Wednesday, 15 February 2012

The Red Velvets of Love

I don't particularly like Valentine's Day. As with most commercial holidays, the crass consumerism it's based in makes me gag, especially since love should be celebrated every day, and not just on February 14th. That and when I was in high school, working as a cashier in a drug store, I once had a customer who bought a big heart-shaped box of chocolate... and a big box of condoms at 5:30 pm on Valentine's Day... This guy became the face of the holiday for me for a long, long time... I really wanted to punch it.

Even being in love and living with ze man didn't make this bright pink circus easier to stomach. But as Mary Poppins would say, a bit of sugar makes the medicine go down, and since Valentine's Day is definitely not going away, I might as well go through it eating something sweet!

It had been a while since I had baked some cupcakes, then I did it for a friend's birthday and now I can't seem to stop! And while I was not at all willing to make pink cupcakes or anything like that (I can't deal with pink. I am sorry, I guess I have no soul... True story: when I was a baby, if my mother tried to put pink clothes on me, I would shriek until she took it off and dressed me in blue. Make of that what you will.), I figured I might as well make something occasion appropriate. I had always wanted to try making red velvet cupcakes, so I dusted off the recipe I had selected and got to work.

If you Google "red velvet cupcakes" you will get pictures of blindingly red cupcakes. That makes me nostalgic for the days when my hair was that color, but I digress... I didn't want to make those fire-engine colored cakes, because they looked way too fake for me. For those who don't know (or who think it's simply ordinary yellow cake dyed red), red velvets used to have their distinctive red hue for 2 reasons that did not include food coloring:

1) Since a lot of food stuffs were rationed during World War II,  bakers used boiled beets to enhance the color of their cakes. Beets are naturally quite sweet, and they are very, very strongly colored (see my borscht recipe... my kitchen counter looked like a crime scene). Old red velvet recipes include grated boiled beets. Using beets also meant the cakes retained moisture well, so the cakes didn't dry out.

2) Chemistry! The reaction of vinegar and buttermilk (both traditional ingredients of red velvets) reveal the red pigment of the cocoa, known as anthocyanin. With modern Dutch-processed cocoa powder, the color is less pronounced, hence the necessity for red food coloring... in moderate quantity.

I followed the "Hummingbird Bakery Cookbook" recipe (via, to make 12 lovely cupcakes:

4 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
¾ cup granulated sugar
1 egg
2½ tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
3 tablespoons red food coloring
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
½ cup buttermilk
1 cup + 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon baking soda
1½ teaspoons distilled white vinegar

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a cupcake pan with liners. Cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the egg. Scrape down the bowl and beat until well incorporated. In a separate small bowl, mix together the cocoa powder, vanilla extract and red food coloring to make a thick paste (I used a bit more than 3 tablespoons of red food coloring, because my cocoa wasn't turning into a paste, so I added few drops by few drops until it got the mushy texture I wanted. Of course, if you want your red velvets to glow in the dark, that would be the point where you could go nuts with the food coloring). Add to the batter and mix until completely combined. Make sure to scrape the bottom of the bowl, so that all the batter gets color. Slowly add half of the buttermilk. Add half of the flour and mix until combined. Scrape the bowl and repeat the process with the remaining milk and flour. Beat until smooth. Add the salt, baking soda and vinegar. Beat for another couple of minutes until completely combined and smooth. Divide the batter evenly between the cupcake liners and bake for about 20 minutes, or until a thin knife or skewer inserted into the center of the largest cupcake comes out clean. Cool for 10 minutes and then remove cupcakes from the pan and place them on a cooling rack to cool completely before frosting.

The traditional frosting for red velvets is cream cheese, something I am kind of addicted to, so of course, I indulged:

1 stick (1/2 cup) butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup cream cheese, at room temperature
2½ cups powdered sugar
1 tablespoon vanilla extract

Whip the butter and cream cheese for about 5 minutes, scraping the bowl down as necessary, until well incorporated. Slowly add the powdered sugar and mix well until all is incorporated. Add the vanilla and mix to combine. Keep whipping until the frosting is light and fluffy, scraping the bowl as necessary.

I used a large flower tipped-pastry bag to pipe on pretty swirls of frosting that I then lightly sprinkled with some red decorative sugar and voilĂ ! The red velvet cupcakes of love! Not blindingly red, just a lovely, sexy shade of mahogany.


I know it's a lot of pictures, but aren't they the cutest thing? Not to mention delicious! The cake had the perfect firm-yet-moist cupcake texture and the tiny bit of cocoa in it was rich, but not over-powering. This cream cheese frosting recipe is my favorite: the sweet taste and the tartness of the cheese are perfectly balanced, and it's creamy and gorgeous (we tend to wrestle over who gets to lick the icing bowl once the cupcakes are frosted). Needless to say that the combo is an all-star win!

You can share these with your darling, or binge eat the whole thing, but I suggest offering at least one to someone you love -  a friend, sibling, colleague; whomever you think of who can use a little sugar!

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