Although red velvet cake is commonly thought of as a southern American delicacy (recall the famous armadillo-shaped red velvet groom’s cake in the 1989 classic film Steel Magnolias), it was actually invented at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York City during the 1920s. Don’t let the Canadians fool you into thinking it was the creation of Lady Eaton (of Eaton’s department store), which sold an ‘exclusive’ version of the cake in the 1940s and 1950s – this is one classic American treat. Named in part for the chemical reaction that occurred when the acidic buttermilk and white vinegar reacted with the anthocyanin in cocoa powder – producing a reddish-brown hued batter (as well as the use of brown – formally known as ‘red’ sugar), this ‘red’ cake also has a smooth, velvety texture. During the Great Depression, the Texas based company of Adams Extract brought the cake to the kitchens of the masses through the ingenious use of point-of-sale posters and tear-off recipe cards selling their red food colouring and flavourings – this use of artificial red dyes lasted until the rationing of World War II forced clever cooks into more creative methods: the use of red beet purée to enhance both the colour and moisture of the cake. While most red velvet cakes of today’s bakeries revert back to the use of red dyes for the vibrant colouring of the cake (more economical and time efficient one might expect), it is the use of beets in this recipe that creates a depth of flavour as well as colour that cannot be mimicked by artificial means.
The other secret in this recipe? The slightly tricky science of maintaining ph levels (you want it fairly acidic) in the batter to maintain the red colour of the beets and to allow the cake to rise. For this reason, it is so important to add lemon juice and baking powder (not soda), and, to use only natural cocoa powder (not dutch-processed), in addition to the traditional red velvet cake ingredient of buttermilk. A bit of a science lesson: dutch-processed cocoa (named for the Dutch chocolate manufacturer who discovered it in the mid-19th century), is washed in an alkaline solution in order to neutralise the acidity, thus developing a darker and more consistent ‘chocolatey’ flavour. This is good news for most pastry chefs…but, quite annoying for those wishing to bake with beets! Because you want the cake batter fairly acidic to stop the beet-stained cake from turning purple or brown during baking (and because you want the cake to rise – obviously) you can’t use baking soda or dutch-processed cocoa as both products are alkali – instead use baking powder and natural cocoa.
One final word: contrary to popular belief, traditional red velvet cake is not served with a cream cheese frosting – instead, it’s topped off with a creamy, airy, French-style cooked roux frosting; a misnomer in fact as it’s not actually based on a roux, but tasty nonetheless! The frosting (also called ermine icing) pairs much better with red velvet cake as it enhances rather than stifles the delicate flavours. I added desiccated coconut to the frosting and sprinkled it all over the cake once iced in order to elevate the delicious flavours. Enjoy!
2-3 large beets (enough for 1 -1.5 cup or 220-270 g) beet purée
1.5 tbl lemon juice
1/2 cup (4.2 oz) cultured buttermilk
2 stick (227 g) unsalted butter, softened
4 large eggs
2 cups (250 g) flour
2 cups (450 g sugar); 300 g granulated, 150 g golden castor
1.5 tsp baking powder
1.5 tsp salt
3 tbl natural cocoa powder
- Preheat the oven to 375 F (190 C). Cover a baking sheet with coarse sea salt. Wash the beets and then individually wrap them in aluminum foil. Roast the beets until fork tender, approximately 45-60 min. Unwrap, peel and cut them into small chunks. Puree them together with the lemon juice. Set aside. *you’ll want a very fine purée so I suggest passing it through a chinois.
- Turn oven down to 350 F (176 C). Butter and flour the cake tins (or set up the cupcake trays). Sift together the dry ingredients: flour, salt, baking powder, cocoa powder – whisk together and set aside.
- Using an electric mixer, cream the butter and sugars together until light and fluffy. Beat in the vanilla and then the eggs, one at a time. Add the buttermilk to the beet purée and then fold into the butter and sugar mixture.
- Fold the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients, and, then slowly mix them together.
- Pour evenly into the prepared cake/cupcake tins, tap on the counter to remove air bubbles and bake for approximately 20-30 min (mine took 25 min) – or until a toothpick inserted comes out clean. Let cool completely on a wire rack, then wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate until ready to frost.
French-style Cooked Roux (Ermine) Icing
1 cup (237 ml) milk
1 cup (227 g) unsalted butter, softened
1 cup (225 g) superfine (castor) sugar
1/2 vanilla bean, seeds only
3 tbl flour
1 1/2 cups (150 g) desiccated coconut, plus more for decorating
pinch of salt
- Whisk together the milk and flour over medium heat in a small saucepan until it begins to thicken (reaches the ‘ribbon’ stage). Remove from heat, pour into a bowl (to stop cooking), stir in the salt and cover directly on the surface with plastic wrap to avoid crusting. Refrigerate for an hour.
- Using an electric mixer, cream together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add in the vanilla and the desiccated coconut.
- When the milk and flour mixture has cooled, add in 1 tbl at a time to the creamed butter and sugar whilst the mixer is on medium speed – the gluten will pull the butter into a suspension – resulting in a fluffy and light frosting. Pour into a piping bag and frost your cake (or cupcakes). Decorate with sprinkles of the extra desiccated coconut.