I have to admit… I am extremely picky when it comes to red velvet. It can be wickedly, amazingly good, or it can be tragically, horridly bad (or something bland in the middle). Am I a bit dramatic? Maybe. Am I wrong? Nope. The red velvet trend of about 8 years ago gave rise to some really hideous incarnations that are laden with chemicals and really bear little resemblance to the classic cake, other than red color. True red velvet is defined by four key ingredients, not including the red food coloring: natural cocoa powder, baking soda, vinegar, and buttermilk. Though you may wonder why on earth one would put vinegar in a cake, these ingredients are essential to producing the chemical reactions that are the hallmarks of red velvet. People ask, “Isn’t it just a red chocolate cake?” Dear god, NO, it is not! What should it taste like? It should taste like… red velvet. It has its own special flavor that I cannot really liken to anything else, honestly; red velvet is a splendid, crimson entity unto itself, characterized not only by its gorgeous color, but also by its soft, tender crumb. The cake is elevated to a whole new celestial plane when topped with a thick mound of cream cheese frosting; it is truly the sum of its parts.
I was immediately captivated by red velvet cake the first time I saw it in Cooks’ Illustrated magazine years ago. I used to make it often, mostly in the form of cupcakes, and then for some reason my go-to recipe broke, and my batter turned out weird and oily. I was moving on to other things and got a little burned out on it, so I never did figure out what went wrong, and I’ve somehow never posted a single red velvet recipe on this blog in 6+ years… until now! I’ve been curious to revisit red velvet again, as I’ve felt more Valentiny this year, and I wanted to make something pretty and slightly different than a traditional red velvet layer cake covered in cream cheese frosting. I settled on a Bundt cake, and I even found a recipe from Nordicware for the specific Bundt shape that I wanted to use, the new “Brilliance” Bundt. While the recipe includes a cream cheese glaze, I wanted more cream cheese presence, and then I remembered the Chocolate Chip Cheesecake Swirl Banana Bread that I made last year– I knew such a cheesecake swirl in this cake would be just what I was looking for. Thus was born this Red Velvet Cheesecake Swirl Bundt Cake.
The first time I made it, I folded chocolate chips into the cheesecake batter, like I had for the banana bread; I mean, when is this not a good idea?? But I was greatly surprised to find that the chocolate chips distracted from the red velvet flavor! I can’t believe I’m uttering the words, “I liked it better without chocolate.” (Am I an imposter??) But it was actually true– I preferred the classic red velvet + cream cheese, and nothing else. The other thing that I didn’t like is that the sharp grooves of the Brilliance Bundt bake so much faster than the center of the cake, so by the time the center had cooked, the edges were overly browned and totally crisped. So for both reasons I decided to remake the cake, which sadly meant that I couldn’t post for Valentine’s Day, but hey, when is it NOT a good time for red velvet?
My third challenge with the first attempt was the quantity of batter. The cake recipe from Nordicware yields exactly enough batter to fill the 10-cup Bundt. Adding the cheesecake batter meant that about ⅓ of the red batter could not fit in the pan, and I also couldn’t use all the cheesecake that I’d made. At first I was going to switch to the classic Bundt pan, which hold a few more cups of batter; however, I really, really liked the look of the Brilliance pan, and both cakes released completely easily when I flipped the cakes, so I decided to try again in that pan. For the second time, I cut the quantity of red velvet batter by ⅓, and I also adjusted the quantity of cheesecake so that neither batter went to waste. If you prefer to make the full cake recipe, use a Bundt that can hold at least 12 cups and follow the ingredient quantities here. Use the same amount of cheesecake, or feel free to bump that up too if you wish.
A few notes about red velvet chemistry/ingredients:
- Cocoa powder: A slight red hue is naturally produced by the interaction between the acid in the natural cocoa powder and the alkaline baking soda (as well as the other acids, buttermilk and vinegar). Of course the deep redness of the cake is helped along with a healthy dose of food coloring, but even without it, the cake would take on a reddish shade. This would not occur with Dutch-processed cocoa because much of its acid has been neutralized by alkali in the Dutching process. The Nordicware recipe does not specify which kind, so I made sure to do so here. P.S. Red velvet should NOT taste like chocolate. If it does, there is too much cocoa powder in the batter. The cocoa is there to contribute the red color and a subtle depth of flavor. Finally, the recipe calls for a staggering ½ cup cocoa powder– this is waaaay too much for red velvet, so I cut it to 3 tablespoons for the ⅔ recipe. (Use 4 tablespoons if you’re making the full-size recipe.)
- Buttermilk: The tender texture of the cake is produced by the buttermilk and cake flour, which is made of softer wheat than all-purpose flour and contains a lower percentage of protein (gluten).
- Color: The recipe calls for a whopping 6 tablespoons of red food coloring! To put that in perspective, that’s 3 entire bottles of McCormick liquid food coloring. I simply could not bring myself to use that much, so I cut it to 2 tablespoons for the ⅔ recipe adjustment. (Use 3 tablespoons if you plan to make the full recipe.)
Without further ado, let’s tuck into some southern comfort!
Red Velvet Cheesecake Swirl Bundt Cake
Cake adapted from Nordicware
Yield 12-16 servings
For the cheesecake swirl:
- 8 ounces full-fat cream cheese, at room temperature
- 6 tablespoons (75g) granulated sugar
- 1 egg, at room temperature
- ¾ teaspoon pure vanilla extract or vanilla bean paste
- ¼ cup (30g) unbleached all-purpose flour
For the cake:
- 2⅓ cups (280g) unbleached all-purpose flour
- 2 tablespoons (20g) natural cocoa powder
- 1⅓ teaspoon kosher salt
- 1⅓ cups (267g) canola oil
- 1⅓ cups (267g) granulated sugar
- 2 eggs, at room temperature
- 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- 2 tablespoons liquid red food coloring (not gel)
- ¾ cup + 1 tablespoon (200g) buttermilk
- 1⅓ teaspoon baking soda
- 1⅓ teaspoon distilled white vinegar
For the cream cheese icing:
- 1 cup (113g) confectioners’ sugar, plus additional 2-6 tablespoons if needed to thicken icing
- 2 tablespoons softened cream cheese
- 2-3 tablespoons whole milk, plus additional 1 tablespoon if needed to thin icing
Preheat an oven to 350°F and place a rack in the lower third. Grease a 10-cup Bundt pan with softened butter– make sure to get into all the grooves and corners; dust with flour and knock out the excess.
Make the cheesecake: Using an electric mixer on medium speed, beat the softened cream cheese with the sugar until smooth and fluffy in a medium bowl, about 1 minute or so. Add the egg and vanilla extract and mix until smooth; scraping down the sides and bottom of the bowl with a rubber spatula. Fold in the flour mixture with the spatula just until combined; set aside.
Make the red velvet batter: Whisk together the flour, cocoa powder, and salt in a medium bowl. Place the canola oil, sugar, eggs, and vanilla in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment and beat on medium speed until the mixture is fully blended and homogenous, about 2 minutes; it will look something like creamy lemon curd. Carefully add the red food coloring and mix on the lowest speed for a few seconds to avoid splashing, then turn up the mixer to medium and mix just until the color is incorporated. Scrape the sides and bottom of the bowl to make sure all the ingredients are mixed evenly.
Add half of the flour/cocoa mixture and mix on the lowest speed just until incorporated. Pour in the buttermilk and blend it in, then the remaining flour mixture; do not overmix. Scrape the bottom and sides of bowl, then give the batter another quick stir.
Place the baking soda in a small ramekin/bowl and add the vinegar, and stir them together with a small spatula or whisk; the mixture will bubble up and fizz. Pour this into the red batter and mix on medium-low until thoroughly combined. The batter will be thick, but still pourable, and a deep shade of red.
Pour half of the batter into the prepared Bundt pan. Carefully pour the cheesecake batter over the red batter all the way around, as evenly as possible. Pour the other half of the red batter on top, filling only up to ¾ full. Gently swirl the two batters together with a knife or small offset spatula; just a couple of swooshes is sufficient, as you don’t want them to remain distinct.
Bake the cake for 50-60 minutes (mine took 53), or until a wooden skewer inserted in the center comes out clean. If the cake splits open (which is fine), make sure to test the batter in the crack, as this tends to cook through last. Remove the cake from the oven, set the pan on a wire cooling rack, and cool the cake in the pan for 10 minutes before flipping it onto the cooling rack.
Make the cream cheese icing: While the cake cools, place the cream cheese in a medium bowl and whisk it to break it up. Whisk in half of the confectioners’ sugar, then a little milk, and repeat. The icing should be bright white and thick, but pourable. If it’s too loose, add more confectioners’ sugar 2 tablespoons at a time. If the icing is too stiff, add 1 tablespoon milk (or more if needed). Immediately pour it over the top of cake all the way around, trying to drip into the Bundt grooves.
The cake can be stored tightly covered for up to 3 days in the fridge. Bring it to room temperature for serving or eat it chilled. (Full disclosure: I forgot to refrigerate the second one the night I made it, so it sat covered, but uncut, at room temperature overnight. It was perfectly fine to eat, though I’d make sure to stick it in the fridge once it’s been cut and the cheesecake exposed.)
© Dafna Adler & Stellina Sweets, 2019.