Thursday, October 9, 2008

red velvet cupcakes with vanilla bean cream cheese frosting

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In our family room at home there are two moss-green chenille chairs. In many ways, their outward appearance -- seemingly brand new -- conceals their history. These chairs, in addition to those surrounding the kitchen table, are the only chairs left that were in the house when I was born. Despite their good condition, it's easy to look at them now and think they don't belong. The green and harvest gold 1970s decor they once matched has long since been replaced with a country blue motif, but judging them by color and style alone overlooks the important role the chairs have played in our home. They've held grandmas cradling babies and served as walls for childhood blanket forts. They've been places of retreat for reading, for napping, for relationship ending, and for relationship mending. And for the past 19 or so years, they've dutifully flanked the Christmas tree, alternately holding presents and people during holiday gatherings.

As we remodel the kitchen and add on to the house, bringing new furniture in and taking old furniture out, I find that I have a renewed appreciation for these misfit chairs. They'll soon resign their post in the living room for newer pastures elsewhere, but I'm glad to know they'll still be available for afternoon naps, evening chats, and the holiday gatherings that develop in a new room of our home.

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Kenny Chesney has a great song that traces his life through the moments experienced in a blue rocking chair. Though the moments he sings of are fictional (presumably, since he is from Tennessee and the song is about a chair on the beach), I think the sentiments are strikingly similar:

There's a blue rocking chair sitting in the sand
Weathered by the storms and well-oiled hands
It sways back and forth with the help of the winds
It seems to always be there, like an old trusted friend

I've read a lot of books, wrote a few songs
Looked at my life - where it's goin', where it's gone
I've seen the world through a bus windshield
But nothing compares to the way that I see it
To the way that I see it
To the way that I see it when I sit in that old blue chair

From that chair I've caught a few fish and some rays
And I've watched boats sail in and out of Cinnamon Bay
I let go of a lover that took a piece of my heart
Prayed many times for forgiveness and a brand new start

I've read a lot of books, wrote a few songs
Looked at my life - where it's goin', where it's gone
I've seen the world through a bus windshield
But nothing compares to the way that I see it
To the way that I see it
To the way that I see it when I sit in that old blue chair

When I decided I was going to make a red velvet cupcake, my first task was to figure out exactly what red velvet cake is supposed to be. Many people complain that it is nothing more than a yellow cake with red dye, that it isn't chocolately enough, or that it doesn't have any noticeable flavor, but after much consideration, I decided that red velvet cake is supposed to be like that initial whiff of cocoa you smell when you first open the cocoa container -- light but distinct. Therefore, a high-quality cocoa would be in order. The next decision was equally important: Would I follow tradition and use gobs of red food coloring, or experiment with natural products like beet juice to turn my cake red? After reading a few reviews about the so-so results of using beet juice, I opted to squash my inner baking conscience and throw artificial color into my batter.

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You wouldn't even believe how many red velvet cake recipes I read before settling on this one. Thankfully, though, my time was well spent. This cake turned out wonderfully moist with a distinguishable cocoa flavor. The red color was festive and traditional, but deep enough to prevent it from looking shockingly artificial. I was similarly pleased with the frosting. It pairs well with the cake, but it isn't so sweet that your teeth want to stage a revolt (to borrow a phrase from Deb).

Just a couple of tips for making these cupcakes successfully: As mentioned, using high-quality cocoa is important. I chose Scharffen Berger, and though I winced at the price when I pulled it off the grocery store shelf, I really do think it made a positive difference in the taste of the cake. Furthermore, be sure to sift your cake flour, cocoa, and buttermilk, too, if you use the powdered version. Otherwise you may end up with smallish lumps in your baked cupcakes. Additionally, these cupcakes bake up exceptionally well in souffle cups. You'll want to fill them 3/4 full because the batter doesn't rise until near the end of the baking time. Since the internal structure is already developed by the time they rise, they don't overflow and tend to have domed tops. Finally, I noticed some color separation in my first batch of these cupcakes, so I added the note about stirring each cupcake with a toothpick just before sending the batch into the oven. The subsequent batches made this way came out with a much more uniformly red color.

Red Velvet Cupcakes with Vanilla Bean Cream Cheese Frosting
Makes about 30 cupcakes

Adapted from a recipe from The Confetti Cakes Cookbook by Elisa Strauss & Christi Matheson, via The New York Times and Smitten Kitchen
3 1/2 cups cake flour, sifted
1/2 cup unsweetened, high-quality cocoa (not Dutch process), sifted
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
2 cups canola oil
2 1/4 cups granulated sugar
3 eggs
6 tablespoons (3 ounces) red food coloring, or 1 teaspoon red gel food coloring dissolved in 6 tablespoons of water
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
1 1/4 cups buttermilk
2 teaspoons baking soda
2 1/2 teaspoons white vinegar

Vanilla Bean Cream Cheese Frosting
Adapted from a recipe from the Cupcake Bakeshop
24 ounces (3 packages) cream cheese, room temperature
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, room temperature
8-10 cups confectioners' sugar, sifted
1 tablespoon vanilla bean paste

To Make the Cupcakes:
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Whisk together the cake flour, cocoa, and salt in a medium-size bowl. Set aside

Place oil and sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the flat beater and beat at medium speed until well blended. Beat in eggs one at a time. Add red food coloring and beat slowly to combine. (Take care -- it may splash.) Add vanilla. Add the flour mixture in 3 additions, alternating with the buttermilk and beginning and ending with the flour. Beat until just combined.

Place baking soda in a small dish, stir in vinegar until dissolved, and add to batter with machine running. Beat for 10 seconds.

Fill your cupcake containers of choice 3/4 full. Give each cupcake a quick stir with a toothpick just prior to baking to ensure even coloring throughout. Bake for 25-30 minutes* or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Cool completely on a wire rack before frosting or decorating as desired.

*For 4-ounce souffle cups, which are slightly larger than the wells of a standard cupcake pan.

To Make the Frosting:
In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the flat beater, beat together the cream cheese and butter until well blended. Add 8 cups of confectioners' sugar and beat until light and fluffy. Add the vanilla bean paste and beat until combined. Add more sugar until you reach your desired consistency and sweetness.


  1. These are absolutely gorgeous. Thanks for searching through all the red velvet cake recipes to find a winner. :0

  2. Thanks! You know I'd be lying if I said I didn't get some deep satisfaction out of ferreting out a new standby recipe.

    How 'bout the Irish this year? Not bad, right?

  3. These are beautiful! Simply beautiful. Anyone that makes such pretty food can be my friend. Thanks for sharing your blog!

  4. Thanks, Hannah -- when we have a get-together somewhere other than a restaurant, I promise to bring some blog-worthy treats along!

  5. made these last night and they are really good!
    i didnt have enough red food coloring (only 1 oz), but the color was a perfect shade. not too red where it looks abnormal, but not too dark.
    and i didnt have enough confectioners sugar for the frosting (6-7 cups rather than the 8-10) but it still tasted great!

  6. Thanks for your comment, Brooke -- I'm glad to hear they turned out well for someone else. Cream cheese frosting is very adaptable and the red food coloring obviously isn't crucial, so if you had to pick 2 ingredients to be short on, those were the right two!

  7. Do you mind if I ask if you have to use canola oil? Can you use vegetable oil? I don't have any on hand, and 2 cups seems like a lot of oil, so I wanted to make sure that was right.


  8. Hi Kim -- Though I prefer canola oil, I'm reasonably sure you could use vegetable oil instead. You will still need the full 2 cups, but the recipe does make a lot of cupcakes.

  9. I have enjoyed stumbling upon your collection of beautiful photos, recipes and words. I am currently in a search for a wonderfully moist yellow butter cake, specically Elisa Strauss'. I have yet to purchase her book, so I haver resorted to the internet. I noticed that the recipe for the red velvet cake is partially from Elisa Strauss. I was wondering if this recipe would work for a yellow butter cake if I take out the dye and cocoa?

  10. Another goofy question- I love the way you place your frosting- what's the technique for getting it on the cupcake and sit there like in a neat little mound? I made these too, for Christmas, and they were wonderful!

  11. Sweetcakes -- I haven't tried to alter this recipe at all, but I don't think you would end up with the perfect yellow cake if you simply removed the dye and cocoa. The ratio of liquids to dry ingredients is key, so removing the cocoa would throw things off quite a bit. Also, butter cakes usually contain more egg yolks (for consistency and the yellow color) and regular milk instead of buttermilk.

  12. Hi Cori -- Start frosting in the center of the cupcake and work your way out. Really it just takes a bit of practice. Sometimes if I'm trying out a new frosting technique, I'll practice on a sheet of wax paper before piping the frosting onto the actual cupcakes.