Updated: Aug 9, 2020
Anyone who enjoys cooking and collecting recipes probably, like me, has at least one recipe that has eluded them for many years.
You know … that food item that you just can’t get out of your head; the one that brings you all the way back to some of your fondest memories of your childhood and someone you love – but the recipe was kept secret or simply never passed down.
Yeah, that recipe.
The highly elusive recipe you try to recreate, and even though your efforts are completely unsuccessful, it still brings you back to those fond memories.
For me, that recipe is my Grandma Vera’s Red Velvet Cake.
My grandmother passed away in 2008, and she brought her cake recipe to the grave with her. I don’t think it was purposeful, as though it was a giant secret, she just never wrote down her specific methods. She also didn’t really like people in the kitchen watching her. And actually, now that I think about it, I asked her several times over for that cake recipe, but she just never took me seriously.
We used to go to my grandmother’s house every Christmas holiday. We’d usually spend a couple of days there before heading to another city, to another family member’s house to visit during the holiday season.
My grandma lived in an old trailer. The trailer would always be filled with people during the holidays, so my brother and I were never able to sleep in a bedroom when we visited. Instead we got the incredibly uncomfortable pull-out sofa from the couch in the living room.
The dust inside always activated my allergies like crazy, and in the later years of her life cleaning dust simply wasn’t a priority for her, so my allergies became worse and worse. I felt like she would get aggravated at me for my constant sneezing and runny nose, and her feelings were hurt at my relief when it was time to leave – but it was all because my nose really hated all that dust.
But through all the discomfort I felt in my nose and at my sleeping conditions, it was always worth it when I’d wake up to Grandma Vera baking cakes. She always made everything from scratch. And she had a small green tin filled with her recipes – my father still gets frustrated at the fact that nobody could find it after her death at the age of 69.
But there was something so special about that woman’s red velvet cake. It was so far beyond-better that anyone’s cake I’d known, and I could never put my finger on exactly what made that cake so much better. It was perfectly moist, superbly fluffy, had about 7 very thin layers, and was succulent and delicious.
I always wanted to know how she got those layers so thin – I’ve decided to believe she made thick cakes and just cut thinner layers from that. I think it was the thin layers that allowed the perfect amount of icing in every single bite. I’m sure it was the icing in between each of those thin cake layers that helped the flavors burst.
Last month, Johana made a chocolate cake while we were staying with friends in Houston, Texas. She made a cream cheese icing for that cake – no specific recipe; all simply from kitchen muscle memory. That icing brought me back to my grandmother’s house.
My wife has heard me talk about Grandma Vera’s red velvet cake several times in our 3 years of marriage. She’s helped me devour a few attempts at its recreation. But when the memories of my grandmother’s life, her home, and her food came rushing back to me, I knew I had to try again to recreate that cake.
So, I scoured the Internet, found a few decent cakes, blended some ideas and came up with this recipe. It’s still not Grandma Vera’s, but it’s one step closer … and with Joha’s cream cheese frosting, I feel like after a few more attempts, we’ll find that ever-so-elusive red velvet cake recipe.
Red Velvet Cake
3 cups cake flour (all-purpose is ok, but cake flour is better)
1 tsp baking soda
¼ cup unsweetened natural cocoa powder
½ tsp salt
½ cup unsalted butter – room temperature
2 cups sugar
1 cup vegetable oil
4 large eggs, separated – room temperature
1 Tbsp pure vanilla extract
1 tsp distilled white vinegar
Red food coloring
1 cup buttermilk – room temperature
1. Preheat oven to 350°F
2. Combine flour, baking soda, cocoa powder and salt (dry ingredients) in a large bowl and set aside.
3. In separate large bowl whip room temperature butter with sugar until creamy. Mix in vegetable oil, egg yolks, vanilla extract and vinegar. (egg yolks should be separated from egg whites, with whites in a small bowl and set aside – you will use them later).
Alternate mixing in dry ingredients and buttermilk until all is incorporated together.
Add approximately 2-3 Tbsp of red food coloring and mix well – add more red food coloring until the desired redness is achieved.
4. Take bowl of egg whites and beat until foamy or frothy. Fold the frothed egg whites into batter.
5. Grease two round cake pans, dust with flour to coat the insides of the pans and tap out the excess. Pour cake batter into pans and place into the oven for 30-35 minutes.
After 30-35 minutes, check cakes by inserting a toothpick into the center – if it comes out clean, the cake is ready; if the batter is wet, bake for at least another 5 minutes before checking again.
6. Once baked, remove cakes from pans and place on wire racks to cool completely before layering and frosting.
16 oz Cream Cheese – room temperature
1 cup butter
4 ½ cups powdered sugar
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
2 tsp Kahlua
1 Tbsp black coffee
(option – ½ cup chopped pecans)
1. Place cream cheese into a medium-large bowl and whip until smooth. Add butter and whip until smooth.
2. Stir in powdered sugar a little at a time until all mixed together. Add the rest of the ingredients and whip together until creamy and smooth. (Option - Stir in pecans).
3. Spread frosting between cake layers, on top and all around the cake. Decorate.