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The Daley Question

Scratch the box (cake)

Mom wants a better birthday cake than son's preferred box cake

Bill Daley

The Daley Question

October 8, 2013

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Q: My son's request for a birthday cake each year is a yellow box mix with canned frosting. I would prefer to make something from scratch to celebrate his birthday this year. Do you have any a good yellow buttermilk cake recipes with a tasty chocolate frosting that will satisfy his tastes and my desire for a truly homemade cake?

—Laura Henze, Lemont, Ill.

A: My first thought was, sure, I can get you a yellow buttermilk cake recipe. I turned to Debbie Moose, a Raleigh, N.C.-based food writer and author of "Buttermilk: A Savor the South Cookbook," for a recipe. Debbie didn't have one but she made an important point that I think you need to consider.

"It is his birthday. Make him what he wants,'' she declared.

Moose suggests you bake something else to serve with the box cake. No, not the homemade alternative, as much as that is what you desire, but something different and less open to direct comparison. For the danger is that the harder you push that homemade cake, the harder he'll shove it back at you.

Nudge him instead toward your idea of quality.

I inadvertently learned that lesson myself years ago when I started stir-frying dinner as a teenager in Madison, Conn. Up to that point, "Chinese" food at my house meant store-bought cans of meat, vegetables and sauce or occasional forays to the big city for takeout. My father raged against my Sichuan-style dishes, moaning the addition of garlic and chilies and the lack of a gloppy sauce. When I went off to college, he went back to his canned stuff. And didn't like it; his palate had grown accustomed to what I had been doing. The cans stayed in the cupboard unopened.

Debbie suggested pairing that box cake with these red velvet cupcakes, which are made with buttermilk, cocoa and a beet juice dye. She thinks he just might go for it.

"It's something red and kind of goofy,'' she explains.

Give it a shot, Laura. At the very least, you'll find something on the birthday party table that you can enjoy.

Magie's Naturally Red Velvet Cupcakes

Makes 24 to 30 cupcakes.

This recipe in Debbie Moose's "Buttermilk: A Savor the South Cookbook" comes from Mage Lanz, an artist and former food blogger based in Sunnyvale, Calif.

For the beet juice dye:

1 beet, sliced

1/4 cup white vinegar

1 cup water

For the cupcakes:

3/4 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature

1 3/4 cups sugar

5 large egg whites, at room temperature

1 1/2 cups buttermilk, at room temperature

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 cup each: cake flour; all-purpose flour

3/4 cup non-alkalized cocoa powder (don't use Dutch processed)

1 teaspoon each: baking soda; baking powder, salt

1/4 cup beet juice dye

For the frosting:

12 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature

3/4 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature

2 cups powdered sugar

1.To prepare the beet juice dye, but the beet, vinegar and water in a saucepan. Place the saucepan over medium heat, bring the liquid to a boil, then reduce the heat and slowly simmer it down until there's about 1/4 cup left. Strain out the beet and let the liquid cool before using. The juice will keep up to a month, covered and refrigerated.

2.To prepare the cupcakes, place paper liners in approximately 30 muffin cups. Beat the butter and sugar together with an electric mixer or stand mixer until the sugar is dissolved and the texture is light and fluffy.  Add the egg whites one at a time.  Beat until the texture becomes almost like frosting. Then beat in the buttermilk and vanilla.

3.In a separate bowl, sift together the flours, cocoa, baking soda, baking powder and salt. Gradually beat the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients until the batter is smooth. The texture and consistency should be something like chocolate mousse. Stir in the beet juice dye.

4.Spoon the cake batter into the muffin tins. Bake in a 375-degree oven for 15-20 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center of 1 cupcake comes out clean. Do not overbake. Let the cupcakes cool to room temperature on a wire rack before frosting.

5 To prepare the frosting, using an electric mixer, beat the cream cheese, butter and sugar together until smooth and fluffy.  Put the frosting in a quart-size reclosable plastic bag, cut off a corner and pipe spirals of frosting onto each cupcake. Keep the frosted cupcakes refrigerated, tightly covered, until serving.

Do you have a question about food or drink? E-mail Bill Daley at: wdaley@tribune.com. Snail mail inquiries should be sent to: Bill Daley, Chicago Tribune, 435 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago 60611. Twitter @billdaley.