By Leah Eskin
The red velvet cupcake is self-explanatory. It's a cupcake. It offers a velvet-soft crumb. And it's red.
I'm with cupcake. I'm all for velvet-soft. But stop short at red. Especially the entire-tube-of-red-gel sort of red. Red food coloring bears a strange spicy flavor that's sharp on the tongue and insulting to buttery batter. It's not taste-free; it's tasteless.
I read up on velvet cake, and found myself spellbound by the Southern cook's bossy convictions: Red velvet cake must include buttermilk. It must flaunt a light cocoa flavor. And it must be topped with cooked vanilla icing. It must not, I decided, be despoiled with red dye No. 40.
The cupcake circuit is thick with red velvet rumors. One claims that the original red bled over from beet sugar. I roasted beets, pureed them smooth and stirred them into a startling purple batter.
Fresh from the oven, the cupcakes gave off the scent of warm mud. I cracked one open and found the cake colored a pure, even beige.
I tried swapping out the sugar for cherries, cherry juice concentrate, cherry preserves. Some batches came out good, some soggy, none red. I colored the batter with smashed strawberries, cranberry sauce, reconstituted dehydrated cranberries. I poured in pomegranate juice and, in a reckless moment, a bottle of rose.
Night after night, I turned out cupcakes tinted lavender, pink, brown. Not red.
Despondent, I turned to the history book. One theory has it that the red velvet tradition evolved from simple kitchen chemistry — a side effect of combining buttermilk, baking soda, vinegar and old-fashioned cocoa powder.
I mixed up a classic batch, minus the food coloring. One big bite revealed a cupcake that was velvet-soft, cocoa-scented and a subtle rusty red. Good enough, I thought. As well as good.
Prep: 20 minutes
Bake: 15 minutes
Note: Bring all ingredients to room temperature.
1 3/4 cups sifted cake flour
1 1/2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa (natural, not Dutch-processed)
1/4 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup sugar
1 egg plus 1 egg yolk
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup buttermilk
3/4 teaspoon each: white vinegar, baking soda
Vanilla frosting, see recipe below
Sift flour, cocoa, salt together. Set aside.
Beat butter and sugar together until light and fluffy, 5 minutes. Add egg; fluff. Add egg yolk; fluff. Add vanilla, fluff.
Add buttermilk in three parts, alternating with flour mixture. Mix just enough to blend.
Stir together vinegar and baking soda; mixture will fizz up. Mix into batter.
Pour batter into a 12-cupcake-capacity cupcake pan fitted with paper liners. Slide into a 350-degree oven and bake until springy, 12-15 minutes. Cool completely, then frost.
Adapted from "More From Magnolia," by Allysa Torey.
Vanilla frosting: Whisk 3 tablespoons flour and 1 cup whole milk in a medium saucepan over medium heat until thick, 10 minutes. Cover and cool. Beat 2 sticks butter creamy. Pour in 1 cup sugar and beat fluffy, 3 minutes. Mix in 1 teaspoon vanilla. Add milk mixture and beat on high until bright white. Chill.
Leah Eskin is a Tribune special contributor. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2014 Chicago Tribune Company, LLC