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Sunday, October 02, 2005

Red Velvet Cupcakes with Vanilla Bean Cream Cheese Frosting

I compared about 8 existing recipes for red velvet cake and found the following:
  • some are vanilla cakes with red food coloring and most are chocolate with red food coloring
  • all of the chocolate red velvet recipes use cocoa as opposed to melted chocolate and most have very little cocoa in them (probably to maintain the red coloring)
  • most use cake flour
  • some use oil and some butter
  • all use buttermilk, vinegar and red food coloring
  • as far as chemical leaveners go, some use baking powder (acidic and akaline components), most baking soda (alkaline), and two use both (more on chemical leaveners below)
  • all have the usual suspects in similar quantities: sugar, eggs, salt, vanilla
For my first attempt I decided to go with
  • cake flour for delicate crumb
  • cocoa for a chocolaty taste
  • butter for better flavor
  • a base batch, divided into three to test variation in chemical leaveners (resulting recipe is for what I deemed the best option)
I made a 1-1/2 batch so I would yield 36 cupcakes as opposed to the usual 24.

The result... well, the cupcakes tasted fine, had a nice texture, but were rather plain (were it not for the frosting). The cocoa taste was not discernable and I recommend increasing the quantity in the recipe. If I were to test the recipe again, I would increase the cocoa by 50% and 100% and check the results. I doubt I will test it again, however, as the novelty of red batter isn't interesting enough to distract me from other recipes I want to try.

makes 36 cupcakes / 350 degree oven

3-3/4 cups cake flour
1/4 cups cocoa
1-1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1-1/2 teaspoons baking powder or 1/2 teaspoon cream of tarter
3/8 teaspoon salt
1-1/2 cups buttermilk
3 teaspoons vinegar
1-1/2 teaspoons vanilla
1/2 ounce red food coloring paste
2-1/4 cups sugar
3/4 cups butter
3 eggs

  1. preheat oven to 350°F
  2. sift flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, baking powder (or cream of tarter), and salt into medium bowl
  3. whisk buttermilk, vinegar, vanilla, and food coloring in small bowl to blend
  4. beat sugar and butter in large bowl until well fluffy, 3 minutes
  5. add eggs 1 at a time, beating until well blended after each addition, about 30 seconds
  6. beat in dry ingredients in 4 additions alternately with buttermilk mixture in 3 additions
  7. scoop into cupcake tins
  8. bake cupcakes until tester inserted into center comes out clean, about 20 minutes
  9. cool in pans 10 minutes
  10. cool completely on racks

Vanilla Bean Cream Cheese Frosting

12 ounces or 1-1/2 packages of Philly cream cheese
1/2 stick butter
4-5 cups sifted powdered sugar
seeds of 1/2 vanilla bean
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

  1. bring cheese and butter to room temperature by letting it sit out for 1 or 2 hours
  2. sift powdered sugar into a bowl or onto parchment
  3. beat butter and cheese at medium speed until creamy
  4. add 4 cups of the sugar and beat until combined
  5. add vanillas and beat until combined
  6. add more sugar until you get to the consistency and sweetness you like

Pastillage Shapes

1 packages gelatin
1/2 cup water
2 tablespoons light corn syrup
~5 cups powdered sugar

  1. prepare a clean work surface by spraying with water and then covering in a bit of powdered sugar
  2. in a small saucepan, sprinkle gelatin over the water and let sit for 3 minutes
  3. add corn syrup and stir to combine, heat over medium heat stirring constantly until gelatin is dissolved, about 12 minutes
  4. add 3 cups of the powdered sugar to the bowl of an electric mixer
  5. at lowest setting, drizzle in all of the heated mixture
  6. increase speed of mixer to combine
  7. start to add more powdered sugar until the mixture gets stiff
  8. you will need to transfer to the prepared work surface to finish needing by hand, you may also choose to need in powdered food coloring
  9. add sugar or water as needed to get a smooth consistency, its like needing pasta dough - you want a similar consistency
  10. once it is nice and smooth, divide it up for as much as you need and wrap the remainder in plastic wrap and store in an airtight container for up to 12 months
  11. scrape down work surface for rolling, dust surface and rolling pin with corn starch, roll out pastillage as thin as you can get it
  12. cut out shapes with whatever small cutters you have
  13. set aside on parchment to dry

This will make a lot of pastillage, I used 1/4 of it to make more than enough shapes for 36 cupcakes. Given it lasts so long, doesn't hurt to have extra. A note on coloring, needing in powdered food coloring gives a nice matt look or you can paint it on for some variation in color.


  1. pipe a swirl of cream cheese frosting on each cooled cupcake
  2. top with a pastillage shape

Chemical Leaveners and Anthocyanins
Occasionally the chemical engineer in me rears its nerdy head, like it did this weekend. I got to thinking about the baking soda versus powder versus both and was led down a trail past anthocyanins and essentially to the question of how does pH effect the end product.

Chemical leaveners when used correctly react with other compounds to release carbon dioxide gas which will cause the cake to rise. They are often "double acting" - would say so on the packaging - meaning they react when added to the batter and release some gas bubbles, then there is a second reaction later on which cause the release gas bubbles to expand.

* Baking soda is alkaline and requires acidic compounds to react with it. These can be yogurt or sour milk.
* Baking powder contains baking soda and acidic salt crystals. It basically contains what it needs to cause the chemical reaction and produce carbon dioxide.

In the case of this recipe, there is buttermilk and vinegar (both acidic) which will react the baking soda. Baking powder should not be necessary - in theory. There are also theories that the acidic compounds react with cocoa (or the anthocyanins in cocoa) to turn the batter reddish-brown, but I read here that it is a scientific myth.

I looked into anthocyanins and indeed they do need an acidic environment to be red, but I was tending to agree with the first article that there aren't enough of them in the chocolate for it to really matter. I looked into it some. This article says that quantities are "high" in green tea and chocolate, which this article confirms, but it also adds that processing causes the anthocyanins to convert to quinones which then further react and result in brown-colored compounds. So, I suspected that any change in pH wouldn't really make a difference in color, plus I was planning on adding food coloring.

So, I started with a base batter with just baking soda and then divided it into three and added baking powder to one and cream of tarter to the other (note: cream of tarter (acid) + baking soda can be used a substitute for baking powder).

baking soda only

baking soda and cream of tarter

baking soda and baking powder

The baking soda-only batch definitely looked the worst, but there wasn't a noticeable taste or color difference amongst the three. The other two versions were pretty darn close, hence why I suggested baking powder or cream of tarter. In theory, you could use baking powder only, but I didn't test that option.


Anonymous eye pupeechoolo said...

cool pictures baby! especially that first one

10/03/2005 9:38 AM  
Blogger chockylit said...

thanks :)

10/03/2005 9:42 AM  
Blogger Rachel said...

yum! we like ours with a lot of chocolate. they are not always the most red, but they are tasty!

10/03/2005 1:25 PM  
Anonymous Kristen said...

Thank you for the nerdy diversion - I think more bakers should think about and know these kinds of things! Your photography is also very lovely.

10/03/2005 1:57 PM  
Anonymous augustusgloop said...

How have I not found your website until now?!?

You have amazing photos. I love your creativity matched with scientific endeavour! I'm in total awe of your creations and your stunning photographs as well (and you take amazing pictures while you're cooking as well!)

10/03/2005 11:29 PM  
Anonymous alfredsmom said...

Love your site! Most recently, I loved the ice cream cone cupcakes. Very cute. I have a question, can you recommend a good frosting for cupcakes that you take to a picnic where they may sit out for a while unrefridgerated? I dont want a runny frosting. Thanks!

jpcpbah AT gmail.com

10/04/2005 7:47 AM  
Blogger chockylit said...

I find that stiff buttercream with its high sugar content, can sit out for some time without getting runny or spoiling. Even better is to make them the day before, refrigerate, then bring them to the picnic... They should be well set at that point.

10/04/2005 8:41 AM  
Blogger Addie said...

oh now, I feel like a celebrity, since youve gone and answered my request and now I have something to go on - although will definetly add more chocolate as Im that kind of girl

and even more - you put science to work - I feel honored to have found such a wonderful blog that combines cooking and science - I too have a chemistry degree

thanks again!

10/04/2005 1:11 PM  
Blogger chronicler said...

Chockylit, I just posted about this super write up of yours! I love this type of post and thank you heartily for your info! Love that you go through the trouble of not only explaining (like I usually do) but also shwoing the effects of what you're explaining. Excellent!

10/04/2005 4:00 PM  
Anonymous mandy said...

wow, not only do you have time to cook amazing creations, you also answer questions!!!! what a superstar :)
i am cooking cupcakes for a tower for my brothers wedding, all the recipes i have tested either sink in the middle, or are nearly flat...i am looking for some choc recipes that have a lovely dome effect. i am hoping to have thin layer of fondant then heart shapes on topo, but after seeing your frosting, i might try that first.

do u have any suggestions? they prefer a moist chewy/dense sort of cake, not a fluffy one?

10/06/2005 12:42 AM  
Anonymous Lindsey said...

I really like the way you piped the frosting on these. They look fab. What sort of tip did you use?

10/06/2005 10:31 AM  
Blogger chockylit said...

Lindsey, I used the big plain tip in this picture, http://www.flickr.com/photos/chockylit/48794096/in/set-180812/. Kasier 13-mm I think.

10/06/2005 11:55 AM  
Anonymous valentinajacome said...

I love your blog. Not only the recipes but the way you go about them. I love cupcakes but my frosting/icing technique is poor.

10/06/2005 6:07 PM  
Blogger shuna fish lydon said...

Thank you for taking the time to explain leaveners. I worked at a place last year where we made our own baking powder (cream of tartar+ baking soda.) The results were markedly different.

The original red velvet cake was the original devil's food cake but with very poor cocoa, hence the chemical reaction you describe. I agree that the novelty is not worth it for me.

the reason I have seen for the use of BS and BP to be used together is when BS will not give enough rise. It's not as strong as BP.

Great blog, I will start visiting more often!

10/06/2005 9:51 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love your site and appericiate you sharing your recipes in such an understandable way but I must ask something completely unrelated-how do you make those tiny flowers thingies beside the things you write? :) Please share!


10/07/2005 9:13 AM  
Blogger nosheteria said...

Yum, what a truly inspiring baking blog. I will start visiting more often.

10/07/2005 9:15 AM  
Anonymous Mel said...

Thanks for the nerdy excerpt! Always great to learn more about ingredients and their purposes etc. I've never had a red velvet cupcake so I will probably try soon just to see how it tastes. Couldn't help but notice your pretty yellow KitchenAid and your CCA-logo (apron/shirt)? Did you take the B&P program there? Hope I'm not being too intrusive.

10/08/2005 8:36 AM  
Anonymous Mel said...

I apologize, I just saw your website and read that you are taking classes at CCA, sorry my mistake I should've checked first!

10/08/2005 8:39 AM  
Blogger chockylit said...

Mandy, Moist and dense plus a dome... Its interesting, with cakes you don't want a dome. Well, when you have one, you chop it off so your cake is flat. Cupcakes, however, look cute with a dome, don't they. Hmmm, there is a lot to getting a dome and some recipes lend themselves more to it than others. I don't really know the answer. Fill the cupcakes up high with batter will help, but you run the risk of overflow. So, its a balance. When I come across the perfect moist/domed/chocolate recipe. I will let you know!

Mel, no worries! I haven't taken the full on B&P program CCA, just weekend courses. I took a week long B&P bootcamp at CIA in St. Helena. That was fantastic. If I were to do a full program, I would definitely go there. The facilites were inpiring.

10/08/2005 1:05 PM  
Blogger chockylit said...

Oh, Yael. It was by accident, the flower thingies. When I was preparing the post, I decided to use ordered (ul) and bumbered (ol) lists to clean it up a bit. In blogger they looked like the usual dots and numbers, but when I published the post, I got the flower things. Seems like it has to do with the style sheet of the template I use. I haven't had time to look at it yet.

10/09/2005 10:31 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Where can you get Vanilla Bean?

1/18/2006 5:54 PM  
Blogger chockylit said...

Hey, juno_star101, I normally get vanilla bean at Whole Foods. A great online alternative for vanilla bean and other exotic spices is Penzey's, http://www.penzeys.com/.

1/18/2006 7:11 PM  
Anonymous kookoo kake said...

I followed your recipe for these red velvet cupcakes as it was very close to other red velvet recipes.
What type of food coloring do you use? Powder, gel, grocery store liquid?
I had some concentrated gel coloring and combined it liquid to make the amount needed.
Don't know if this was the best thing.

1/25/2006 8:55 AM  
Blogger chockylit said...

I used what I refered to as paste, but it is the concentrated gel... like the kind from Americolor. I didn't dilute it. If they come out red enough for you, then I think that they are fine... That's really all the food coloring is for.

1/25/2006 9:12 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would love to make these for an upcoming Valentine's Day tea that I am having. Could I make them mini? And if so, how would I go about doing that? Thanks! I absolutely ADORE your site!!!


1/28/2006 11:56 AM  
Blogger chockylit said...

Beth, Minis are not a problem. Instructions are the same, but baking time is more like 12-15 minutes as opposed to 22-25 minutes for regular.

Good luck!

1/30/2006 9:50 AM  
Anonymous faith said...

chockylit, thank you for the wonderful recipes and pictures! This is a bit of a late comment, but I wanted to say that I made red velvet cupcakes a couple weeks ago and used your cream cheese frosting recipe.

They froze most excellently and my sister and a visiting friend polished them off, straight from the freezer, this weekend.


3/20/2006 3:22 PM  
Blogger Tammy Nguyen said...

I LOVE red velvet cake. i am baking for a birthday party this weekend and would love to know if u think this is worth me trying. I am just starting to bake. Have been using box mixes forever and want to start experimenting. What kind of butter do u recommend for baking?

3/30/2006 1:08 AM  
Blogger bakin said...

what is the weight of one package of gelatin, i love these cupcakes, so good!

4/13/2006 10:21 PM  
Blogger chockylit said...

one quarter of an ounce per packet.

4/13/2006 10:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am little confused about the use of vanilla seeds. Do you just throw them in and mix it up? Do the seeds disintegrate or are they visible in the frosting? Also, why do you use a combination of seeds and extract?

8/06/2006 2:01 AM  
Blogger chockylit said...

Vanilla seeds add a bit more punch (flavor wise, they are intense) and it looks cool. The seeds don't disintegrate, but they are little flecks in the frosting that look nice. I use both because I really want to taste the vanilla. The seeds are optional, but then its not vanilla bean frosting, but vanilla frosting.

8/06/2006 10:05 AM  

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