Sunday, February 13, 2011

Obligatory Valentine's Day Recipe Post

The offspring's handiwork.  All rights reserved.

Cupcakes are over.  I'm not sure what will replace them but I'm fairly certain the cupcake trend is on its way out.  I realize they won't disappear completely.  People will always eat them.  Children will always love them and want them for their birthday parties. Cupcake bakeries peddling mediocre product will continue to exist but lately I'm noticing a lot of French macaroons and pies creeping into bakeries.  I'm sensing a shift.

But before we mourn the cupcake let's talk about the most talked about kind:  Red Velvet.

I know they're cliche.  I know they're controversial (all that unnatural food coloring!).  I also know that my daughter l-o-v-e-s them.    Personally I'm not a huge fan.  I find they are often devoid of any recognizable flavor and unbelievably dry.  Their worst offense: they are usually cloaked in way too much of an overly-sweet cloying frosting.  However, even armed with this knowledge, when your daughter wants to pretend that she's living out an episode of "Cupcake Wars" it's hard to resist playing along.

Have you ever watched Cupcake Wars?  Until recently I hadn't.  Basically 4 people are pitted against each other in 3 rounds of "competitive" cupcake baking (snort).  A panel of judges votes out one contestant each round until a winner is announced.  The cupcakes are judged on flavor and appearance.  Appearance we can see for ourselves. For the flavor we have to rely on the judges: Candace Nelson (the owner of Sprinkles and the woman I blame for this ridiculous cupcake craze), Florian Bellanger (a snooty Frenchman with a perfectly stereotypical accent - the Simon Cowell of the panel) and a random guest judge.  To my great disbelief each baker repeatedly attempts to reinvent the wheel because this is a SERIOUS COMPETITION.   Occasionally something interesting is presented but people, really, THESE ARE CUPCAKES, not a cure for cancer.   The kid likes the show and hey, I'd rather watch it than another episode of Spongebob Squarepants.  So off I went in search of a recipe that would satisfy the aesthetics of a 7 year old and my jaded palate.  I did a lot of research online and in my cookbook collection and came up with what I think is a pretty darn good red velvet recipe based on what I read, some experimentation and the ingredients I wanted to use.

Red velvet has a long-established culinary history in the American south and numerous recipes abound.   Traditionally the reddish hue comes from the interaction between baking soda, vinegar and the cocoa powder.  Somehow, over time, the recipe evolved to include frightening quantities of red food coloring.  With a 7 year old head baker I knew these cupcakes had to be red but I wasn't willing to use an entire 2 oz bottle of food coloring(!).  I read about using beet juice, beet powder and even tomato paste.  The results were mixed and definitely not universally positive (I'm being tactful here).  I bit the bullet and decided to use some food coloring.  Several different recipes suggested using gel food coloring and diluting it with water to make up for the moisture that would ordinarily be in a 2 oz bottle of liquid food coloring.  The gels are much more concentrated and result in strong pigment without having to use too much.  I started using them back when I went to culinary school and have used them ever since. They are used in my recipe for chocolate cupcakes (in the frosting) and in my recipe for cut-out cookies. 

To make up for the general lack of flavor in the cake I decided to increase the amount of cocoa powder so that the chocolate flavor would be more pronounced and recognizable.  My daughter wanted to add cinnamon because she loves the combination of chocolate and cinnamon and I thought why not.  In went a teaspoon of cinnamon.  I also wanted a cake that had a moist, rich and tender crumb.  I used buttermilk, oil and cake flour to achieve what I think is the perfect consistency.  The batter was a beautiful brick-red - not the scary fire engine red of most commercial bakery red velvet cupcakes.  It baked into a gorgeous fluffy and moist cake that was recognizably red but not shocking and definitely wouldn't color your insides.

Now onto the frosting.  Influenced by "Cupcake Wars" my daughter wanted to make something "more interesting and more flavorful" than a traditional cream cheese icing.  She decided ours had to have maple and vanilla in it.  Sounded good to me.  Good doesn't begin to describe this frosting.  It has a beautiful consistency (creamy and light) and the maple plays nicely against the chocolate and cinnamon in the cake.

Red Velvet:  tasteless, dry and cloying no more and the perfect recipe for Valentine's Day.

Red Velvet Cupcakes
(Adapted from various sources)
Yields approximately 18 standard sized cupcakes and enough icing to generously ice all of them and allow for some quality control sampling

  • 1 3/4 cups cake flour
  • 1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp cinnamon 
  • 1 tsp good quality vanilla extract
  • 1/2 tsp gel food coloring in red mixed into 3 TBS warm water to dissolve  (or 1 ounce [half a bottle  *gulp*] of liquid food coloring)
  • 2/3 cup buttermilk (or 2/3 cup milk + 2 tsp vinegar allowed to sit for at least 10 minutes to "sour")
  • 1 1/8 cups sugar
  • 1 cup oil - vegetable or canola oil will do (you just want something very neutral tasting)
  • 1 large egg plus 1 egg yolk (NOT extra large or you will end up with a tough cupcake)
  • 1 tsp white vinegar
  • 1 tsp baking soda

  1. Line 2 muffin tins with paper liners and set aside.
  2. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
  3. Combine dry ingredients.  Mix and set aside.
  4. Combine the vanilla, food coloring (and water if using) and buttermilk. Mix and set aside.
  5. In the bowl of a standing mixer or with a hand mixer combine the oil and sugar and mix until blended.
  6. With the mixer running, add in the egg and the yolk, one at a time and be sure each is fully incorporated.
  7. In alternating batches add in the dry ingredients and the buttermilk mixture.  Note:  I recommend turning off the mixer and adding in the liquids by hand at first.  Then turn the mixer back on.  This will splatter otherwise and is a *mess* to clean up.  Be sure to scrape down the sides of the bowl in between additions to ensure every last bit is incorporated into the batter.
  8. Combine the baking soda and vinegar in a small container and as soon as it is fizzy add it to the batter by gently folding it in.
  9. Pour the batter into the prepared muffin tins (I like to use an ice cream scoop - it's neater and it helps to ensure even portion sizes) - do not fill the cups more than 3/4 of the way.
  10. Bake for about 20 minutes until a tester inserted in the center comes out clean or the top bounces back if you touch it lightly with your finger.
  11. Allow to cool for 5 mins in muffin tins and then remove to finish the cooling process.
  12. When cool, frost with the Vanilla Maple Cream Cheese Frosting (if you don't eat all of it first).

Maple Vanilla Cream Cheese Frosting

  • 1 8-oz package cream cheese at room temperature (low-fat works fine but fat-free is a disaster and not worth it - I mean come on - you're making cupcakes.  Live a little and go for the good frosting.)
  • 1 stick unsalted butter at room temperature
  • 1 tsp good quality vanilla
  • 2 TBS good quality maple syrup (dark amber)
  • Generous pinch of salt
  • 2-3 cups powdered sugar (it really depends on how thick and sweet you want this to be)

  1. In the bowl of a standing mixer or with a hand mixer beat the cream cheese and butter until light and fluffy.  
  2. Add in the vanilla and maple syrup and the salt and mix to combine.
  3. Add in the powdered sugar a cup at a time and beat until smooth.  Add more sugar to reach your desired level of consistency.

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