The red velvet cake’s entry into popular culture can probably be traced to the 1989 film Steel Magnolias, in which the groom’s cake was a red velvet cake in the shape of an armadillo. There’s something seductive about the color of a red velvet cake, especially a cupcake, at least at first. But at some point, the red seems just a little too red, and it starts to seem a bit unnatural. That’s no surprise considering that a recipe will use up to several tablespoons of red food coloring.
Doing some research, I gathered that red velvet cake was originally not so red and the color came about naturally. Cocao powder, a key ingredient, didn’t used to be “Dutch process” and was less alkaline in years gone by. When combined with the buttermilk and vinegar in the recipe, the chemical reaction caused the batter to take on a muddy red hue. Unable to find cocao powder that isn’t Dutch process here in Thailand, I stumbled upon a recipe for Natural Red Velvet Cake that, supposedly based on a traditional southern recipe, uses cooked beets for the color.
Intrigued, I had to try.
The ingredients: brown and granulated sugars, eggs, flour, cocoa powder, chocolate, buttermilk, butter, vanilla, salt, baking soda, cider vinegar, and roasted beets.
The mystery ingredient. Instead of using canned beets, which the recipe called for, I roasted my own beets and then pureed them with a little bit of olive oil and water.
First step: Melt the chocolate over a pan of simmering water. Chocolate doesn’t figure in most red velvet cake recipes, only cocoa powder, so I was surprised by this addition.
Sift together the flour, cocoa powder, salt, and baking soda. One of these days I’ll have to seek out natural cocoa powder (i.e. not Dutch process) and see how that affects the outcome of the recipe.
Cream together the eggs, butter, and two types of sugars. Most cake recipes are specific about the process – for example, whip the butter and sugars before adding the eggs. No specificity here so I just dumped them all into the bowl and turned the mixer on.
The end result (after combining the dry ingredients and adding the melted chocolate and beets) had a vaguely reddish tinge to it, although that could just be a color correction issue from the light.
Cupcake liners filled and ready to bake. Lesson I’ve learned: don’t fill your cupcake liners so high because cake batter expands as it bakes.
See? I told you that cake batter expands. Now I have these muffin top cupcakes that would have been interesting if the crumb had held together better, but the structure was kind of weak.
The cupcakes pretty much crumbled when unwrapped. I’m very curious why this is. Maybe cake flour didn’t have enough protein and regular flour would have been better? Maybe just a little too much liquid in the beets? Baking is a science and something didn’t work out right here.
To frost the cupcakes, I prepared a butter-cream cheese frosting but perhaps didn’t whip it enough. That, or the opening in the frosting tip was too small. The frosting bag actually burst on me so I had to instead spread the frosting instead of piping it.
The end results looked a bit rag-tag. I really need to take a class to learn how to frost a cupcake properly. As for the taste, the cupcakes were very moist and the beet flavor wasn’t noticeable at all. As for the color, though, there really was nothing red about the red velvet cupcakes. Not in the least bit.
I guess if I want a really red, red velvet cupcake, I may need to reach for the food coloring after all.