Sunday, February 12, 2012

All-Natural Red (Pink?) Velvet Cake

In honor of upcoming Valentine's Day (and to satisfy my curiosity about whether it could be done), I decided to attempt a red velvet cake using no food dyes.  I'm a food hippie for sure and I just could never understand the appeal of a cake that is red only because it uses a quarter of a cup of red food coloring in the batter.  (That's a lot right??)  But, I did some research and discovered that there is another way.  BEETS!  If you've ever handled a beet you know they can stain hands as good as any food color.  What you may not have known is that beets are often used in natural food colors to tint things reddish.  Now, I'm a good Polish girl and I do love my beets, but I know that some people don't.  It seems like beets are one of those things that people either love or hate.  Good news for those of you haters, this cake doesn't taste a thing like beets.  I even took a teensy taste of the raw batter and no beet taste there either.  It tastes like a dense, creamy, delicately chocolate-flavored pound cake.  (Many people do not know that Red Velvet Cake - the kind with the food coloring - is actually a chocolate cake.)  Ideally, I would have used fresh red beets for the recipe, but I didn't have any and there were 2 cans of sliced beets staring at me in the pantry when the idea to make this cake struck me.  So, I used the canned beets.  I can tell, though, that the red color is not nearly as intense with a canned beet, likely because it sat in water in the can, and I rinsed them before use.  These canned beets made a "pink velvet" cake, but I'll amend this post with "red velvet" made with fresh beets once I get to doing it.

I'm going to share a little bit of the challenges (and super-interesting nerd stuff that I like) about making this particular cake.  Think back to Chemistry 101.  Remember the pH scale?  Well, beets are alkaline, with a pH higher than 7 (which is "neutral").   In general, alkaline things tend to brown when baked. order to make sure that this cake didn't turn brown or purple (actually that would be kinda cool) instead of red like the beet puree, it is important to keep the pH of the batter as low, or acidic, as possible.  So, that means that baking soda (which has a pH of 12 - very basic) shouldn't be used (I used baking powder instead) and neither should "Dutch-processed" cocoa.  Natural cocoa powder is just that, natural.  Dutch-processed cocoa is cocoa where the beans have been processed with an alkaline solution.  The resulting powder is 1. more alkaline (duh) and 2. reddish-brown colored.  I only keep natural cocoa powder on hand and, usually it can be used in most recipes that call for cocoa.  The other thing that I did to decrease the pH was to add 1/4 cup of lemon juice to the beet puree, as well as a splash of vinegar.

All-Natural Red Velvet Cake
makes an 8" layer cake
(adapted from Sophistimom)

Beets (enough for 1 1/2 cups puree), about 2 large or 2 cans sliced beets
1/4 cup (2 oz) lemon juice
1 tablespoon vinegar
2 sticks (16 tablespoons, 8 oz) unsalted butter, softened
8 ounce cream cheese, softened slightly
2 cups (16 oz, 1 lb) sugar
4 eggs
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
2 cups (10 oz) unbleached all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
2-4 tablespoons natural (not dutch processed) cocoa powder

1. Preheat oven to 350° F (165° C). Wrap beets in aluminum foil, and roast until tender, about 60-90 minutes. Allow to cool completely.
2. Spray or butter two 8 inch cake pans. Cut out parchment paper circles and place in the bottoms of the pans and set aside. Peel the beets and cut into large chunks. Place in a food processor with the lemon juice, and puree until smooth. Stir in the vinegar.

 3. In a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream butter and cream cheese with sugar until smooth. Add eggs, one at a time, and mix well.  Add in vanilla.
4. In a separate bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, salt, and cocoa powder. Slowly add dry ingredients to the wet ingredients. Add in the beet mixture and divide the batter evenly between the prepared pans.

5. Bake at 350 ° F for about 35 minutes, or until a knife inserted into the center of the cakes comes out clean. Invert cakes onto cooling racks, and allow to cool completely before filling and frosting.

Cream Cheese Icing
(from Sweetapolita)

1/3 cup  (75 g/2.5 oz) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 1/2 packages cream cheese (12 oz/345 g), cut into cubes, cold
1 1/2 lbs (5 1/2 cups/685 g) confectioners’ sugar
1/4 cup (60 ml) heavy cream
2 teaspoons (10 ml) vanilla
pinch of salt

Using electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, blend butter and cream cheese on medium low speed, until just combined, about 2 minutes.  Add confectioner's sugar and beat on medium speed for about 5 minutes.  Add heavy cream and vanilla, and beat at medium high speed for about 1 minute. Frosting will be fluffy.  Be careful not to overbeat.

Assemble the cake by splitting each layer in half (horizontally - this is called "torting"), spread a layer of cream cheese icing in between each and then cover the outside of the cake with the remainder.  Cream cheese icing won't spread as smooth as buttercream, so my suggestion is just to embrace it.  Keep it homestyle! You can tint remaining icing with leftover beet puree if you want to write your message in color!  Happy Valentine's Day!

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