We’re just going to come out and say it: we don’t get the red velvet cake craze. Sure, it’s red. And thus, to some, pretty. But it’s red not because it’s got chocolate (a mere teaspoon in most recipes) but because it calls for an unhealthy dose of food coloring. Otherwise, it’s just plain old white cake. With an unhealthy dose of food coloring. Frankly, we don’t see the appeal.
With Valentine’s Day upon us, the omnipresence of the toxic-red treat has gotten rather obnoxious, and we’ve been forced to defend our dislike far too often. One conversation almost came to baking-blows, with the opponent, in an impassioned fit, vowing to share with us his beloved family recipe. Turns out, said recipe calls for two teaspoons of cocoa and a full two ounces of dye. Do you know how much two ounces of food coloring is? Ick.
Was red velvet always just dye? We had to believe otherwise. Thinking back on the American cakes of our childhood, we remembered that in the dogeared copy of the Fannie Farmer cookbook on the shelves of Clara’s parents’ house, there was, interestingly, a recipe for velvet cake. It was a favorite in the house growing up. All Fannie’s cakes were — Boston Favorite Cake, Priscilla cake, Lady Balitmore and Lord Baltimore. (Another cake, griddlecakes — or pancakes — was also permanently bookmarked for easy access.)
Of course, our Fannie Farmer recipe didn’t call for dye. So we started digging into the history of “velvet cakes”, and came across a beautiful little article by Stella Parks, on the “twisting, fascinating history” of red velvet. (Not surprisingly, by Parks’ account we have a bit of capitalism to blame for the original “red velvet” cake’s demise.)
In her article, Parks’ has pieced together a recipe representing her best guess for what red velvet cake was before the dye-craze. It’s a historical Velvet Cake and Red Devil’s Food Cake hybrid. And all we can say is: wow. It’s hard to say it tastes like Red Velvet, since the taste of modern red velvet is more about texture than anything else. Still, if you close your eyes, it has the same moist crumb, the same whispered hint of chocolate, the same slight acidity (from the wine, not buttermilk as in modern day recipes). It’s damn good – complex and rich without being cloyingly sweet. We are adding this cake to our rotation.
As for the color…ok. It’s not Crayola red, or really red at all. But it’s full of delicious reddish things we’re happy to consume: “red” sugar (better known as brown sugar), cocoa and lots of good red wine. And we’re thinking the reddish hue might become more pronounced with the use of light brown sugar (the recipe didn’t specify, we used dark.)
We baked these into cupcakes, adjusting the cooking time, frosted them with your classic buttery cream cheese frosting (a concession to the modern-day-Red-Velvet -obsessed–it seems historically the cake would have been frosted with a boiled milk frosting), and topped each Valentines treat with a smattering of red sprinkles (which, yes, ok, have dye.) Voilà!
red (wine) velvet cupcakes.
Adapted from Gilttaste. Makes 3 8-inch layers, or about 42 cupcakes.
If making cupcakes, adjust the baking time to 20 minutes and then start checking them. Ours were done in 20 minutes, but it will as usual depend on your oven.
12 ounces all purpose flour
2 ounces natural cocoa
16 ounces unsalted butter, room temperature
2 ounces safflower oil or other neutral flavored oil
18 ounces brown sugar
1 teaspoon salt
2¼ teaspoon baking soda
¾ teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon, preferably freshly ground
scrapings from two vanilla bean pods or 1 tsp vanilla bean paste
6 eggs, room temperature
12 ounces red wine (Zinfandels work especially well)
1½ ounces vanilla extract
1. Preheat the oven to 350° F and line three 8” by 2” cake pans with parchment rounds. Grease lightly with nonstick spray.
2. Sift together the flour and cocoa, set aside.
3. In a large bowl, combine the butter, oil, brown sugar, salt, baking soda, baking powder, cinnamon and vanilla bean seeds. Use a hand or stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment to cream the ingredients for 10 minutes on medium speed. You’ll notice the batter gets lighter in color and texture the longer you go. Don’t give up! Periodically, stop mixing to scrape the bowl down with a rubber spatula.
4. Turn the mixer to medium low and add the eggs, one at a time. Continue mixing after each addition until the egg has fully incorporated before adding the next.
5. Reduce mixer speed to low. Add the flour/cocoa mixture alternately with the red wine in about three additions. Add the vanilla at the end. Shut off the mixer and give the batter a few turns with a rubber spatula to ensure a homogenous mix.
6. Divide the batter evenly between the three prepared cake pans (25 ounces each).
7. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes. Bake until the cakes have puffed but will still retain a slight impression if touched gently with a fingertip. A toothpick inserted into the center should have a few moist crumbs still attached. (The oil in the batter makes the cakes slightly more forgiving of over-baking, but you want to keep moist crumb.)
8. Cool the cakes on a wire rack. At first, they will have pronounced domes and a slightly gray-brown color, but as they cool the domes will settle down somewhat and the color will deepen. When they have cooled, run a knife around the sides of the pan and invert onto a parchment lined tray or cooling rack. Continue cooling until no trace of warmth remains.
9. Frost and decorate as your heart desires!