I'm not usually big on Valentine's Day. It's not that I don't love B; I do, very much! The holiday itself, though, is sort of overrated, often just providing a chance for restaurants to charge exorbitant amounts of money for not very exciting food. Hallmark, of course, sets up unreasonable "romantic" expectations for any couple.
Sometimes, though, I succumb to the holiday vibes. I think this might be related to the fact that my favorite color was pink throughout elementary school. (This was before princess culture had gotten totally out of control.) I very much enjoyed both the giving and the getting of Valentines, and usually labored over an arts and crafts project plus/minus a baking project for my classmates. But I date myself. Apparently, in this day and age of the childhood obesity epidemic, baked goods are forbidden in many schools.
A few days ago, in honor of this heart-shaped, red-roses-and-chocolates-filled holiday, I put on (and am still wearing) heart-shaped earrings. One year I got B boxers covered in hearts. More recently, I've steered toward an edible celebration of Valentine's Day (though my goal has not been an aphrodisiac). Last year, I made this very sophisticated and very easy cake in a heart-shaped pan I have. (I confess without embarrassment that I own a heart-shaped pan, but I must emphasize that I inherited it from my grandmother and did not purchase it on my own.)
And this year? I was inspired to make red velvet cupcakes in honor of R's birthday, and secondarily Valentine's Day.
They turned out very, very red. This was partially (O.K., completely) due to the fact that I added twice as much food coloring as the recipe called for. You see, I made a red velvet cake several years ago that called for three (three!) bottles of food coloring. Since this seemed excessive, I purchased but one bottle of red food coloring at the store last week. After I added the whole bottle, and after the batter turned a very deep shade of red, I reread the recipe and realized that I had doubled the desired amount. Oops. Too late to turn back, so I plunged ahead.
My late grandmother (she of the heart-shaped pan) used to color all sorts of cakes and frostings...in the sixties. A residency colleague of mine went through a phase where she only ate green food, so her parents were forced to use green food coloring to get her to drink her milk...in the eighties. Food coloring seems awfully dated now, doesn't it? Useful for Easter eggs, of course, but it does not occupy a prominent position as a go-to pantry item.
Many of the red velvet recipes I looked through commented on how the recipe was an old Southern tradition, but I wondered when food coloring, such an integral part of the recipe, actually originated. The answer, as it turns out, was quite some time ago. Apparently the Romans really liked the yellow color imparted by saffron. And before red food coloring was regulated by the U.S. government, those enterprising Southern cooks used beet juice. I even came across one carrot cake-like recipe for red velvet that used shredded beets.
Thank goodness for red food coloring! This time, I was even able to purchase it stand-alone, without those pesky yellows and blues and greens left to languish in the back of the cupboard. The simple buttermilk cake that forms the basis of red velvet becomes unique with the addition of a few tablespoons of cocoa powder and a few tablespoons of food coloring. What really makes it special, though, is the cream cheese frosting (which I love, and which I've already written about). Besides the delicious flavor, the contrast between the red cake and the white frosting is very pleasing.
These cupcakes were perfect for the birthday party, the leftovers were perfect for Valentine's Day, and future incarnations will be perfect for other special occasions. Enjoy!
Red Velvet Cupcakes
Makes: 24 cupcakes
Time: 45 minutes active, 2 hours total
For the cupcakes:
1 stick (1/2 c.) unsalted butter, softened
1 1/2 c. sugar
1 c. buttermilk
1-2 T. (1/2 - 1 oz.) red food coloring
1 t. vanilla
1 t. distilled white vinegar
2 T. unsweetened cocoa powder
1 t. baking powder
1 t. baking soda
1/2 t. salt
2 1/4 c. cake flour
For the frosting:
12 oz. (1 1/2 packages) light cream cheese, at room temperature
3/4 stick (6 T.) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 t. vanilla
2 1/2 c. powdered sugar
To make the cake, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line 12 muffin cups with cupcake liners. In a large bowl, cream together butter and sugar. Add the eggs, one at a time. In a separate small bowl, add the buttermilk, food coloring, vanilla, and vinegar.
To the large bowl, add the cocoa, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and 3/4 c. flour. Mix well. Add half the buttermilk mixture, mix, add 3/4 c. flour, and mix; repeat with remaining buttermilk mixture and 3/4 c. flour. Batter will be a deep red color.
Fill muffin cups 3/4 full with batter. Bake for 18 to 20 minutes, or until a cake tester comes out clean. Once cupcakes are cool enough to transfer to a rack (about five minutes), place new cupcake lines in muffin tins. Fill with remaining batter, and bake. Allow cupcakes to cool completely (about one hour) before frosting.
To make the frosting, beat cream cheese and butter together in a medium bowl. Add vanilla and powdered sugar. Frost each cupcake generously. Cupcakes can be made 24 hours ahead of serving if stored tightly covered.