When my friend Dave was five years old, he was traveling with his family through the Grand Canyon. Whilst at a rest stop, Dave went about his business, then flushed the urinal, which promptly exploded, spraying him mercilessly with water while he screamed in terror. Relaying the story thirty-some years later, Dave noted, "Even now when I flush, I still jump back and flinch."
Such is it for me and red velvet cake. There's a reason the post is entitled "Red Velvet Hell." Red velvet cake is my own personal kryptonite. In its presence, I wilt. I die.
My experience three years ago was so traumatizing that for some time, when I saw red velvet cake, when I heard someone talking about it, when I even thought about it, my heart would race and my skin would go clammy. I would have visions of my four failed baking attempts --in a single day. I remembered being curled on the ground wondering what to do about producing a red velvet wedding cake twelve hours hence. I would recall crying over broken, exploded bits of red cake fluff.
My friend Jenn, who had been roped into taste testing twelve different recipes of red velvet cake, was likewise haunted -- subsequently she was able to discern within a few bites if a red velvet cake had been made with butter, Crisco or oil.
The bride for whom I made the cake did not know about the horror for years until recently when she met up with another friend of mine who had been present through the whole trauma and my friend, upon being introduced to the woman, exclaimed, "OH! You're the red velvet cake bride!"
Maybe it was the distance lent by intervening years; the haze of post traumatic cake syndrome where you forget how awful it was. Whatever the case, for Pug's birthday party, which fell on Valentine's Day, I got this idea to make vanilla cupcakes for the kids and red velvet cupcakes for the adults.
What the @#$%^&*( was I thinking?
I've had Vivian's cake; it is delicious. It is a perfect red velvet cake. But I must accept it is not a perfect recipe for me.
Using her recipe once again yielded disaster, late night heart palpitations and a resoundingly blue vocabulary, the likes of which can only be indulged when Pug is not around to repeat in his newly parrot-like state. The fact is, I think I'm cursed by this recipe. Either Vivian has omitted a step, an ingredient, or I'm just incompetent when it comes to her red velvet cake.
The first batch came out of the oven so light and airy in texture that they exploded into bits when I attempted to upend them on to a baking rack. You know that sinking feeling when it's ten-thirty p.m. and your time is limited because Pug's younger brother (oh, yes, the newly born 11-week old Hoss, whom I will post about another time...) is about to wake up any minute and you've got to have forty cupcakes ready the next morning? Yeah, that feeling.
The second batch fared no better, Crayola-red in color instead of that wine dark color created by the cocoa, and surprisingly frail and withered looking. They didn't pulverize when I popped them out on to the baking rack to cool But when I went to peel off a cupcake paper, half the cupcake went with the paper. The cupcake was so hole-y on the inside that had I been making French bread instead of cupcakes, I would have been elated.
The problem I have with this cake recipe is that it goes for lightness and airiness at the expense of texture and substance. Having made my baking bed and determined to lie in it, I chucked her recipe and began scouring the cookbook arsenal and Internet for red velvet cake recipes.
After reading through some twenty or so recipes, I began formulating my own version. I wanted a strong, moist cake, not an ethereal puff cloud. That meant banishing the White Lily flour and sifting just once. I also wanted a stronger chocolate flavor so I used the good cocoa -- Dagoba, rather than Hershey's -- and lots of it. I also can't stand the idea of Crisco so I used good rich European butter (Plugra) which is more butterfat than water. I'm still trying to figure out the vinegar since I really couldn't taste it in the final batter, but it was a required ingredient in nearly every recipe, so why screw with something that clearly has provenance? The final result was a rich, dark red, moist, balanced and more importantly - yummy red velvet cupcake with that distinct cocoa aftertaste.
I still have some tweaks to work out, and am intrigued enough to try again...but not so soon. Even though the cupcakes came out lovely and got rave reviews...some wounds run really deep. Shudder.
Here's my first go round at this recipe. I'm still tweaking so I'll update when I find the "perfect" recipe.
Red Velvet Cupcakes with Vanilla Cream Cheese Frosting
3/4 cups butter
2 cups of sugar
3 3/4 cups all purpose flour (I used King Arthur organic all purpose flour)
1 cup of Dagoba or other non-alkalized cacao powder
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups buttermilk
2 teaspoons vinegar
1 T vanilla
1 fl oz red food coloring
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Sift the dry ingredients together (flour, cacao powder, baking soda, baking powder, salt) in a bowl and set aside. Mix the wet ingredients (buttermilk, vinegar, vanilla and food coloring) in another bowl. Beat together sugar and butter until the sugar is dissolved and the mix is creamy and smooth, approximately 5 minutes. Add the eggs in one at a time, making sure they are well incorporated. Reduce the speed to medium and add half the dry ingredients, mixing well. Mix in half the wet ingredients. Repeat with the remaining dry and wet ingredients.
Spoon the batter into cupcake tins and bake approximately 18-22 minutes, or until a tester comes out clean. Cool the cupcakes on a baking rack. When they're cool, pipe cream cheese frosting on the top.
Vanilla Cream Cheese Frosting
1/2 lb unsalted butter, room temp
8 oz unsalted butter, room temp
12 oz cream cheese, room temp
8 oz confectioners sugar
1 1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract
Beat better and cheese on med high until fluffy. Reduce speed. Add sugar and vanilla, beat until combined.