Red velvet cake is a Southern classic. It is neither a traditional vanilla cake nor chocolate cake. Yet, cocoa powder is an essential ingredient and the reason why it’s included with my chocolate recipes. That and it’s perfectly gorgeous for Valentine’s Day.
As the name suggests, the cake has a velvety tender texture that is moist and brilliantly red with a subtle chocolate tone. When topped generously with a cream cheese frosting, it makes for a striking contrast.
Instead of a full-on cake, I made cupcakes. They are less formal than a three-layered cake and perfect for sharing with family and friends. Cupcakes were also conducive to cacao nibs – my twist for oomphing up the chocolate factor. It’s not completely traditional but it’s fun.
As for the origins of red velvet cake, the exact history is a bit head-spinning but alluring for foodiephiles . . . Some researchers believe the pinkish-hued chemical reaction that occurs when cocoa powder is mixed with vinegar and/or buttermilk made a precursor cake that was eventually augmented with food coloring. Other researchers point to the rations of World War II, when beets were used to brighten the color of cakes. And, there’s even some food lore involving the Waldorf Astoria and a woman in the 1920s who was billed an exhorbitant amount when she requested their recipe. Apparently, furious, she copied the recipe and distributed it generously. And, still others suggest the cake’s origins are in Canada tied to Eaton’s department store.
Despite all that, I was first introduced to red velvet cake by my husband’s Aunt Gloria. What I remember most about her cake was how lovely it looked sliced and the hint of chocolate and tangy frosting with each bite. She’d make her cake, freeze it and bring it on the plane to Colorado. Now, that’s love. The recipe below is adapted from Aunt Gloria’s family recipe.
Show love this Valentine’s Day . . . Eat chocolate in its many forms.
Tidbits on Chocolate:
- Chocolate has an American annual per capita consumption of around 14 pounds per person.
- Although not true legumes, cacao seeds are frequently called “beans.”
- Typically in the United States, “cacao” is used to refer to the tree and its dried seeds prior to further processing. “Cocoa” refers to the partially defatted, roasted, and ground cacao seeds. “Chocolate” is generally used to refer to a food prepared from roasted cacao seeds. “Cacao nibs” are unsweetened raw pieces of cacao beans, they are crunchy bits that taste slightly nutty with notes of bitter chocolate.
Red Velvet Cacao Nib Cupcakes
Makes 20 – 24 cupcakes
Cake: Use glass or non-porous bowls and spoons/whisks because fingers and whatever else comes in contact with batter will turn red. Note: For those looking askance on the food coloring, I made an attempt to sustitute with natural color. I used dried hibiscus flowers to make a concentrated tea (the same stuff used to make “natural” red food coloring and which usually costs $10 a bottle). However, the results were less than optimal – a more tart cupcake that was brown and far from red. If I find an alternative, I’ll add it under the recipe Variation.
Key: It is essential to both the cupcakes and the frosting, to pre-sift and then measure the flour and confectioner’s sugar; otherwise you use too much!
Frosting: I used only 3 1/2 cups confectioner’s sugar. I don’t like my frosting overly sweet.
Ingredients – Cake
1/2 cup butter, softened
1 1/2 cups sugar
2 large eggs, slightly beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla
3 tablespoons Dutch processed cocoa powder*
1 ounce red food coloring (2 tablespoons)
2 1/2 cups flour, sifted before measuring
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup buttermilk**
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 tablespoon distilled white vinegar
2 tablespoons cacao nibs
*Aunt Gloria uses regular cocoa powder
** Buttermilk: If you do not have buttermilk you can make your own by combining 1 cup milk and 1 tablespoon distilled white vinegar; let stand for at least 10 minutes.
Ingredients – Frosting
1 pound cream cheese, softened
1 cup butter, softened
1 teaspoon vanilla
3 1/2 to 4 cups sifted confectioner’s sugar, sifted before measuring
Method – Cupcakes
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Rack in the center. Measure out all ingredients in advance.
- In a large bowl, cream butter, sugar, eggs and vanilla together. In a separate small bowl, mix the cocoa powder and food coloring to make a paste. Add the cocoa paste to the sugar mixture, mix well.
- Add salt to the sifted flour. Slowly incorporate flour and buttermilk into the sugar-butter mixture, alternating three times, beginning and ending with the flour.
- In a small cup, mix baking soda and vinegar. Allow mixture to fizz and then fold into the batter. Add cacao nibs, mix until batter is smooth.
- Fill cupcake tins lined with cupcake papers about 3/4 full with batter (for 20 cupcakes) or 2/3 full (for 24 cupcakes). [Note: If you do not use cupcake liners make sure to grease and flour muffin pans.] Bake for about 20 minutes, rotate pans after 12 minutes to ensure even baking. Cupcakes are done when the top springs back when touched lightly or a toothpick inserted in the center of the cupcake comes out clean (test a few in the center of the tin). Overbaking will dry out cupcakes.
- Cool cupcakes on wire rack. When cooled completely, frost cupcakes and sprinkle with cacao nibs.
Method – Frosting
- In a large mixing bowl, using a hand mixer, beat butter until smooth and light. Add the cream cheese, continuing beat until mixture is completely creamed, smooth and light. Add vanilla and mix well.
- Add 3 1/2 cups pre-sifted confectioner’s sugar in batches on low speed, beat until incorporated. Increase the speed to high and mix until very light and fluffy. Add more sugar to taste.
- Frosting can be made in advance and brought to room temperature before using.