The American South’s red velvet cake is another one of those regional favorites whose fame has far outlasted its own origins. No one seems to know exactly why these traditionally local confections were tinted red in the first place, and the stories that are traded around vary wildly and don’t include much fact-checking. I’m neither from the South nor a traditionalist, so for a little more insight, I consulted the closest thing I know to a Southern belle, my friend Ruby in Florida:
C Christy Concrete: What is the defining characteristic of red velvet cake?
Ruby: Aside from the red color, I really think it’s the combination of vinegar and buttermilk. The cake itself isn’t necessarily that sweet to me, a lot of that is accomplished in the copious amounts of powdered sugar that go into traditional cream cheese frosting, and creates a sort of balance. But it does have that very distinct “twang” that would taste out of place in any other cake.
CCC: How would you describe red velvet cake’s flavor?
Ruby: It’s tangy, and very, very rich, which has to do with the vinegar, and the buttermilk. But I think that in this case, the cocoa powder also serves the purpose of deepening and adding that richness to the flavor, because while you can definitely tell it’s there, it’s not so strong that it screams, “CHOCOLATE!”
CCC: What about the weird red color of red velvet cake?
Ruby: One thing that has always bothered me about red velvet cake is that the red color didn’t come from any ingredient that would naturally occur in a cake. It takes two whole bottles of red food coloring, and I don’t know of any other food, except maybe beets, that would provide that same color. It’s like how something like grape soda doesn’t really taste like grapes, it just tastes…purple.
Now that we have the “twang” and crazy color thing somewhat explained, I’ve made a few upgrades to the standard recipe Ruby uses. It’s been veganized, for one. Also, taking a tip from the ancient Mayans who liked their chocolate with a little heat, I’ve added cinnamon and ginger to complete the psychological color illusion of eating something that looks all hot and bothered.
Totally Inauthentic Vegan Spiced Red Velvet Cupcakes
This recipe has the usual teams of wet and dry ingredients, but bringing them all together is kind of a production, as we’ll see.
Wet Team A:
- 1 cup soymilk
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice
- 1 tablespoon white vinegar
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
Wet Team B:
- 1/2 cup vegetable shortening, at room temperature
- 1 1/2 cups sugar
- 2 oz. red food coloring
- 2 egg substitute equivalents (I used Ener-G egg replacer this time for its relatively neutral taste)
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 2 1/2 cups cake flour
- 1 1/2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon ground ginger
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
Preheat oven to 350°. Line a muffin tin with paper liners, or spray with nonstick spray.
Add lemon juice to soymilk, whisk, and let sit to curdle for at least ten minutes.
Sift together flour, cocoa powder, cinnamon, ginger, and salt; set aside.
Beat the shortening at medium speed with an electric mixer until fluffy; gradually add sugar in installments, beating well after each addition. Add eggs or egg substitutes and beat until blended. Stir in food coloring and vanilla, blending well.
Yes, like Ruby said, this recipe calls for two whole one-ounce bottles of red food coloring. Even when diluted into cake batter, these solutions of propylene glycol and FC&C Red #40 will stain most porous materials, especially human flesh, so take care and either start your mixer on a low setting or incorporate this stage by hand, lest you turn your kitchen walls into set dressings for Saw 6: Electric Boogaloo.
Add vinegar and baking soda to the curdled soymilk and stir so it fizzes and foams up.
Add flour mixture to shortening mixture, alternating with the soymilk mixture, beginning and ending with flour mixture. The smaller the doses of each, the less messy the whole process will be. Beat at low speed until blended after each addition.
After adding each installation of soymilk, the batter will probably take on a weird, grainy appearance, as if it’s separating; which is exactly what’s happening:
Don’t panic, it’ll tighten back up with the next dose of flour, this is why we finish the blending with the dry team. Continue to beat at medium speed for 2 more minutes after the last of the flour is incorporated.
Scoop the batter into the prepared muffin tin. This batter is pretty thick, and these cupcakes will puff fairly vertically, so fill the cups about two-thirds to three-fourths of the way up.
Bake at 350° for 20 to 25 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center of one of cupcakes comes out clean. Cool in the tin for 5 minutes, then de-pan and cool completely on a cooling rack.
Top with cream cheese frosting and prepare for a deluge of hate mail from Southern cuisine purists offering to burn you and your Yankee cupcakes at the stake.