Red velvet cupcakes leave me on the fence. On the one hand, I’m pretty obsessed with them, unable to turn down one when offered to me. On the other hand, I have massive guilt pangs making them because all that food coloring seems to be the antithesis of what I like to do here. It’s like loving cheesy poofs. You know they’re bad for you, but you just can’t quit them. Or at least I can’t. There, now you know my junk food Achilles heel. I’m sure everyone’s got one.
I suppose we all need our “snack of shame”, as I like to refer to my cheesy poof love. And so long as we don’t abuse it, we’re in good standing. So what is it about red velvet cake that makes even the biggest food snobs who eschew artificial everything line up to get a slice? It might be the only time I actually use artificial color (excluding some color experimentation with frosting). And I feel like I should feel ashamed about it, except I don’t. I actually feel ashamed not being ashamed. See my dilemma?
According to Wikipedia, red velvet cake was a signature dessert at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in the 1920s and that beets were used to color it only for a short period of time. The cake then gained prominence in Canada in the 40s and 50s at the Eaton department stores. And the resurgence of the cake’s popularity is owed in part by its feature in the movie “Steel Magnolias”, where a groom’s cake is a red velvet cake in the shape of an armadillo.
To me, red velvet cake has always seemed a very Southern dessert: festive, decadent, delicious. I am not sure what is so Southern about it, but I’ve been obsessed with it enough to make as many different iterations of it as possible. The first version was featured here some time ago here. And this is the one that I’m most excited about because this recipe – is definitely a keeper and much better than the earlier version. It comes from the Lee Brothers Southern Cookbook and the addition of orange zest brightens the cake batter up and complements the cream cheese frosting. The buttermilk gives the cake a nice tang and a moist, light crumb, which, when you bite into it, tastes pretty darn heavenly. To me, a dense heavy cake is a total killjoy, so this was a pleasant surprise.
But most importantly, I got two thumbs up from this guy here, who ate his cupcake with such zeal, it was gone in mere minutes. And then he promptly requested another.
Red Velvet Cupcakes with Orange Zest
Adapted from “The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook”
For the Cake:
2 3/4 cups plus 1 tbs sifted cake flour or 2 1/2 cups sifted bleached all-purpose flour, plus more for flouring the pans
2 tsp salt
2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp baking soda
1/4 cup cocoa powder such as Hershey’s
1 oz red food coloring
1 1/2 tbsp water
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened, plus more for greasing the pans
2 cups sugar
3 large eggs
1 1/2 tsp natural vanilla extract
1 tbsp orange zest (from 1-2 oranges)
1 cup whole or low fat buttermilk
For the Icing:
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter
1 lb cream cheese (2 packages) softened
1 lb (4 cups) sifted confectioners’ sugar
2 tbsp whole milk (if needed)
Making the cupcakes:
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line 2 muffin trays with cupcake liners (you should be getting around 18 cupcakes).
2. Sift together the dry ingredients twice. Dry ingredients: flour, salt, baking powder and baking soda.
3. In a small bowl, stir together the cocoa, red food coloring, and water until it becomes a smooth paste (about 1 minute). Set aside.
4. In a large mixing bowl, beat the butter until creamy using an electric mixer (about 30 seconds). Gradually, add the sugar, 1/4 cup at a time, beating about 15 seconds after each addition and scraping down the sides of the bowl if necessary, until the mixture has considerably lightened in color and become fluffy. This should take a few minutes (2-3). Add eggs, one by one, allowing to mix well after each addition. After eggs, add the vanilla and then orange zest, beating for about 15 seconds after each addition. Add the red cocoa paste and mix well until it is evenly incorporated.
5. Add the flour mixture to the butter and eggs mixture one third at a time alternating with buttermilk, and finishing with the flour mixture. Avoid overworking the batter. The best way to do that, gently mix with a wooden spoon or rubber spatula after each addition, until the ingredient is just incorporated. Once all the ingredients are well-incorporated,beat the better 10-12 strokes with your spoon or spatula if using cake flour, 2-3 strokes if using bleached all-purpose flour.
6. Distribute the batter across the cupcake liners filling about 3/4 way to the top. Bake until a cake tester or a toothpick emerges clean, about 18-20 minutes.
7. Remove from the oven and let the cupcakes cool in the pan on a rack for 10 minutes. Afterward, remove from the muffin tray and let cool on a cooling rack by themselves.
Making the frosting:
8. In a large bowl, beat 3/4 cup butter, set aside for icing, with the mixer for 20 seconds, until creamy. Next, add the cream cheese and beat until the butter cream cheese mixture is fluffy for about 1 minute. Next, add the confectioners’ sugar 1 cup at a time, beating for 30 seconds after each addition, until the mixture is creamy, fluffy, and smooth. If the frosting is too stiff, beat the milk into it to loosen it.
9. Spoon the frosting into a pasty bag and pipe the frosting in swirls onto cupcakes.
10. Store at room temperature covered. If you don’t plan to eat the cupcakes for 24 hours, refrigerate – covered.