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How to make red velvet cake – recipe

If ever a cake deserved the description showstopper, it’s the red velvet: a dramatic flounce of soft, crimson sponge and snowy icing that tends to make more of an impression on the eyes than the palate. But when done well, this delicately cocoa-flavoured Southern classic is far more than just a very pretty face.

Prep 40 min
Cook 35 min
Makes 1 large cake

575g plain flour
2 tbsp cocoa
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp fine salt
450g butter
, at room temperature
450g white caster sugar
5 large eggs
, beaten
385ml buttermilk
1 tsp vanilla extract
Artificial red colouring
 (see step 1)
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
1 tbsp cider or white-wine vinegar

For the icing
285g sugar
50g flour
350ml milk
250g butter
, softened
2 tsp vanilla extract
Fine salt
25g pecans
, to serve (optional)

1 A note on the colour

The colour of this cake is often attributed to the reaction between acidic cocoa and alkaline raising agents, or the “red” brown sugar used in some recipes, but in reality, you’ll need to invest in bake-stable artificial food colouring (the more common “natural” kind discolours when heated). This is easily found online or in specialist retailers, but leave it out if you prefer your velvet brown.

2 Prepare the cake tin(s)

Felicity Cloake’s red velvet cake 01

Start by greasing three 23cm-diameter sandwich or cake tins and lining them with baking paper. (If you have only one or two such tins, you can bake the batter in batches, but to ensure the best rise, get it all in the oven as quickly as possible.) Heat the oven to 200C (180C fan)/390F/gas 5.

3 Prepare the cake base

Sift the flour, cocoa, baking powder and salt – this is particularly worth doing with this cake, because it’s what gives it that characteristic soft, fine texture – and set aside.

Felicity Cloake’s red velvet cake 02

Beat the butter and sugar in large bowl or food mixer until really light and fluffy, periodically scraping down the sides of bowl: this will take about five minutes with electric beaters, longer with a wooden spoon.

Felicity Cloake’s red velvet cake 04

4 Incorporate the eggs

Add the eggs to the butter mix a little at a time, beating in each addition to make sure it has been absorbed into the batter before you pour in the next, and regularly scrape down the bowl as you go. If the batter threatens to curdle at any point, mix in a spoonful of the flour mixture before adding any more egg.

5 Finish the base

Pour the buttermilk into a jug and whisk in the vanilla and just enough colouring to turn it a vivid red (don’t be shy).

Felicity Cloake’s red velvet cake 03

Using a large metal spoon, gently fold a third of the flour mixture into the batter, then fold in half the buttermilk mixture. Repeat, then finish with the last of the flour mix and fold just until you have an evenly-coloured batter.

6 Bake, then cool

Stir the bicarb into the vinegar, then fold this mix into the batter, too. Divide the batter between the tins and bake for about 25-30 minutes, until the tops are just firm to the touch and a skewer inserted into the middle comes out clean.

Felicity Cloake’s red velvet cake 07

Remove, leave to cool for five minutes, then turn out the cakes on to a rack or racks and leave to cool completely.

7 Start on the icing

Meanwhile, make the icing. Combine the sugar and flour in a large pan and gradually beat in the milk until you have a smooth paste.

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Felicity Cloake’s red velvet cake 09

Stirring regularly, slowly bring to a boil, then cook, still stirring, for five to 10 minutes, until the mixture is the consistency of thick custard. Leave to cool completely before going on to the next step.

8 Finish the icing

Beat a quarter of the butter into the cooled custard mixture until well incorporated, then add the rest with the vanilla and a good pinch of salt.

Felicity Cloake’s red velvet cake 010

Continue beating until the icing has a light, well-whipped texture (you can make the icing ahead of time, but bring it back to room temperature before use, so it’s easier to spread).

9 Assemble the cake

Felicity Cloake’s red velvet cake 011

Put one cake on a board or plate and spread the top with icing. Put the second cake on top and repeat, then do the same with the third cake, remembering to give yourself enough icing to cover the sides as well as the top. Decorate with the pecans, if using. The cake is best eaten as fresh as feasible, but if not serving immediately, store in a cool place until serving time.

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