What makes the red velvet cake red is the Red #40 or #3 dye - a food coloring, or beets for a more natural red velvet cake. Some recipes try to circumvent the use of red dye (petroleum-based) by even using tomato juice or soup or even red wine.
The most traditional Red Velvet Cake was called "Red Velvet Devil's Cake". It didn't use any of the food colorings - chemical or natural. Instead, it used natural (acidic) cocoa powder. Natural cocoa has a pigment called anthocyanins (also in red cabbage) which turns red in acidic environment.
Back then the cake wasn't nearly as red as it is today. It must have been slightly red and brown at the same time. The acidic cocoa powder together with the acidic buttermilk and vinegar created an acidic enough environment for the natural cocoa's anthocyanins to turn reddish. I've read a lot of Red Velvet recipes that even add lemon juice to increase the acidity and this retain as much of the red color as possible.
So here is what I think the classic red velvet cake recipe could have looked like. Again, you have to use a natural cocoa powder - not the Dutch-processed or alkalized (or processed with alkali) cocoa, sold in the supermarkets today. If you find organic raw cocoa powder - that will be what should get the job done. If not, then nothing will beside using red dyes. Here we go - my theoretic take on the Red Velvet Classic Recipe:
Old-fashioned Red Velvet Cake Recipe (No beets, No food coloring)
2 1/2 cups cake flour, sifted 1 1/2 cup brown sugar (caller red sugar back then) 2 tablespoons unsweetened, unprocessed natural (acidic) cocoa powder 1 teaspoon baking powder 1 teaspoon baking soda 1 teaspoon salt 1/2 cup unsalted butter 2 eggs 1 teaspoon vanilla extract 1 cup buttermilk 1 teaspoon white vinegar
Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Sift the flour, baking powder and salt together into a bowl. In a mixer bowl, beat the butter and sugar together until fluffy. Add the eggs, vanilla extract and the cocoa powder. Mix more. Add the flour mix and the buttermilk. Mix. Mix vinegar and baking soda together in a separate bowl - this mixture will expand. Add this vinegar mix to your cake batter and mix well. Pour the mixture into a cake pan and bake it for about 20 minutes. Let it cool before frosting.
Classic Red Velvet Cake Frosting:
Butter Roux Frosting (Boiled Milk Frosting) (from this blog: http://www.bakespace.com/recipes/detail/Red%20Velvet%20Cake/13589/)
1 cup Whole Milk 3 TB All Purpose Flour A pinch of Salt 1 cup unsalted Butter 1 cup Granulated Sugar 1 tsp Vanilla extract
Whisk flour into milk and place over medium heat in a small sauce pan. Cook mixture until thickened, whisking constantly. Remove from heat and whisk in the Salt. Pout into a clean bowl and cover with plastic wrap on the surface. (This will stop the cooking and the plastic will prevent crusting) Set aside to cool slightly. In a stand mixer, begin creaming the butter and sugar until fluffy. Add vanilla extract and mix to combine. When milk mixture is slightly cooled; add 1 TB at a time to the creamed butter mixture while the mixer is running on medium speed. Slowly but surely the gluten will pull in the butter into a pseudo emulsion. You should have an extremely fluffy, light and buttery frosting when completed.
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