the first, working all the way around the cake. Finish the cake by piping a row of small dots around the top edge of the cake.
Your finished cake will be a showstopper, and sure to woo anyone who sees or tastes it.
One bite of that velvety cake and that silky satin frosting, and you’ll be in heaven. I promise.
You see, Adams Extract Company knew what they were doing when they created this cake. It was so popular, so beautiful, and offered on free recipe cards at the grocery store that everyone in that era was making red velvet cake when they could afford to. And with a tagline like “The cake of a wife time,” it was, well, rather popular back in the day.
I’m not sure that Adams Extract Company realized that, in 2014, this cake would still be all the rage. Luckily, it was a cake that saved them through the Great Depression. In fact, it’s still around today, over 125 years after it got it’s start.
Now that you know how to make Red Velvet Cake and Ermine Icing, well, the sky is the limit. Adding blue food coloring will get you a beautiful Blue Suede Cake, which you could make in honor of the King’s hip wiggle, or you could go all Cupcake Wars and make your very own Red Velvet Cupcake. Cake Balls also work.
Waldorf-Astoria Red Velvet Cake
1/2 C Butter or Shortening
1 1/2 C sugar
2 ounces red food coloring
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 1/2 C sifted flour
1 tsp salt
2 Tbsp cocoa
1 cup buttermilk
1 Tbsp vinegar
Cream butter and sugar, add eggs and beat well. Add coloring and vanilla. Sift flour, salt, and cocoa together. Add this and buttermilk alternately to creamed mixture, beating well after each addition. Stir in vinegar and baking soda last. Divide batter among three greased and floured 8 inch cake pans. Bake 30 minutes at 350 or until cake tests done. Fill and top with Ermine Frosting.
1 C Milk
1/4 C flour
1 C shortening
1 C sugar
1 tsp vanilla
Stir milk and flour together in medium saucepan. Cook over low heat to pudding consistency. Set aside to cool. Beat shortening and sugar with electric mixer at high speed until mixture is light and fluffy. Add cooled milk mixture with vanilla. Continue beating– you cannot overbeat this!– until the frosting is silky. Spread between layers and on top of cooled cake.
Are you making something Red Velvet this Valentine’s Day? Let me know all about it in the comments below!