I'm going to start off this post by saying: please don't make this. And I don't mean that in a "omg this is so good don't you be stealing my recipe." I mean, seriously, do yourself a favor and don't make this. You may think you're being "natural" or whatever for trying to make a red velvet cake without red food coloring (I did), but do yourself a favor and... don't. Just don't.
And if it makes you feel any better, red food coloring is natural. If you use the average, everyday McCormick, or even the fancy Sur La Table-provide Americolor, you're basically using Red #40, which is derived from coal. A little bit of coal won't kill you (it hasn't killed ThreadBanger!). And even if you do happen to have a red food coloring that is labeled "naturally derived" and is not Red #40, all you're eating is crushed bugs, and bugs are high in protein. So basically you're baking a protein shake into a cake. Got it? Don't make this recipe.
But, in case you're wondering how I came to the conclusion to not make this recipe, here's the story. And the story starts with beets. Raw beets. And if you have the option to buy them with the greens, do it. Not because it's more natural or "from the earth" or "farm to table" or any of that BS, but they're cheaper and you can sauté the greens as a dinner side, or for breakfast with some eggs.
Beets are gorgeous. Despite what you think of the taste, they are beautiful. I mean, just look at them. In terms of taste, people tend to have a "love them or hate them" relationship to beets. I love them. I think they taste like dirt, but more like what dirt should taste like. And don't think that eau de terre is what made the cake itself un-delicious--you honestly couldn't taste the beets. Unless you're my husband, and just the simple knowledge that there was a vegetable somewhere in the cake marred the experience.
Red velvet is so interesting to me--and not because eating a red cake is a "Sex and the City" kitschy novelty. Red velvet exemplifies what dessert is all about: butter, sugar, eggs, and flour are king, and everything else are just cherries on the top.
For instance, red velvet has cocoa in it. Is it a chocolate cake? No. Chocolate (as well as cornstarch and almond flour in other recipes) works to soften the protein activation in flour and makes a finer texture. It also has buttermilk, lemon juice, cream of tartar, and yogurt in it. Is it sour? Absolutely not. Chemically, all these acids work to tenderize the dough and (somehow) keep it moist. This red velvet recipe has both beets and raspberries in it--but does it taste like beets and/or raspberries? Definitely not (well, unless you're my husband).
It's this weird combination of ingredients that gives a classic cake of butter, sugar, eggs, and flour a certain je ne sais quoi that has made red velvet, or rather, any velvet cake, so enduring throughout time.
That said, let's talk about the "red" in this red velvet for a second. The whole point of going after this recipe was to have a bright red color that appeared naturally. And when I measured out my liquid ingredients, it sure looked as if I was going to have, at the very least, a pink velvet cake on my hands. I mean, it's hard to get more pigmented than puréed beets and raspberry juice. However, as it turns out, the Maillard Reaction is a real thing, and without the hyper-concentrated pure red coloring garnered from coal or insects (still trying to push that whole "natural" angle), the red cum pink in the batter turns into a muddy warm brown when pulled out of the oven.
But first, the cake. Cake making is so nice because it's so simple. Cake decorating? Another story. But otherwise, so simple: cream some butter and sugar, add some eggs, alternate dry and liquid until things come together into a batter. Every recipe is the same, more or less, and stays true to those steps.
And then things curdle. In this recipe.. things curdle. If I have learned anything in my years of baking though, it's that curdling is not a bad thing. Got curdled milk? Make cheese! Got curdled cheese? Just call it aged -- you've got aged cheese! Your white Russian curdled when you added the cream? Drink it anyway, there are sober kids in Africa!
Much like the freak-out moment I have every time I make Italian Meringue Buttercream, I had a freak out moment with this batter as well. But, not one to waste ingredients, I said to myself, "Everything's measured and mixed anyway; let's try it out."
After the mixing, I was still holding out hope I would have red velvet, and had realistic ambitions that I would have mud velvet. Because I was making petit fours (or, as we'll see later, attempting to make petit fours), I spread everything out into a thin layer on two half-sheets, and threw them in the oven. Having never actually made a cake in a pan like this (I'm a fan of towering layer cakes), I wasn't sure what to expect, but thought I'd figure it out as I went on.
whEmerging from the oven, my realistic ambitions were met, and I had a muddy sort-of reddish earthy velvet. But, much to my delight, it was soft, springy, and moist. Being the idiot I am, I sprinkled it with simple syrup anyway to, I thought, keep it moist, but instead what that did was make it too moist and hard to handle. Lesson? Too much of a good thing is always a bad thing (or is it?).
I soldiered on and cut, iced, and stacked my layers. At this point, I still had hope. I thought maybe I could cover it all in white poured fondant, then make some bright red stripes (yes, using red food coloring) on top to make them cute little boxes that look like wrapped Christmas presents. They would be adorable, and you would bite in and you wouldn't even notice they were mud colored and maybe tasted a little bit like raspberries (but not of beets, again, unless you're my husband).
When I started slicing into them, I knew something was amiss. They fell apart in moist crumbles. The cake stuck to my knife. Everything was just... imperfect. They weren't pretty. Picking them up, the layers separated and fell apart, or they stuck together and became a messy glob of grossness.
I thought icing them would hide all of this, so I made a poured fondant from corn syrup, white chocolate, and powdered sugar, but do you know what it ended up tasting like? I'm not going to mince words: glue. The coating tasted like glue. And it acted like glue, too. I left a bowl out on the counter because who wants to clean after a failure like this? and it hardened into what could easily be mistaken for a bowl of Elmer's glue.
The only thing that could save them would be the taste. I mean, the texture was a lost cause, the coating made me want to shudder, and the color was less than appetizing. I knew the cream cheese frosting was good (how could it not be?), so I thought if the cake was good, at least I could close my eyes and concentrate on taste bud pleasure.
Alas, the taste wasn't even anything special. It was tender and moist, sure. It had the basics of a red velvet cake. But it had a strange aftertaste, which I can only think to attribute to the beets or the vinegar (I didn't have lemon juice, so I doubled up on the vinegar). It was a weird raw taste, kind of like a spinach mouth sensation. I mean, like I said before, enough butter, sugar, eggs, and flour and anything is going to be tasty, but in the words of George Orwell, and I believe this is the direct quote, "Some cakes are more tastier than others."
Red Velvet Petit Fours
makes 2 half-sheet pans
260 grams (2 1/2 cups) FLOUR
3 tablespoons NATURAL UNSWEETENED COCOA (not Dutch-processed or dark)
1 teaspoon SALT
2 teaspoons BAKING POWDER
1 teaspoon CREAM OF TARTAR
2 tablespoons BUTTERMILK POWDER
1 cup UNSALTED BUTTER
1 tablespoon VANILLA EXTRACT
500 grams (2 1/2 cups) GRANULATED SUGAR
4 large EGGS
1/2 cup WATER
1/2 cup PLAIN YOGURT
1/2 cup BEET PURÉE
1/2 cup RASPBERRY JUICE
2 tablespoons WHITE VINEGAR
2 tablespoons LEMON JUICE
cream cheese frosting ingredients:
8 ounces CREAM CHEESE (full fat or Neufchatel)
1/2 cup UNSALTED BUTTER
1 cup POWDERED SUGAR
1 teaspoon VANILLA EXTRACT
1. Prepare the BEET PURÉE: peel and grate raw beets, and place in a food processor or blender with a few tablespoons of water, liquifying the beets; then, run the beet puree through a fine-meshed sieve to extract only pure liquid, discarding the leftover
2. Prepare the RASPBERRY JUICE: microwave ~1 cup of raspberries and press them firmly through a fine-meshed sieve to extract the juice, discarding the leftover
3. Preheat oven to 350F and line two half-sheets with parchment paper, then grease with butter or non-stick cooking spray
4. In a medium bowl, measure out the FLOUR, COCOA, SALT, BAKING POWDER, CREAM OF TARTAR, and BUTTERMILK POWDER and whisk to combine
5. In a large mixer bowl, cream together the BUTTER, VANILLA, and SUGAR until light and fluffy
6. Add the EGGS one at a time to the butter mixture and beat until combined
7. In a pourable jug (I use a Pyrex measuring cup), lightly whisk together the WATER, YOGURT, beet puree, raspberry juice, VINEGAR, and LEMON JUICE
8. To the egg mixture, add the dry ingredients in four parts, alternating with the wet ingredients in three parts, beginning and ending with dry -- the mixture will look like it has become broken and curdled after each wet addition
9. Pour the batter into the prepared pans, and bake until solid and springy to the touch (about 20 minutes)
10. Cool for 10 minutes in the pans, then flip out onto metal racks to cool completely
1. Place CREAM CHEESE and BUTTER in a mixing bowl and cream until light and fluffy
2. Add in POWDERED SUGAR, and mix lightly until sugar is moistened, then beat more vigorously to combine ingredients
3. Add VANILLA and beat until combined
petit fours assembly:
1. Take your two half sheets, and cut to make four pieces in total, 2 pieces 10" in length and 12" in width, and 2 pieces 5" in length and 12" inches in width. The two 10" long pieces will form the top and bottom, then two shorter pieces we'll place next to each other to form one middle layer.
2. Stack your cakes! Take a bottom 10"x12" layer, and spread frosting over it; then place the two 5"x12" layers next to one another to form the second layer and spread frosting over them; lastly, take your second 10"x12" layer and place it on top
3. Put the cake in the fridge until chilled and frosting has hardened -- this will make it easier to cut
4. Trim the sides and discard scraps of cake edges that have any frosting that has oozed out the sides--you want it to be clean and straight
5. Measure the height of the cake, and cut the cake into square in length and width to the height to make tiny little square--for instance, if the cake is 1" tall, cut the cake into 1" squares to make the petit fours
A personal challenge to conquer every technical challenge, and select signature bakes, from The Great British Bake Off
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