February 11, 2014

By: Kathryn Dwyer, Culinary Arts Student

Valentine’s Day Cupcakes 3Valentine’s Day is a great excuse for all things pink and chocolaty, and a great reason to make everyone’s favorite cute confection, the cupcake. Cupcakes seem to be a trend that keeps on trending; every time you turn around it feels like there is a new take on those little cakes. I’m not complaining, they are small and sweet and can inherently have that “awww” factor that makes them practically irresistible for a girly-girl like me.

Red Velvet Cake has certainly been another trend to hit American taste buds, the combo of lightly chocolaty cake with that festive bright red color, paired with tangy sweet cream cheese frosting, yum! But after culinary school and learning about the many chemicals in commercial food coloring, the sheer volume of dye called for in recipes for red velvet cake totally turned me off to the whole thing and I’ve been forced to avoid that lovely combination for far too long.

Valentine’s Day Cupcakes 1I never considered natural options for food coloring until the International Cuisines portion of the culinary program at Auguste Escoffier. When we covered China, we made an amazing dish of barbecued pork called char siu. The recipe called for a marinade of bean paste, soy and hoisin sauce, five-spice powder and in place of the (now) traditional red food coloring that gives the pork it’s signature red exterior, we added beet juice. My class was impressed that meat came out rich and deeply flavored with that traditional red hue, while learning that it came from a natural source rather than a bottle.

Inspired by that lesson during Chinese cooking, I began exploring what other ways I could use natural food colorings in recipes, an important one (to me) being a substitute for the dye in red velvet cake. Someone somewhere, it seems, has covered everything on one food blog, website or another and with a quick Internet search I found a thousand ideas for natural red velvet cake. The most intriguing suggestion, red wine velvet cake! It had to happen.

Valentine’s Day CupcakesThe cake is truly awesome, beyond chocolate cake. The wine really shines and comes through in a fruity, adult-dessert way; combined with the coco and a touch of cinnamon, it makes a very elegant cupcake. While the taste was on spot, the red color of the wine didn’t tint the cake like I’d hoped. I did use a very light-bodied wine that may not have been deep enough in color to come through, but the cake was so tasty, I got over the color real quick. The recipe suggests any red wine, but if you were really hoping for a red tint perhaps going with a deeper, inky red wine would be a good idea.

Cream cheese frosting is a tangy, sweet, cheerful crowning that puts these cupcakes over the top. To make them festive for Valentine’s Day I returned to beet juice to color the frosting. To make beet food coloring, I took three small beets, removed the greens and scrubbed them thoroughly, diced them into large chunks and covered them with water by about two inches in a small saucepan. I put it on low heat and let the beets cook for a good hour and a half until the beets were soft and there were just a few tablespoons of very pigmented water at the bottom of the pan. You can eat the boiled beets at this point if you’re down with that (the greens too!) and the bit of liquid left after cooking is all you need to tint many recipes. The hue is a little on the purple side and it is not as intense as commercial food coloring, but in certain applications where a little extra liquid won’t effect the end result of your recipe, it is a beautiful natural substitute.

With the focus at Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts being that of sustainability, wholesomeness and natural ingredients, it has been a fun experiment learning how to apply those techniques to what I create at home. Red food coloring was an easy place to start, with so many options for a natural substitute. St. Patrick’s Day is coming up; perhaps a green dye will be my next adventure!

Red Wine Velvet Cake:
From The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook

Valentine’s Day Cupcakes 2The original recipe makes a three-layer 9in cake. I wanted to make one tray of cupcakes so I halved the recipe and it worked out to make 12 generously sized cupcakes.

8 Tbs butter – at room temperature
1 ¼ cup plus 2 Tbs all-purpose flour
1 cup firmly packed brown sugar
1/3 cup white sugar
2 eggs – at room temperature
1 cup red wine
1 tsp vanilla extract
2/3 cup Dutch coco powder
¼ tsp baking soda
½ tsp baking powder
½ tsp cinnamon
½ tsp salt

1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Grease and flour cupcake tin or use paper liners.
2. In a large bowl, beat butter until smooth. Add both sugars and cream together until light and fluffy. Add the eggs and beat well, add the red wine and vanilla (batter may look curdled at this point, it’s okay!)
3. Sift the flour, coco, baking soda and powder, cinnamon and salt together and add all at once to wet ingredients. Mix on low until mostly combined, then fold in the rest by hand with a spatula.
4. Portion into prepared cupcake pan and bake about 20 minutes, checking for doneness by poking a cake with toothpick to see if it comes out free from uncooked batter. Cool 10 minutes in pan then remove cupcakes and finish cooling on wire rack.

Cream Cheese Frosting:

2 8oz blocks cream cheese – at room temperature
½ cup butter – at room temperature
2-3 cups sifted powdered sugar (depending on how sweet you want it)
1 tsp vanilla extract
½ tsp salt

1. Beat cream cheese and butter together until very light and fluffy.
2. Mix in vanilla and salt, then gradually add the powdered sugar until it is as sweet and stiff as you like it. Store in refrigerator before use.
3. To tint pink with beet extract (as described above), add a teaspoon of color at a time until you have your desired effect. I needed about a tablespoon of color, and then I added a little more powdered sugar to get it the right consistency after adding the extra liquid.


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1.866.552.2433 Austin Campus

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