The Very Best Way to Frost a Red Velvet Cake
The Great Frosting Debate
It’s a topic more hotly contested than politics or religion, and with passions running just as high. Okay, maybe I exaggerate—but only slightly. Traditionalists hold that the only proper way to frost a red velvet cake is with the old Southern “cooked frosting,” but with the recent resurgence in popularity of red velvet-themed treats, most versions these days feature cream cheese icing.
I’ve been a fan of red velvet cake for more years than I care to admit. When I was in high school, my Spanish Club used to rotate our meetings at different members’ homes. I never missed a meeting when it was held at my friend Adrian’s house because his mother was an excellent cook of the true down-home Southern variety, and it was there I first tasted that sublime creation known as red velvet cake.
And while we’re on the subject, can I just say, I don’t get why people are always trying to improve on perfection. The simple truth is, it doesn’t get much better than the perfect piece of red velvet cake. So forget the red velvet brownies, cookies, cheesecake, ice cream, and everything else that seems to be all the rage at the moment, and just have the real thing. You won’t regret it. Same holds true for s’mores IMHO, but I digress…
So I guess I’ve shown my cards. I’m a traditionalist at heart. On the frosting controversy, my personal bias leans toward the Southern cooked frosting, perhaps because that was my first experience with this decadent dessert (and you never really forget your first time, do you?). But I’m not totally immune to the cheeky charms of the newcomer on the block either . . . something about the tang imparted by that cream cheese maybe?
So I experimented a bit and came up with the compromise that I am sharing here. I’ve never heard any complaints.
Now, what do you think the chances are that our politicians could learn to settle their differences in an equally sweet and sensible way? Oh well. “Let them eat cake,” as another famous political figure reputedly said. That didn’t end so well for her though…
A Best of Both Worlds Frosting
This frosting is proof that you really can have your cake and eat it, too!
Overall, this frosting is very easy to make, but there are a couple of things that can be stumbling blocks to having it come out just right, so I’ll explain those in more detail in the instructions.
First and foremost, though, you must use a good quality, full-fat cream cheese like Philadelphia. Trust me, I have learned the hard way on this. This is not the time to try to go “lite” (a pretty oxymoronic concept when it comes to red velvet cake anyway). If you’re going to do this, go all the way and enjoy every delicious bite. You can fast tomorrow to make up for it if you want, but do not cut corners on this frosting.
- 5 tablespoons flour
- 1 cup whole milk
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 2/3 cup real butter
- 3 ounces cream cheese, softened (must be block not spread, good quality, and full fat)
- 1 cup granulated sugar (not powdered/icing sugar)
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Note About Yield
This recipe makes enough frosting for a traditional, multi-layered cake. If you are just making a sheet cake or tray of cupcakes, you may want to reduce the quantities by 1/3 in order to avoid having a lot of leftover frosting. (Or not. Can there ever really be such a thing as too much frosting?)
- Combine the milk and flour in a saucepan over medium heat, and cook, whisking continuously (you want to avoid lumps), until the mixture thickens and comes to a boil. Remove from heat, and stir in the vanilla extract. Let the mixture cool down, and then refrigerate until it is chilled. Put a sheet of plastic wrap over the top to keep a skin from forming. You can speed this process up by putting the saucepan in a bath of ice water, but it is important that the mixture is actually cool (not just room temperature) before continuing.
- Cream together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Please note that, unlike many frosting recipes, this one uses granulated, not powdered, sugar. However, if your sugar granules are large (as they are in Asia where I'm currently living), run them through a blender or food processor first to get a more manageable size. You want the granules to disappear, or nearly, during the beating process so there is no graininess left. Also, the butter should not be softened, but do cut it into smaller chunks before you begin beating it with the sugar.
- When the butter and sugar mixture is light and fluffy—and all or most of the graininess of the sugar is gone—beat in the cream cheese until well combined.
- Next, add in the cooled flour and milk mixture in several batches, beating well after each addition. Once it is all in, continue beating until the frosting resembles whipped cream.
- Frost your cake or cupcakes as desired. Because of the ingredients (butter, milk), frosted cakes should be kept in the refrigerator until shortly before serving. The frosting will firm up considerably when chilled, so it's best to take cakes out about 10 to 15 minutes prior to serving to get just the right consistency. I haven't tried doing any real cake decorating with this frosting, but I suspect it might be possible if you chill it first.
The Icing on the Cake
So there you have it—now everybody’s happy. Nothing to fight about. So put down those knives, pick up your forks, and dig in.
Need a Cake Recipe, Too?
This is the best red velvet recipe I've found. Just a few caveats, however. First, it is for cupcakes. I'm sure it could be used for cakes as well, but the baking time would need to be adjusted. And speaking of baking time, even my cupcakes have always needed more time than is stated in the recipe. Maybe it is (again) due to being in Asia and using a countertop oven, but I bake mine for 30 minutes and they come out beautifully. So keep an eye on it, and use the old "insert a toothpick" trick. And of course, the cupcake recipe suggests cream cheese frosting, while I would recommend you go with this Best of Both Worlds Frosting instead!
Step-by-Step Photo Instructions
What did you think? Is this not the best frosting EVER?
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© 2019 Kitty Williams Fisher