I had never seen or heard of a Red Velvet Cake till I started blogging, about 2 years ago. I thought I was one of the few who didn’t, but it turns out that this cake is not all that well known outside the U.S.
For those who might not know, the Red Velvet Cake is a very popular Southern (U.S.) cake. A moist layered cake that hints at chocolate, it is characterized by its red colour which contrasts with the white frosting that usually covers it.
As with many other cakes and desserts, the origins of the Red Velvet Cake are not very clear. An inaccurate yet highly popular story tells of a customer who ordered this cake at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria. Apparently, she liked it so much that she asked for the recipe. When refused, she offered to buy the recipe. A slight misunderstanding resulted in her being billed a very large sum for it, so she took her revenge by passing on that recipe to anyone she could!
That name aside, there is something very visually appealing about a bright red cake that’s layered and covered with perfect white frosting. To quote this article in the New York Times -
“It’s a cake that can stop traffic. The layers are an improbable red that can vary from a fluorescent pink to a dark ruddy mahogany. The color, often enhanced by buckets of food coloring, becomes even more eye-catching set against clouds of snowy icing, like a slash of glossy lipstick framed by platinum blond curls. Even the name has a vampy allure: red velvet.”
Twitter set this thought off, again.
Yes, where would some of us be without Twitter? I have to say that I have met some awesome people through it and got to know some others even better.
As I was saying, about 2 weeks back, four of us Tweeps (Alessio, Asha, Pamela and myself) got to discussing how we were hesitant to bake a Red Velvet Cake (hereafter referred to as RVC) because of the copious amounts of artificial colour that went into it. I have seen recipes that range from using 2 tsps of the stuff right through to 6 tbsps!!!
Somewhere during the conversation came the idea of getting together, each baking our own version of RVC without red food colour, and then comparing notes.
The first step to baking the RVC was reading up on what went into the cake and how the colour could be substituted successfully.
It seems that a true RVC must contain cocoa powder (not the alkaline Dutch processed kind). The combination of acidic buttermilk and vinegar with the cocoa powder causes the anthocyanin in it to produce a reddish colour which is enhanced by the addition of food colour.
Once I understood the chemistry (I should, considering I studied it for 3 years at university!) in the cake, the quest was for something natural to colour my cake. I did a test batch of cupcakes using Zoe’s recipe (this is a vegan cake) adding different natural colouring agents.
Helen suggested using strawberry (which worked for her) and since it’s the season for them now I tried that. I got pale pink cupcakes that were nice but tasted very much of strawberries.
I tried using reduce pomegranate juice but that me gave funny/ weird tasting, dirty brown cupcakes.
Then I thought of using tomato ketchup (there actually is a tomato ketchup cake out there, folks). This one had an orangish red colour but tasted a whole lot like ketchup. I don’t really like ketchup and most definitely not in my cakes!
Then of course, there was the beet. I understand a lot of bakers used beets to colour their RVCs before this trend of using bottled colour became more popular. We seriously dislike beets here and I have bought beets only once in my life till now.
For the second time in my life I bought beets last week. All in the name of the RVC and a hope (and a prayer) that the rather “earthy” taste of that much disliked vegetable would not show itself in the cake.
Then I remembered Hannah had, sometime back, made "Very Red" Red Velvet Cupcakes with beets. I had bookmarked that post and left a comment, when she reassured me that you just couldn’t taste the beets in her cupcakes.
Being the smart person that I am, I decided not to waste too much time (or trouble my brain) on any more kitchen experiments!
I decided to try my hand at Hannah’s cupcakes. She uses canned beets in her recipe, but we get only fresh ones here. So I made fresh beet purée but didn’t have an idea as to how much of it to use.
Hannah’s recipe also calls for 1/4 cup lemon juice which seemed a lot, but I went with this amount since she uses this to decrease the pH (increase the acidity) of the batter. This results in the red colour, which is what the RVC is all about.
I did add a bit more sugar since I found the batter had a rather strong sour note to it from the lemon juice. I reduced the cocoa powder a bit as I used dark cocoa powder. I saw a couple of comments at her post saying the cupcakes didn’t rise, so I added another 1/2 tsp of baking powder.
Here then, is my version of Hannah’s natural red velvet cupcakes.
1 1/4 cups all purpose flour
1 1/4 cup granulated sugar
1 1/2 tbsp dark cocoa powder (not Dutch processed)
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
3/4 cup fresh pureed beets*
1/3 cup oil (I use a sunflower/ rice bran oil blend)
1/4 cup lemon juice
1 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
*I used 3 medium sized beets and got approximately 1 1/2 cups of purée.
Wash the beets, scrape/ peel and slice them. Cook them (steam cook or microwave) till they’re well done. Cool and purée the cooked beets along with about 3 or 4 tbsps of water, in a blender till smooth. Keep aside. You can do this ahead and refrigerate the purée for a day or else freeze it till required.
To make the cupcakes, first whisk together the flour, sugar, cocoa, baking powder and salt in a bowl till well mixed. Keep aside.
Put the puréed beets, oil, lemon juice and vanilla extract into another bowl and lightly whisk together till mixed well.
Pour this into the bowl with the dry ingredients and mix just enough to combine. Divide the batter equally between 12 cupcake tins lined with paper cups.
Bake the cupcakes at 180C for about 20 to 25 minutes. A skewer/ toothpick inserted into the centre should come out clean once they’re done.
Cool completely and decorate with frosting of your choice. The usual choices are butter roux (boiled) frosting or cream cheese frosting.
Hannah suggests cream cheese frosting. I thought a light frosting (preferably not buttercream) might taste good with these cupcakes and the creamy mascarpone frosting is just perfect.
This is not too sweet, light yet creamy and I feel its perfect with the tangy notes of this particular cupcake.
3/4 cup chilled cream (25% fat)
¼ cup confectioner’s sugar
1 cup mascarpone cheese*
1 tsp vanilla extract
*To make your own mascarpone cheese (enough for this recipe), heat 150ml of 25% cream over simmering water till it reaches a temperature of 82 to 85C. Add 1 1/2 tsp of lemon juice or white vinegar to the hot cream and stir till it thickens a bit (curdles). The thickened cream should coat your spoon well.
Take this curdled cream off the heat and allow to cool. Pour this into a strainer lined with a cotton towel and allow to drain in the fridge, overnight. Please note that very little “whey” drains out here, unlike for paneer or ricotta.
Your macarpone is ready to use. Use it within 4 days of making it.
To make the mascarpone frosting, beat the chilled cream till stiff. Add the sugar and vanilla extract and beat till well incorporated.
Using a spoon, break the lumps in the mascarpone. Add this to the whipped cream, and beat on slow speed just long enough so that the mascarpone is well incorporated into the cream.
Use to decorate the cupcakes as desired. This frosting pipes well but stays soft, so it would be a good idea to refrigerate them until ready to be served.
These cupcakes are most definitely RED, no doubts on that score. I was expecting them to be quite dense because of the beets, but they really weren’t very dense at all.
These cupcakes do have a very strong tang from the lemon juice which is great if you like lemon in your desserts. We really do not, yet didn’t find the cakes too bad. They are especially good with the light, creamy and not too sweet mascarpone frosting.
I understand that the RVC should have a suggestion of chocolate about it, but we couldn’t taste that in these cupcakes.
So are these really red velvet cupcakes? I don’t have an answer to this question as I have never met a RVC before.
I understand there are two schools of thought on this. One group thinks that RVC has to be traffic stopping red (or close enough) and this can only be achieved with food colour from a bottle. Anything else does not qualify for the RVC label.
The other group does not understand the fuss about the colour and believes the traditional RVC didn’t use food colour but depended upon chemistry of the ingredients (sometimes with a little help from beets) to achieve a faint tinge of red and texture in a brown chocolate cake.
But these cupcakes are RED, and they don’t owe that colour to chemicals or insects, so I’m happy. They also most definitely do NOT taste of beets which is another plus in my book. They’re also eggless.
So if these are your demands in a RVC, I would definitely recommend this recipe.
As for fellow RVC co-conspirers (or the four Velveteers as we call ourselves for now), Alessio’s cake is reddened with raspberry, while Pamela used beet juice in her heart shaped cake, while Asha decided to go the traditional way to colour her cake. (I shall add the links as soon as they post their RVCs sometime today.)
Do keep watching our spaces to see what we get together and make next!