I visited a friend last week and arrived just as she was finishing off baking. Great timing huh? Her teenaged children had been eating, and raving about, red velvet cupcakes so she decided to make some for the first time. I was fascinated of course, and barged in, stirred the icing, licked the icing, read the recipe and asked a million questions. When it comes to something a little bit different like this, I am always curious to know what makes it different. What IS a red velvet cupcake?
The questions are simple really. What makes it red, and what makes it velvety? The first part is simple - red food colouring! Wikipedia tells me that red velvet cakes have been around since the great depression, and that they were coloured either with red food colouring or boiled beetroots, I'm guessing it was appealing to use something cheap to liven things up and make them a little more exciting.
As for the velvet part, well, a glance down the list of ingredients is often a good way to see what is different about a recipe and what might be different about the result. It read much like a chocolate cupcake recipe with two slightly different ingredients, buttermilk and vinegar. Buttermilk is not uncommon in baking, but I wondered if perhaps that contributed to the velvetyness of the cake. I did read that the reaction between the buttermilk and vinegar somehow acts to really bring out the red colour in the finished product. My baking friend didn't have any buttermilk so used a splash of cream instead, and hers were certainly way more cocoa-coloured than red, so it seems this is indeed true.
Being sure to follow the recipe exactly when I tried these at home, I came to the conclusion that the word velvet is really just a name, not a texture. These were mildy chocolately cupcakes of an unusual colour and, well, nothing more. As you know cupcakes don't get me jumping with excitement, and these had not much to them other than a bit of colour. And a really nice icing. Red velvet cupcakes are traditionally topped with cream cheese icing, or sometimes butter cream icing. I didn't fancy buying cream cheese for this experiment, so did butter cream with a splash of lemon and a crazy dollop of sour cream that I happened to have and it was actually a rather inspired addition.
We have a builder at our place at the moment and my Mum was here the afternoon I was experimenting, and they both kept commenting on how good the icing was. There wasn't really much to say about the cake. I know many cupcakes are all about the prettiness and inch-thick swirls of the icing but I'm not so keen on that. May as well just eat the icing out of the bowl if that's all you're after.
Have you ever had red velvet cupcakes? Have you seen them everywhere? Have you made them? Do you love them? Am I being unfair?! I'd love to know if perhaps I'm missing something or you feel a need to defend them. They certainly made for a very enjoyable afternoon tea, and are a nice thing to grab from the freezer when you're heading out for the morning and think you'll need a snack along the way.
A bit of an internet hunt had me reading quite a few blog posts about red velvet cupcakes, and many seemed to conclude that the Hummingbird Bakery had the best recipe. Hummingbird Bakery are based in London, and they create "authentic American cakes and desserts." In fact! Londoners! Perhaps you should head in there and do some research on their red velvet and let me know what it's like. Check out this link to their red velvet cake (they do cupcakes as well but that cake looks phenomenal).
Thanks to Hummingbird for the recipe below, and to all those other bloggers who have bought the recipe book so that I can have the recipe. Do try it. It is fun to have something different.
By the way, I know my icing skills are appalling. Making icing look pretty is on my list of things to learn - feel free to send me your tips.
Yes I did use glucose in place of sugar. I think that pretty much goes without saying from now on.
Red Velvet Cupcakes
150g caster sugar
2 tablespoons cocoa
20 ml red food colouring
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
120 ml buttermilk *
1/2 teaspoon salt (optional I say)
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoons white wine vinegar
Soften the butter a little and beat with the sugar until light and fluffy. Add the egg.
In a separate bowl, mix the cocoa, food colouring and vanilla together to make a thick paste. Add to the butter mixture and mix in well. Scrape round the bowl and mix again if need be.
With the mixer on slow, add half the buttermilk and half the flour, and once incorporated repeat with the rest of the buttermilk and flour. Beat on high until you get a smooth mixture.
Add the salt, baking soda and vinegar and mix until smooth.
Pour in to 12 cupcake cases and bake for 20 - 25 mins at 170 degrees.
Ice with cream cheese icing or buttercream icing.