RED VELVET RENAISSANCE
Daring in its contrast between ruby red chocolate cake crumb and tangy white cream cheese icing, the red velvet cake is here to stay. This storied cake was a staple of bakeries in the American south before its renaissance as a staple of American cupcake shops from New York to Chicago to Los Angeles. Today, the red color comes mostly from food coloring (many recipes call for a whole bottle!), but natural cocoa powder and a chemical reaction between vinegar, buttermilk and baking soda are also involved in the cake’s ruddy color. Before red food coloring was invented, and long before cupcakes commanded their own storefronts, chocolate cakes were made red by another means in another place: beets and rural Russia.
Russians take pride in preserving the prizes of their summer harvests in jams, preserves and pickles. Their root vegetables, like beets, help get them through many long winters. Preserves and sweetening agents are often included in foods when fruits are scarce, and the naturally sweet, colorful beet found its way into peasant cakes throughout Russia in the 1800’s. The beets are boiled or baked, then mashed into the cake batter.
The popularity of Red Velvet Cake in the American south traces back to an apocryphal story of a southern gourmet’s trip to the Waldorf Hotel in New York City in the 1920’s. She was able to pry the recipe from the head chef and was in turn sent a large bill. Miffed, she took it back to her home in Georgia where she popularized it amongst her many friends. Yet when the current chef of the restaurant of the Waldorf checked the archives, no record could be found of a Red Velvet Cake recipe, nor of the mysterious chef who may have created it. Despite its many irresolute origins, this cake remains larger and more enduring than the sum of its stories.
BEET RED VELVET CAKE
Like borscht, the color comes from boiled ruby red beets. Yet its flavor is light, exquisite chocolate. The beets make the cake especially moist.
1 ½ stick (6 oz.) butter (at room temperature)
1 ½ cups sugar
4 oz. melted bittersweet chocolate
2 ¼ cups cake flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. salt
3 Tbs. cocoa powder (preferably “natural” or non-alkalised)
½ cup beets (boiled, peeled and pureed*)
½ cup buttermilk
½ cup sour cream
1 Tbs. white vinegar
1 Tbs. vanilla
A few drops of red food coloring (optional)
Preheat oven to 350. Prepare 2 cake pans by lining them with parchment paper.
Combine flour, cocoa powder, salt & baking soda & set aside.
Cream butter and sugar together until it becomes light and fluffy. Add eggs one at a time. Add the pureed beets and vanilla to the batter. In a separate medium bowl, blend the sour cream and buttermilk together. Then, starting with the four mixture, alternate flour mixture and the buttermilk/sour cream mixture in thirds until both are mixed into the batter. Finally, place the baking soda in a separate small bowl and add the vinegar to it. It will foam up. Fold the soda & vinegar mixture into the cake batter.
Pour the batter into prepared prepared pans and bake for about 35 minutes, until cake is firm to the touch and a toothpick inserted in the middle of the cake comes out with just a few crumbs, not wet batter. Allow the cakes to cool to room temperature, the unmold them and assemble them with cream cheese icing or white icing or your choice.
WHITE CHOCOLATE CREAM CHEESE ICING
3 8oz. packages of cream cheese
4 oz. melted white chocolate
1 Tbs. vanilla
½ cup milk
½ cup cream
½ cup sifted powdered sugar
1 squeeze fresh lemon juice
Unwrap the packages of cream cheese and place them in the bowl of an electric mixer. Allow them to come to room temperature. Use the paddle attachment and mix the cream cheese on low until it is completely soft and smooth. Stop the mixer and add all the other ingredients. Mix on medium until the icing is smooth. Adjust to taste. Allow the icing to chill for about ½ hour before applying it to the cake.
*To puree fresh beets, cut off their stems and boil them for 15 minutes. Let them cool enough to handle, then peel off their skins with a vegetable peeler and puree them in a fod processor, blender or by hand with a potato masher.