A Tale of Two Red Velvet Cakes


Calvin’s birthday was Wednesday. Weekday birthdays are always hard, with work and school getting in the way of celebrations. So we started the celebrations early, inviting my parents for dinner the Saturday before. Of course we had to have cake at that birthday dinner, and we had to have cake on the actual day. You can’t skimp on birthday cake, especially for a mid-week birthday.

This year Calvin requested red velvet cake. It is a celebration worthy cake. The only problem was I didn’t have a go-to recipe – I have never made red velvet cake and I have only tasted it a couple of times. There are so many flavors I would rather try, if given a choice. I know the red is appealing to some, but I really can’t get past the idea of all that food coloring.


But a birthday cake request is a birthday cake request, so I researched recipes. I combined a few of the recipes to make what I thought would be the best cake. I ended up making a rich, slightly chocolatey, very red cake. And I slathered it all with buttery cream cheese icing.

I made half a batch on Saturday, for the celebration with the grandparents. We wanted to eat most of it in one sitting, so that we weren’t eating leftover cake right up until the actual birthday. I planned to make another half recipe of cake on Wednesday so that Calvin could actually have a freshly made cake on his real birthday instead of leftovers.

I baked the first cake in a round cake pan and cut it into two semicircles so we would end up with half of a round layer cake. That is birthday cake to me  – my mom always made round layer cakes for our birthdays growing up. Everyday cakes were usually 9 by 13 rectangles, but she went all out for birthdays.


The second half cake I baked in loaf pans, at Calvin’s request. Once the two layers were baked, I decided they were a little thin, so I cut them in half and stacked the four layers with icing.


It ended up making a really tall, square cake. And it was the leaning tower of cake, since I got the icing a bit too soft and it was a hot day. And I was a little haphazard when I cut and stacked the layers. I managed to get the cake to stay stacked until the icing set, but it wasn’t the prettiest thing.

I can say that it might not have looked like a bakery cake, but it was four layers of red deliciousness, sandwiched with plenty of cream cheese icing – pretty much what you want from a red velvet cake. The birthday boy was happy with it, and that’s all that counts.

Download or print just the recipe here.

Red Velvet Cake
From The Cook’s Life
Serves 10-12

¾ cup butter (1½ sticks), room temperature
1½ cups granulated sugar
2 eggs
4 tablespoons natural cocoa powder
2 tablespoons red food coloring
2¼ cups all-purpose flour
1½ teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup buttermilk
1 tablespoon vinegar
1 tablespoon vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease and flour two 9-inch round cake pans. Set aside.

Beat butter and sugar with an electric mixer until light and fluffy and no longer gritty. Add eggs, cocoa powder and red food coloring and beat again until well combined.

Mix flour, baking soda and salt together in a small bowl. Mix buttermilk, vinegar and vanilla extract in another bowl.

Add about half of the flour mixture to the butter mixture and beat until just combined. Add the buttermilk mixture and mix well. Add the remaining flour mixture and beat well. Scrape down sides with a spatula as needed.

Divide batter between the prepared pans and level tops. Bake for 22-30 minutes, or until cakes are pulling away from the sides of the pans and a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean. Try not to over bake or the cake will be dry.

Let cakes cool in pans on a wire rack for 10-15 minutes. Remove from pans and let cool on the rack until room temperature before icing.

Cream Cheese Icing:
1 8-ounce block cream cheese, room temperature
½ cup (1 stick) butter, room temperature
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
6 cups powdered sugar, approximately
1-2 teaspoons milk, if necessary

Beat cream cheese, butter and vanilla with an electric mixer until light and fluffy. Add powdered sugar and beat until combined and fluffy. Add a little more powdered sugar if icing is too thin. Add a touch of milk if icing is too thick to spread.

Place one layer of cake on a plate. Spread top with icing, almost to the edge. Top with other layer. Ice the top and sides of the cake with the remaining icing. Let icing set up for an hour or so before serving, if possible. Leftovers keep well for several days. Freeze for longer storage.


8 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Red Velvet Cakes

  1. If the metric ton of red coloring squicks you out, you can always use some red coloring and some pureed or shredded beets. Also, I wasn’t a big red velvet fan until I started putting a touch of orange zest and a touch of bourbon in my cream cheese frosting. Total game changer!

    • Thanks for the tip on the beets. Not sure that would fly with the birthday boy, and it was his birthday cake. 😉 But I will keep it in mind for future reference.

      I have been playing with flavors in cream cheese icing – a little cinnamon is wonderful, especially on carrot cake. Thanks for the idea for orange zest and bourbon.

  2. Sarah,
    I like how you think–an opportunity to sandwich more cream cheese icing by stacking layers? Brilliant. I’ve made a chocolate beet cake, in an attempt to make a non-food coloring red velvet cake, but while the batter is brilliantly fuchsia the baked cake is decidedly brownish, just like my horseradish-beet muffins. It tasted fine, but you’re right–birthday cakes need to be what the special guest wants.


    • Yeah, he wanted red red cake. And he is the only one who routinely gets red velvet desserts when we are out, so he knows the flavor he wants. He also has a palate that can detect anything, so I knew he would notice beets in the cake. 🙂

      Oh, yeah, the four layer cake had sufficient icing. The slices were a little unwieldy, with a tendency to break as I cut. But the deconstructed slices were tasty.

  3. how nice are you to make two whole cakes for one birthday! lucky kid…food blogger kids get all the breaks, right? 😉 and i was raised the same way re: cake: the everyday ones were sheet and housed in a 9 x 13 baking dish, where the fancy party ones were always rounds. i really like what you did with the loaf pans though; that’s a great shape for a party cake also, and your cake is gorgeous.
    my cream cheese frostings are always soft too, so i refrigerate post-frosting to keep it in place. your frosting looks like it’s around the same ratios as mine, so i feel your pain there, especially during the summer months. if you’re not thrilled about all the food coloring, maybe try a gel color? they’re more concentrated, so i suspect you would end up using less. Wilton makes a great red one.

    • Thanks! The first time I made a loaf pan cake was when the element went out on my main oven right before our month of birthdays. We had to wait to get the part to fix it, but the narrow side oven still worked. So I had to come up with pans that would fit in the narrow oven. Loaf pans were the ticket. Half a recipe makes pretty flat layers, a full recipe makes taller layers.

      Yeah, the cream cheese icing is a bit soft, but I hesitate to mess with it, since we like the flavor so much.

      I knew that about gel colors, but I didn’t make time to go to the store to get any. I should have, since I was making two cakes.

      And just so you don’t think we are total pigs, both cakes were half recipes, so we only ate one whole cake during the week, and my parents helped a bit. And I made cake balls out of the last slice of each. Of course, we ate the cake balls too. 🙂

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