Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Red Velvet Cupcakes

Chocolate cake should taste (and look) like chocolate, right? So what about red velvet cake then? What does velvet taste like, anyway? Well, since red velvet cake is essentially a chocolate cake ( a mild one, not a full-on one) that has been treated to come out looking red, you’d expect it to taste just like chocolate cake, right? Well, only kinda. There is the taste of cocoa but honestly, it tastes more like a mix of butter cake and cheese cake with just a hint of chocolate. Does that even make any sense?

One thing is for sure: when executed properly, the texture of a red velvet cake is really velvety — as in soft, smooth and ... well, like velvet. It's easy to dismiss the red velvet cake as being an overrated gimmick.  If it isn't well done, it just tastes like any cake, not a particularly nice cake, only red. But, if its well-made, the red velvet cake is a treat.

Believe me. I am a recent convert. I generally stay away from fads and since the red velvet cake has become a fad in the last few years, I avoided it. Particularly after tasting a few uninspiring versions of the cake. But then I tasted one gorgeous red velvet cake at a friend's party and, well, I changed my mind. I liked it. No, I loved it.

I’ve tried making red velvet cake once before and it tasted fine. No, it tasted a little better than fine. But, you know how it is with cake, right? You make a chocolate cake and the next week, you want to try another recipe that is a little different and this just goes on and on and on. We’re always looking for the perfect cake.... chocolate, butter, cheese, or whatever ... and when we find that perfect cake, we want something that tastes better! Right? It's human nature I guess.

OK. Enough postulating already. Fact is, I made the cake again after I spotted a recipe for it in this month’s issue of Saveur magazine. Actually I wanted to make ALL the cakes featured in the magazine’s focus on the great layer cakes from the South (really decadent cakes from the American south) but most of them required too much work and I wasn’t feeling up to it. The red velvet cake seemed the least complicated —  plus I was seduced by the picture and the recipe, although I wasn’t quite seduced by the whipped cream topping. I much prefer the traditional cream cheese frosting that is synonymous with red velvet cake.

So, here's the deal with this red velvet cake: the important ingredients are cocoa, buttermilk, vinegar and baking powder. The chemical reaction between the four ingredients when combined is what causes the cake to come out red.

Most recipes call for Dutch-processed unsweetened cocoa which is cocoa that has been treated with alkali to nutralise it's natural acidity. This type of cocoa has a reddish hue and when mixed with the vinegar, the red intensifies. I didn't have Dutch-processed cocoa. In fact I don't thin I've ever seen it — so I used regular unsweetened cocoa and, to get a dramatic or brilliant red, I added a little bit of red colouring. Some chefs/cooks prefer more natural colourants and rely on either beets or rhubarb for the colour.

I also didn't have buttermilk at home and I had no intention of buying a carton just for this cake. It's actually pretty easy to make do and create your own buttermilk with just plain milk and vinegar (1 cup milk + 1 tsp vinegar = I cup buttermilk). Because the recipe calls for vinegar, I was a little concerned that the vinegar I added to the milk to make buttermilk would add up to just too much vinegar in this cake. I mean, I didn't want a cake that ended up tasting like a pickle!

No, no ... I was confident it would turn out ok. I would channel positive thoughts and envision a beautiful and delicious cake.

The Saveur recipe turned out fantastic and the extra vinegar had no negative impact on the cake. Velvety? Hell yes! The cake looked rich and it tasted amazing: extremely moist, slightly tangy, rich, deep and helluva satisfying.

Try this. Seriously. Try this.

Oh. This recipe was originally for a two-layered cake but I'm a little mad for cupcakes at the moment and so I just filled the batter into cupcake tins rather than two round cake tins.

Red Velvet Cake
Adapted from Saveur (March 2012)

226g butter, softened
21/2 cups cake/superfine flour
2 tbsp cocoa
1 tbsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
1 cup milk
1 tsp + 1 tbsp distilled vinegar (separated)
2 tbsp red food colouring
1 tsp vanilla extract
11/2 cups sugar
2 eggs

Heat oven to 180C.

Mix 1 tsp vinegar to the milk and set aside for at least 5 mins.

Sift the flour, baking powder, cocoa and salt and whisk to combine. Set aside.

After letting the milk and vinegar sit for 5 mins, whisk the mixture with the colouring, the remaining vinegar and vanilla extract. Set aside.

Cream the butter and sugar in a stand mixer (high speed) until light, pale and fluffy. Lower the speed and add the eggs, one at a time, waiting till the eggs are incorporated into the butter each time.

Keeping the speed low, add the dry ingredients (flour, salt, baking powder, cocoa) and the liquid (milk, vinegar, colouring and extract) alternating between the two.

Turn the speed to high and beat till smooth for a few seconds.

Fill the cake pans (greased and floured)/cupcake tins with the batter (fill only 3/4 to the brim) and bake for 30 mins (for the cake pans) or 23-25 mins for the cupcakes or till a tester comes out clean.

Remove and let them cool.

170g cream cheese, softened
170g butter, softened
1 tsp vanilla extract
11/2 cups icing sugar

Beat butter till creamy. Add cream cheese and cream till well combined. Add sugar and extract and beat till light and fluffy.

Frost as desired.


  1. Very pretty! Must try it soon.

    I used a mascarpone cheese frosting (less butter) for my green tea cupcakes and it worked well, was delish.

  2. Yes I'd love to use Mascarpone too but very mahal here! :)


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