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 FDC 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.