Velvet cupcakes

One big bite reveals a cupcake that's velvet-smooth, cocoa-scented and a subtle rusty red. Very good! (Photo by Bill Hogan)

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.

Velvet cupcakes

Prep: 20 minutes
Bake: 15 minutes
Servings: 12

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