It’s red… it’s dramatic… it’s red velvet cupcake!!
I can finally strike off one item on my to-bake-this-one-day list, thanks to the Bake Along hosted by Joyce from Kitchen Flavours, Lena from Frozen Wings and Zoe from Bake for Happy Kids (check out their sites for really beautiful red velvet cupcakes!)
There’s no official records on the true history of red velvet cakes. A very popular urban legend was that a lady had dinner at the Waldorf-Austria and had such a delicious piece of red cake that she wrote to the chef requesting for the recipe. Subsequently she received a letter containing the recipe and a bill of, I don’t know – various websites have various amounts, $100 – $350. Her attorney advised her to pay the bill and she decided to get even with the chef by giving out 3 x 5 inch cards with the recipe, Red Velvet Cake, on them to everyone – even strangers. I have actually heard a similar story about the Neiman-Marcus cookies before, have you?
After some digging, I found another version of the history of the cake written by Stella Parks and it’s much more convincing than the one above. Velvet cakes came first, before red velvet cakes. Back in the days in 1873, people have the tendency to name things to give them a nice and smooth effect – hence they have named cakes Velvet Cakes and creams Velvet Creams etc. So essentially, Velvet Cakes are cakes that has an exceptionally fine crumb.
So how do the “Red” come about?
That will be in 1888, when this John A. Adams fellow started a food colouring and extracts business. Sales slumped during the Great Depression and in order to boost sales, he set up displays in groceries throughout the Midwest and the South, featuring a huge colour photo of a really striking and bold Red Velvet Cake. His recipe was modified to include Adams Best Vanilla, Adams Butter Flavour and two full bottles of Adams Red Colour and the recipe is given away free with every purchase. And that was how the cake became a huge sensation and spread throughout America and eventually, the whole world. I guess that’s also how people claim that Red Velvet Cake is a Southern tradition.
Frosting is a bit too runny to pipe… but it still looks ok… right? Right?
Phew, what a long introduction to this cake, eh?
So now we know there’s no magic involved in the cake – some say it’s the reaction between natural cocoa and the vinegar and baking soda and buttermilk that caused the redness in the cake – from the meagre amount of cocoa used – it’s impossible that it will yield such a bright, red cake (maybe I should go do an experiment!).
After reading several red velvet cake recipes, I also have doubts over the vinegar-baking soda portion. Vinegar is an acid while baking soda is a carbonate – both reacts to form carbon dioxide, a chemical salt and water. The reaction between vinegar and baking soda is really fast – most carbon dioxide produced would most likely escape before the mixture even hits the cake better. So I’m not sure whether it really aids in the rising of the cake.
The second doubt is that the ratio of vinegar to baking soda used is 1:1. Based on chemical formulas, the baking soda would most likely be used up during the vinegar-baking soda reaction and there won’t be any more baking soda left to react with the acidic cocoa and buttermilk in the cake batter. Why not just add the baking soda into the flour mixture and let it react with the cocoa?
Can someone please enlighten me on this food science? I think some experiments need to be conducted soon…
Despite all the doubts, the cupcakes are still delicious.
Coming back to the recipe, I’ve used a recipe by Pinch My Salt and I think it’s a pretty good recipe. Looking at the ingredients, it’s essentially a buttermilk cake with a slight hint of cocoa powder and tons of red food colouring. The reason I’ve not baked this cake before because… it’s not red naturally. I was tempted to reduce the amount of red food colouring (it’s a freaking 2 oz, about 55ml!) but decided to just stick to it.
The cupcakes are slightly moist (I think they could use a bit more liquid), really light and soft with a cocoa taste that’s not too overpowering that makes you think that you are eating a chocolate cake. The cream cheese frosting is tangy and not too overly sweet (hence the more runny icing).
Overall I think the red in this cake is over-rated. Don’t get me wrong, I love the recipe and it’s definitely a keeper for me, but the red food colouring is a no-no. It’s artificial and has no additional value to this cake recipe in terms of taste and texture! So I’m going to omit all the red food colouring the next time I bake this and substitute with a bit more buttermilk – unless I get a dying request… but unlikely I’m sure!
On to the step-by-step photos!
Cast of ingredients: plain flour, cornflour, baking powder, natural cocoa powder, red food colouring, buttermilk, vanilla extract, eggs, butter, sugar, vinegar, baking soda and salt (missing)
Place the flour, corn flour (flour + cornflour = cake flour), cocoa powder, baking powder and salt in a bowl.
Whisk them up to mix them altogether.
Measure a cup of buttermilk…
Add in the two bottles of red food colouring,
and a teaspoon of vanilla extract.
See the layers?
Mix the liquid ingredients up until you get a shocking red. The consistency is really thick… like paint!
Dump the butter and sugar in a bowl.
Cream it until pale, light and fluffy.
Beat in the eggs, one at a time.
The cake batter will be really smooth and creamy.
Sift in a third of the flour…
Fold in gently (I used a figure-of-eight method to fold, but you can always use the cut-the-batter method)
Add in half of the red
And the “magic” is about to begin!
Fold in gently until the colour is even.
Sift in half of the remaining flour.
Fold it in – in my mind I’m like “oh my god, I can’t believe I’m making this weird red paint thing”
Add in the rest of the red
paint buttermilk mixture.
Fold and sift in the rest of the remaining flour mixture.
Fold, fold, fold.
It’s a luscious, dangerous bright red – I licked some of the cake batter – pretty good actually…
Baking soda in a small bowl.
Ready for some “magic”?
See all the fizz!
Fold the vinegar-baking soda mixture in.
Get the cake batter into the cupcake liners – do not overfill them! 2/3 to 3/4 is enough, overfilled cupcakes are nasty.
Bake until well-risen – over-baking will result in the domes to turn brown, so don’t.
Time for the cream cheese frosting – butter, icing sguar, cream cheese and vanilla extract.
Softened cream cheese and butter…
In goes the icing sugar and vanilla extract.
- 225 grams plain flour
- 60 grams corn flour - Note 
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 2 tablespoon Hershey's cocoa powder - Note 
- 250 grams/ml (1 cup) buttermilk, room temperature - Note 
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 55 grams/ml red food colouring - Note 
- 115 grams unsalted butter
- 200 grams sugar
- 2 eggs, room temperature
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 teaspoon white vinegar
- 225 - 250 grams cream cheese, softened - Note 
- 60 grams butter, softened - Note 
- ½ teaspoon vanilla extract
- 140 grams icing / powdered sugar
- Preheat the oven to 175 degrees Celsius. Prepare 24-25 cupcake liners.
- In a small bowl, place the plain flour, corn flour, baking powder, salt and cocoa powder together. Whisk it with a wire whisk until it's all combined
- In another bowl / measuring cup, stir the buttermilk, vanilla extract and red food colouring together.
- In a third large bowl, cream the butter using an electric mixer - on low for 30 seconds. Add in the sugar in three portions, beating on medium speed for one minute after each addition and scraping the sides occasionally.
- Add in one egg into the butter-sugar mixture. Beat on medium for a minute. Scrape the sides and beat in the other egg. Beat on medium for a minute.
- Sift in a third of the flour mixture and fold in gently until all the flour mixture are almost incorporated into the cake batter. Add in half of the buttermilk mixture and fold in until all the liquid mixture has been incorporated. Sift in half of the remaining flour mixture and fold it in. Add in the rest of the buttermilk mixture and fold it in. Fold in the remaining flour mixture. The cake batter will be slightly thick.
- Place the baking soda in a small, clean bowl. Add in the white vinegar and watch the chemical reaction! Stir the mixture using a small spoon and add in the mixture into the cake batter. Fold it in until fully incorporated.
- Fill the cupcakes to ⅔ to ¾ full. Bake for 15 - 20 minutes until the top springs back when touched and a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean. Do not over-bake as the top will darken and you'll lose the red colour top, so check the cupcakes frequently after 15 minutes. Let the cupcakes cool completely before frosting it.
- Place the cream cheese and butter in a large, clean bowl. Beat them with an electric mixer on low for 30 seconds. Sift in the icing sugar and add in the vanilla extract and beat until the icing sugar has dissolved into the frosting. Refrigerate the frosting to let it firm up a little.
- Transfer the frosting into a piping bag and pipe onto the cupcakes. Decorate with coloured sugar or sprinkles.
- This cream cheese frosting is not very sweet and it's a bit soft to pipe (given the warm temperature here in Singapore). You can choose to add more sugar, but you'll lose the tang of the cream cheese!
 Hershey's cocoa is natural and hence is acidic. Apparently the natural cocoa is supposed to react with the baking soda to produce carbon dioxide and aids in the rising of the cake. I'm not sure if it's really the case though (need to do some experiments)... If using Varlhona cocoa or any Dutch-processed cocoa, it was suggested to up the baking powder by ½ teaspoon to counter for the lack of acidity. In addition, this amount of cocoa gives a slight hint of cocoa in the cake, so if you want a stronger cocoa taste, swap out some of the flour with cocoa - but beware: a higher cocoa content will result in drier baked goods and the cake will be less red - so you may need to up the liquid contents.
 No buttermilk? No problem! In a cup, add in 1 tablespoon of white vinegar or lemon juice. Top up with enough fresh milk to make 1 cup (250 ml/grams). Stir and let it sit for 10 minutes - buttermilk!
 This amount is about 2 small bottles of food colouring. The next time I bake this I will omit the red food colouring and replace it with buttermilk.
 Softened means the cream cheese and butter are soft to the touch but still cold - not at room temperature. Let the cream cheese and butter sit out of the refrigerator for 15 minutes to soften.
 Recipe adapted from Pinch My Salt
And on a separate note, Happy Valentine’s Day everyone!