February 12, 2010

Got Beets In My Cake!!! – Eggless Red Velvet Cupcakes

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.”

So it’s not surprising that I’ve always wanted to make one. That was until I found out that the red colour is just that, and it comes out of a bottle (sometimes 2 or 3 bottles!).
This discovery was quite a let down for me, as I knew I wasn’t comfortable with this idea. I thought there was something special about that red but it turns out that if I made a Red Velvet Cake, I would have a cake full of either FD&C Red No. 40 or beetles! Yuck!!!

Talk about being between the devil and the deep sea.
So for a long time I shelved the idea of making a Red Velvet Cake. Yet, time and time again something would set me off thinking in the direction of “If only I could make one without all that artificial colour”.
Then a couple of weeks back, a discussion on 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.

Mascarpone Frosting:


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!


Ria Mathew said...

Brilliant idea!

Sharmilee! :) said...

Too gud!

Fried Wontons For You said...

Never thought about using beets that way but I love this idea. Brilliant!

Preeti Kashyap said...

Awesome and healthy! i love the idea of using beets for the red color!.

Prathibha said...

They look really moist and very very cute....Love to try this soon...

jayasree said...

Gorgeous cupcakes... Lovely frosting. I have baked RVC using Viji (Vcuisine) recipe. She too has used beet for the color.

sra said...

Aparna, you're please making this for me when I vist Goa next. I had so much of red velvet cake during my recent visit to NY. The bakery I patronised used a lemony frosting but actually, it tasted nice and moist without the frosting too! Yours looks v much like those :) tho' they probably full of beetles and eggs. Or maybe they used beets too! i didn't ask.

Srivalli said...

That's simply beautiful!..no words..as Sra says you will have to make this for us..

Rachana Kothari said...

Those cupcakes look so gorgeous... Feel like having one:)

The Cooking Ninja said...

wow! Yours turned out brilliant! I love that deep earthy red colour of yours. :)

Vidya said...

Nice one Aparna, I have been hesitating to make red velvet cake too for the same reason.. will try this one. Your post came pretty handy coz since last week, my little one has been planning this valentine day feast menu which includes 'red cake'. Thanks for the post :) Lovely pics.. very pretty.

Madhuram said...

I too have thought of making RVC with beets. I too came to know about the ingredient in red food coloring and have been very cautious scanning the ingredients list. This is a nice base recipe Aparna. We too don't like lemon flavoring in baked goods, so I will have to think of something else.

Siri said...

those are some gorgeous looking cupcakes Aparna. love the idea of adding pureed beets to cupcakes. I did have a RVC cake before and yours look so much similar to that. Good job girls :)


Asha said...

Look at mine, I LOVE the taste of Beets in cake. Cup cakes looks delcious. Happy V day! :))


Sumi said...

Beautiful and colourful muffins.If Only I had a oven right now, I would plunge into making them...:(
Happy Valentines day..

Tasty Eats At Home said...

These do look great. I think they qualify for RVC - I dislike the idea of the food coloring anyway. I'm not a huge fan of RVC, but these look spectacular.

Sayantani said...

am not very sure of the taste of beets in my cake as that is one of the few vegetables i dont eat with great enthusiasm. the cake looks lovely though...very soft yet crumbly.

pigpigscorner said...

Great idea using beets to colour the cakes instead of using food colouring!

Nithya said...

Looks fantastic.. A very different one indeed. :)

Simran said...

What all we have to do in the name of research! I thought the ketchup idea was hilarious.

But thanks a ton for this recipe. I've wanted to bake a red velvet cake for a long, long time but couldn't get myself to buy food coloring.

simply.food said...

Very innovative and cakes look awesome as does the click.

~~louise~~ said...

Yay you did it! They look gorgeous.

Thank you for the added "history." All this Red Velvet talk is leading me to a night of hitting the books! Cookbooks that is. Now, I'm not sure if Beet Cake and Red Velvet Cake are one in the same...Thanks for sharing, Aparna.

jayasri said...

I had heard of beet cakes in some cook books I have collected but Red Velvet cake I have never heard of it, you really try loads of things, hats of to you !!, They look so rich and moist I have got some beets at home I am going to try this!!, I love beets!!

Bergamot said...

the color looks so tempting... I will try them out

Deeba PAB said...

Love them ... secrets out of the twitter bag!

Natashya KitchenPuppies said...

I love that you used beets, I always found the amount of red food colouring in the recipes to be alarming. They look great!

Asha @ FSK said...

Well.. perhaps beets will be more of a presence at your place!! Woohoo! the beet luck has changed ;-))

Love the little cupcakes.. and the mascarpone frosting.. u are all mascarpone this month eh!! ;-))

Awesome baking with you for V-Day

Sending bundles of Love your way, Aparna :)))

diva said...

The sound of red velvet makes me shudder with excitement. Absolutely love it. Your cupcakes (eggless? Amazing) are beautiful. Have a happy weekend and valentine's. x

Dhanya said...

First time here. Red velvet cupcake looks delicious. Adding beet instead of red food color is a brilliant idea. Thanks for sharing this recipe.

Sarah, Maison Cupcake said...

Well, you are the fourth of the 4 velveteers that I have visited this afternoon and I think you win the prize for the reddest cake. The colour looks great and I can't believe you made them without eggs either. Well done!

Michelle said...

I'm going to start trying some eggless recipes and this recipe will for sure be on my ToDo list!

Aparna said...

Thanks for all the compliments. But the credit should go to Hannah as she developed this recipe.
I just confirmed it works! :D

Definitely, Sra. Anything for you. :)

Just tell me when you're coming down, Valli.

Thanks, Pam. Loved your pretty pink ones too. We all did a good job, didn't we?

Madhu, don't know if there's any ohter alternative with this recipe.
If your batter has to be acidic, it then will be sour.
Let me know if you come up with something different.

Saw your lovely cake, Asha. Don't know that I love beets, though. :)

Louise, they're different. Today, red velvet means artificial food colour, whereas beet cake is just that. :)

Deeba, yep! Watch out for more.

No way, Asha! We still don't like beets. :(
Yes its mascarpone month. Hugs to you.

So I guess we'll be seeing your RVC version soon, Diva?

Thanks for the compliment, Sarah.

Avanika [YumsiliciousBakes] said...

Wow! I'd always known that beets were traditionally used, never thought I'd see them being used now! You achieved an amazing color!! Great job!

bhagyashri said...

The cupcakes look very pretty, I will try them out soon!

Jeanne said...

Thank you for sharing your experiences! I have been struggling to find a red velvet recipe that doesn't use food coloring. I am going to try your recipe next!

Caitlin said...

I have made this cake twice and it is one of the best I have EVER made!!! Thank you so much for posting it! It is the moistest cake, and I love the depth of flavor that the lemon juice and beets give it. I've made it once with a chocolate buttercream, and once with a not-too-sweet cream cheese frosting, and both times my family went crazy over it. Everyone, do yourself a favor an make it, soon!

Aparna said...

Thank you Caitlin, for getting back to me about these cakes. And am so happy you liked them.:)

robbynnoel said...

I was hunting for this today! Thank you.

Aparna said...

Robby, would love to hear how they turned out.

Anonymous said...

Do you know if you can make this a cake instead of cupcakes? Just wondering how much batter this makes. Can't wait to try it!

Aparna said...

Anon, I'm sure you can make it as a single cake. I never have.
This recipe makes 12 cupcakes and the batter should be good to make an 8" round cake, I think.
You probably need to bake it for longer , about 45 minutes or more I think.

veena krishnakumar said...

Hi aparna
beautiful cake. I have baked this today, blogged about it and linked it back to your post. Here is the link


I have baked this for Nupur's BB#7. Please do have a look

Aparna said...

Veena, I just saw your cupcakes and they're gloriously red! :)
Happy they turned out right and you liked them too.

Thanks for getting back to me.

SS blogs here said...

These cupcakes look lovely! Thanks for the detailed post!

As a side, why do you have two cupcake liners for each cupcake?

Aparna said...

I use two liners with these white ones because I find the single ones a bit thin. The printed ones are usually a bit thicker.

Also two liners look pretty in photographs sometimes. :)

RVCC Fan said...

Thank you for posting this recipe and pictures of your fabulous cupcakes!!! I have been scouring the internet to find a really RED red velvet cupcake recipe that uses only natural ingredients for my daughter's 2nd birthday. She loves Elmo so I wanted to do RVCC for cute factor, but couldn't stomach the idea of serving her and all her little friends red dye. I had actually happened upon Hannah's version before yours and was not satisfied with the depth of red color in her photos of the final cupcake (and also the flat shape). It looks like you tweaked her recipe just enough to come up with a beautiful RED cupcake. Many, MANY thanks to both you AND Hannah for experimenting and posting your results!

Aparna said...

I know excatly what you mean about using too much artificial colour. I did tweak Hannah's recipe a little and was reasonably happy with the outcome. I hope it works for you too.

Anonymous said...

Hi, I have wanted to bake a Red Velvet cake for a long time. And I found your recipe with beets to be really good. Only problem the cake sunk at my first attempt :( I haven't figured out what went wrong and the batter was slightly more runny(I feel so). Just a suggestion when you say cup how many grams is it typically? I just realised that cups sizes and measurements would differ. Hope to hear from you soon.. As I want to give it another shot :)