I think Valentine’s Day was my favorite holiday as a kid, mostly because of the homemade treats my mother baked to make the day special. She would make dozens and dozens of huge, heart shaped sugar cookies and then carefully ice each one with bright pink frosting. She would then finish each cookie by personalizing it for every kid in my class by writing their name on it. I was proud to hand those homemade treats out to my friends. Although most of the kids would carefully wrap their cookie up so they could take it home, I quickly ate mine because I knew that when I got home there would be a Valentine’s cake.
Every year my mother would make the same cake… it was a white cake baked in a heart shaped pan and filled with cherries. She would ice it in the fluffiest white icing and then top it off with even more cherries forming the perfect red heart. Although it has been years since she has made this confection, I can still taste the slightly almond flavored treat like it was just yesterday.
Baking Valentine’s treats was my mother’s way to tangibly show us how much she loved us. That is why Valentine’s Day and baking go hand in hand for me.
Something else that goes hand in hand with Valentine’s Day is red velvet cake; it seems like it has become a quintessential part of this holiday for our generation. The recipe I have included below bakes one of the best red velvets I have ever had. I’ve included a few tips and pointers that I learned along the way to hopefully help you achieve baking success.
You will want to sift all of the dry ingredients together. I made the mistake of only sifting the flour. I thought the chocolate and baking powder would be a fine enough powder to not warrant any sifting. Wrong. My batter in the end was a bit lumpier than I would have liked as the clumps of chocolate were not breaking apart. I had to over-beat the batter to eliminate the chunks. Over-beating usually means a dry cake which nobody appreciates. Luckily for me my end results were not dry, but I could have avoided that risk all together if I had simply just sifted all of the dry ingredients.
The recipe calls for a bit of coffee. Don’t skip this step thinking you won’t need it or don’t like the taste of coffee. I promise you that you won’t even taste it in the end. The coffee will make your cake very moist and is an important ingredient to this cake.
The rich redness of a red velvet cake is more of a modern interpretation of this cake. Years ago, before cocoa powder was processed like it is today, there was more of a red quality that was naturally found in the chocolate. There was a chemical reaction between the white vinegar and the buttermilk that would draw out the red qualities in the chocolate when it was all combined. Our grandparents’ version of red velvet cake was merely just a chocolate cake, similar to devil’s food, that had hints of red running through it. People started adding red food coloring to the batter so that the appearance of the cake would measure up to its title.
It may disturb you to know the amount of color that is going into your cake, but it took four full bottles to achieve the rich iconic red velvet coloring that makes this cake famous.
Be aware that the batter is very thin, and splashes very easily. Wear an apron or a shirt you do not care about because the colored batter will unfortunately ruin your clothes. Also, use a very large mixing bowl. I had to transfer bowls half way through making this cake, because my original bowl choice was not big enough.
When you incorporate the dry ingredients, you want to make sure you do this very intentionally. With the mixer turned off, add 1/3 of the flour mixture. Turn the mixture to low and mix just until incorporated. Turn the mixer back off, repeat the process. Once the last 1/3 of flour has been mixed on low, scrape the bowl and then turn the mixer to medium high and mix the cake for just a minute to make sure everything is well incorporated. Remember that over-mixing your batter will make a very dry cake.
A well greased and floured pan is essential so that the cake can be easily released from the pan after it has baked. Greasing and flouring your pan can be tricky. I was pretty lucky to learn techniques from my mom who was a master at baking cakes. She taught me to use a bit of shortening on a paper towel, and generously yet smoothly make sure the entire inside of the pan is coated. You don’t want any Crisco lumps nor do you want any areas of the pan that are not completely coated with the shortening. Once coated, use about 2 TBS of flour to dust over all of the flour. Firmly tap the pan onto your counter to loosen all of the extra flour. Pour all excess flour out of the pan.
Fill the pan 2/3 full of cake batter. It will take a full hour or more to bake, but you will end with a nice tall cake ready to be spilt and filled.
Let your cakes cool completely before leveling, filling and icing. Don’t be impatient or you will have a very big mess as the heat will cause your cake to split and your icing will melt.
To fill and stack a cake, use the following method: Pipe a ring of icing around the perimeter edge of the cake. This ring will act as a dam so the filling will not squish out over the side. Fill the middle of the tier with with icing, and use an angled spatula to smooth and level, leaving the original outer ring in place. Repeat this process until your cake is fully stacked.
I ice cakes quickly with a large smooth edged decorating tip that forms wide bands of icing around the side and entire top of cake. Once this is completed, I use my angled spatula to evenly spread the icing and make large peaks or swirls.
Download and print our recipe cards for Red Velvet Cake and Cream Cheese Icing
photo credit: Matthew Land Studios
recipe card design and layout: la Happy