Red velvet cake - what exactly is it? These days you can't sidle up to a bakery counter without stumbling over a red velvet cupcake, always the house specialty. From what I can tell, it is a very moist buttermilk cake with varying amounts of cocoa, though never enough for it to actually acquire a chocolate flavor. And it is startlingly red. Shockingly red. Absurd, naughty, over-the-top red. I can't decide whether it's three inch stilettto heels and a vampy dress kinda red or ridiculous clown shoes and a curly wig kinda red. Either way, I like red velvet. I like the flavor, which I can't quite put my finger on. I like its ubiquitous companion - cream cheese frosting. I like the contrast between rich, evocative red and billowy, snowy white. I like its strangeness.
However, actually bringing myself to make this odd dessert is a whole other story. I started off with the best intentions. A three-layer red velvet cake recipe from the New York Times. Then things went downhill. First, I balked at the thought of frosting a bright red cake with white icing (ugh, crumb layers and refrigeration and offset spatulas), so I decided to go down the cupcake route instead. I may have sacrificed some moisture here. Then I balked at the three ounces of red food coloring. Three ounces?!? That is a jaw-dropping amount of a highly concentrated artificial coloring agent. I couldn't do it. I stopped at two. I probably should have added a tablespoon of water to compensate. And while I am messing with red velvet purity, you will notice that I happened to choose a recipe with a full half a cup of cocoa. Somewhere Paula Deen is twitching. I like cocoa. Most red velvet recipes have a couple of tablespoons of cocoa, which just doesn't seem like enough to do much of anything, so I went with the half cup. I used a very deep, dark Valrhona cocoa, which along with my food coloring sqeamishness, tempered the redness of my final product. And to hammer the final nail in the coffin of Southern tradition, I added a few handfuls of chocolate chips. These cupcakes may not have been true red velvet, but they were darn sure going to taste good.
The resulting cupcakes were, in fact, very tasty. Slightly tangy, slightly cocoa-flavored, with a few explosions of chocolate chippy goodness. Delicious little pedestals for the real star - cream cheese frosting. My favorite. They were not as moist as they could have been. Reducing the cooking time and adding the ounce of water would have probably resulted in a more moist cupcake (I have added these untested adjustments in the recipe below).
The best part, however, was the color. I couldn't quite capture it in the photos, but these cupcakes are a gorgeous deep burgundy hue. No childish red here. These are grownup cupcakes. Dark, seductive, jewel-toned. And the chocolate chips - they make them downright devilish.
Red Velvet Cupcakes with a Dark Side
(adapted from The Confetti Cakes Cookbook by Elisa Strauss via The New York Times)
3 1/2 cup cake flour
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa (I used Valrhona)
1 1/2 tsp salt
2 cup canola oil
2 1/4 cup granulated sugar
3 lg eggs
4 Tbsp (2 oz) red food coloring + 2 Tbsp of water
1 1/2 tsp vanilla
1 1/4 cup buttermilk
2 tsp baking soda
2 1/2 tsp white vinegar
a few handfuls of chocolate chips (I used Ghiradelli semi-sweet - I have pounds of this stuff in my pantry) tossed in some flour to coat
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line cupcake pans with paper liners.
2. Whisk cake flour, cocoa and salt in a bowl.
3. Place oil and sugar in bowl of an electric mixer and beat at medium speed until well-blended. Beat in eggs one at a time. With machine on low, very slowly add red food coloring. (Take care: it may splash.) Add vanilla. Add flour mixture alternately with buttermilk in two batches. Scrape down bowl and beat just long enough to combine. Stir in chocolate chips until just combined.
4. Place baking soda in a small dish, stir in vinegar and add to batter with machine running. Beat for 10 seconds.
5. Divide batter cupcake pans, place in oven and bake until a cake tester comes out clean, about 20 minutes. Let cool in pans 20 minutes. Cool completely before frosting.
Cream Cheese Frosting
8 oz cream cheese, room temp
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter room temp
3 cup confectioner’s sugar, sifted
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
Place cream cheese and butter in a medium bowl. With an electric mixer, beat until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add sugar and vanilla. Beat, on low speed to combine. If too soft, chill until slightly stiff, about 10 minutes, before using.