Smiling, my grandmother handed me 2 pieces of paper, photocopies of a handwritten recipe. She knew those papers would make me very happy, as she explained how she came to possess them.
Hanging in my foyer, I have a picture of my grandparents’ first date, a high school basketball game in rural south Louisiana in 1935, a barn in the background, the legs of the rooftop spectators hanging low. My grandmother became a widow at 65, after which she learned to drive and created a whole new life for herself, a life centered around volunteerism and her love for Jesus.
One of the highlights of her days included volunteering at the local hospital as a “Pink Lady,” pushing a drinks cart down the hospital hallways, offering a cup of orange juice and a kind word to everyone she met. She particularly enjoyed one year’s fundraiser, a baking contest, which she helped judge. The grand prize went to a red velvet cake, and she would not let the baker leave unless she had a copy of the recipe because she had a granddaughter who baked and would love to have it. As usual, she was right, and this recipe is one of my forever favorites, not only because it produces a moist, flavorful cake, but also because it reminds me of that ordinary afternoon my grandmother, beaming, walked through my backdoor and handed me those two little pieces of paper.
A lover of chinoiserie, I enjoy creating chinoiserie-inspired cakes, deciding to pair this red velvet cake recipe with some Chinese inspiration. After experiencing a black sesame gelato at Saba in New Orleans (@eatwithsaba), I realized the connection between red velvet cake and chinoiserie resided in a black sesame filling of some sort, as the cocoa and black sesame seemed like a pairing worth exploring.
Even though red velvet cake did not originate in the American South, it found a home here and got comfortable. And I am very happy it did….
Red Velvet Cake with Toasted Black Sesame Buttercream
1 cup vegetable shortening
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
2 eggs, room temperature
2 (1 oz) bottles of red food coloring
2 tablespoons cocoa powder
1 teaspoon salt
2 1/4 cups cake flour
1 cup buttermilk
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 tablespoon hot water
1 tablespoon white vinegar
Vanilla Swiss Meringue Buttercream (link to recipe follows)
Toasted Black Sesame Buttercream (recipe follows)
- Preheat oven to 350ºF. Grease and flour (or for an easier alternative, see Notes) 3 6-inch or 2 8-inch round cake pans, covering the bottom of each pan with a circle of parchment.
- In the bowl of a stand mixer (or using a handheld mixer), cream together the shortening and sugar until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes, stopping to scrape down the sides of the bowl once. Add the eggs, one a time, incorporating the first fully before adding the second.
- Make a paste out of the food coloring and cocoa powder in a small bowl. Add to the creamed mixture and combine thoroughly.
- In a separate bowl, combine the salt and cake flour, whisking to combine and aerate.
- In another small bowl, combine vanilla and buttermilk. Add small amounts of the flour mixture and the buttermilk to the creamed mixture alternately, beginning and ending with the flour mixture, scraping down the bowl midway through. Scrape down the bowl again, and mix until the batter is just fully incorporated.
- In a separate small bowl, dissolve the baking soda in the hot water; then, mix in the vinegar (carefully—the mixture will foam up). Quickly add this mixture to the batter, stirring until just combined.
- Pour the batter equally into the prepared pans and bake at 350ºF for about 30 minutes. The cakes are done when a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean and the cake springs back when gently prodded with a finger.
- Allow the cakes to cool on a wire rack for 10 minutes. Remove the cakes from the pans and allow to cool completely before filling with Toasted Black Sesame Buttercream and icing/decorating with Vanilla Swiss Meringue Buttercream.
Vanilla Swiss Meringue Buttercream
Of all the Swiss meringue buttercream recipes I have tried, the version by @sweetapolita is my very favorite. Not only do I like the flavor and texture, but I also like the amount of buttercream this makes—enough to fill and coat an 8 or 9 inch round cake with enough left over to decorate. Find the recipe and the most helpful tips on making perfect Swiss Meringue Buttercream here.
Toasted Black Sesame Buttercream
*See Notes for alternatives.
6 tablespoons black sesame seeds
1 tablespoon honey
2 cups Swiss Meringue Buttercream
- In a dry skillet over medium heat, toast the sesame seeds until fragrant, carefully swirling the pan to prevent the seeds from scorching. Once toasted, scatter the sesame seeds onto a plate to cool completely.
- Once cooled, add the seeds to the bowl of a food processor. Process until the seeds start to release some of their oil. Stop and scrape down the bowl, adding the honey. Process until a thick paste forms. I like leaving bits of seed still intact—I enjoy the texture it adds to the buttercream.
- Add the paste to the buttercream, mixing thoroughly. You may want to add the paste in increments, tasting along the way, to have the amount of sesame flavor to your liking. I like LOTS of sesame flavor.
- An alternative to greasing and flouring your pans is to create your own lining paste. Years ago, I remember purchasing a product called “Pan Grease” to line my can pans until I realized it was just equal amounts of flour, oil and shortening mixed together. Nancy Birtwhistle reminded me how easy it is to make it yourself, and you can find out how by watching a video in her Instagram highlights here.
- You can order Black Sesame Paste online, but add a small amount at a time to make sure you do not over-sesame it. Also, if the food processor gives you problems (some of them only work well if you have a certain amount in the bowl), you can use a mortar and pestle to grind the seeds yourself, but it takes a significant amount of time, patience and elbow grease.
- Some people do not like using such a large amount of food coloring—feel free to decrease the amount or do away with it completely (I would add another 1/4 cup buttermilk to compensate), but then you ultimately have something other than red velvet cake….
- When filling the cake layers with Toasted Black Sesame Buttercream, first make a dam around the edge of the cake layer with the plain buttercream. Do this by placing some of the buttercream into a piping bag with either a medium sized round tip or, if using a disposable bag, an opening cut about the size of a dime. Pipe a continuous circle of buttercream around the edge of the cake, creating a dam that will hold the Toasted Black Sesame Buttercream in place and away from your soon to be flawless outer covering of buttercream.
- If you are feeling adventurous, feel free to cut the layers in half horizontally, as was done in this cake.
For more chinoiserie-inspired cakes, visit me on Instagram @whyibakedacake.