The Velvet Truth

Enough already. The out-of-control cupcake craze of the past few years has peaked, leaving a trail of overwrought treats in its wake (and the somewhat frightening prospect of a cupcake vending machine.) Perhaps the most collateral damage has been done to the reputation of the Red Velvet Cake, touted by many bakeries as the ultimate variety, the cupcake supreme. But an office celebration a couple of weeks ago, with cupcakes from one of New York’s most famous purveyors, provided the sorriest sample to date: a Red Velvet cupcake that was so red it looked like it was bleeding, with a hefty dollop of frosting that tasting like slightly sweetened Crisco. “I don’t get it,” one taster said. “Why are people so crazy about Red Velvet?”

To set the record straight about why the Red Velvet Cake/Cupcake is so beloved, we baked up a batch using an old-fashioned recipe via the Waldorf Astoria, and offered some words of wisdom on the side:

  • Yes, a Red Velvet Cake is a chocolate cake, a butter velvet cake recipe that results in a finely textured crumb, incorporating cocoa for a light, chocolately flavor.
  • No, a Red Velvet Cake does not have to be neon red in color. The reaction between buttermilk, vinegar and cocoa in the original recipes gave the cake a reddish-brown tinge, and subsequent recipes began to add red food coloring to emphasize the idea of a devil’s food cake. But newer recipes have bumped up the food coloring to absurd amounts, with some calling for an entire bottle of red color. Who really wants to consume that much food coloring?
  • Yes, there are chocolate cake recipes with beets (which do lend color and moisture) but Red Velvet is not one of them, no matter how much the girls consuming all those cupcakes  might want to think they are getting some nutrition. (Ok, we’ll concede that beets were used during World War II, when food dyes were scarce.)
  • No, a Red Velvet Cake does not always have cream cheese frosting. Original recipes call for an unusual cooked, French butter roux icing, called ermine icing,  that isn’t very sweet. It mimics the lightness of whipped cream, but holds up better without refrigeration, and provides a lovely counterpoint to the chocolate cake.
  • Yes, cream cheese frosting is an option. But to my point of view, it’s a heavy-handed topping. Do give the ermine icing a try.  More than one of those tasting the old-fashioned version after that blood-red commercial cupcake were convinced that they’d eaten cream cheese frosting.
  • Yes, tasters will be delighted, almost childlike in their enthusiasm. A sampling of comments: “This is Red Velvet Cake? I’ve never had one like this.” “It’s so light. It’s not too sweet.” “I don’t have that weird chemical feeling I usually have when I eat Red Velvet cake. This is so much better.”

We feel better too, having launched this salvo into the cupcake war.



6 Comments Add yours

  1. Fika and more says:

    I’ve never tried a red velvet cake but keep meaning to bake one. I’ve been a bit wary about the amount of food colouring that seem to go in some of them tho, so this looks like a good recipe. And will give the frosting a go too as I’m not fond of overly sweet ones. Is it normal caster sugar that goes in it or confectionary sugar?

    1. Rebecca says:

      Regular sugar, not confectioner’s. Good luck. Hope it turns out.

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  3. kathleen says:

    Fascinating note about the icing! I am no stranger to red velvet cakes, but have always had and made them with cream cheese icing (which can definitely dominate). I’ll have to try this next time!

    1. Rebecca says:

      You really should try it, Kathleen, it a very different pairing that I think is lighter and work so well with the chocolatey cake.

  4. Careno says:

    Anyone wanting to make a cake relying on the reaction with the cocoa for a reddish color, should know to not use “Dutch” or alkali processed cocoa. That changes the pH & the red color won’t result. Look for natural cocoa, not Dutch, for this type of recipe.

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