Thursday, March 15, 2012

Red Devil's Food Cupcakes

Let me address your first observation: No, the cupcakes are not really red. Certainly not the brilliant red you might associate with a red velvet cake -- especially any red velvet cake (or cupcake or cookie) found in a supermarket bakery. If you squint just right, and your lighting is good, you might find that this cake is a dark reddish-brown -- red the way old mahogany furniture is red.

See what I mean?

You can find red-colored cakes just about anywhere these days, and they seem to be a source of much contention in the food-blog world. Red velvet cake is either a Southern specialty, or it’s not (an urban legend links the cake to the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City). The authentic topping is boiled icing, unless it isn’t (cream cheese frosting is widely popular). The cakes get their color from bottled food dye, unless they don’t (beets can provide a natural source of “red”). For all of the talk of old-time recipes, much of the popularity of red velvet cake can be traced to a smart marketing move: The Adams Extract company began distributing a recipe during the Depression era to encourage sales of its vanilla extract, butter flavoring, and red coloring.

Which brings me back to my red devil’s food cake. Devil’s food cake and red velvet cake are linked by common ingredients -- typically cocoa, buttermilk, baking soda, and cake flour, which provides the "velvet" crumb -- and some old cookbooks use the names interchangeably. The recipe that I modified comes from a 1952 cookbook and may have older origins. One notable difference is that devil’s food cakes use more cocoa powder, so they actually taste like chocolate. (This is a good thing.)

If you are fiddling with red velvet or devil's food recipes, you want to pay special attention to the proportion of acidic ingredients (cocoa and buttermilk) to alkaline ones (baking soda). It’s the chemical reaction between these ingredients that leavens the cake. Furthermore, the acids enhance the red pigments that naturally occur in cocoa powder, providing the cake’s faint red tint.

Red Devil’s Food Cupcakes
(Adapted from The Complete American-Jewish Cookbook. Makes 10 cupcakes. Recipe can be doubled.)

Ingredient notes:
  • You cannot use Dutch-processed, or alkalized, cocoa in this recipe, as it upsets the ratio of acidic-to-alkaline ingredients.
  • To make a buttermilk substitute for this recipe, mix 3/4 tsp white vinegar with enough milk to equal 1/4 cup. Let stand 5 minutes before using.

1 cup sifted cake flour (measure after sifting)
1 tsp baking soda
1/4 cup natural, unsweetened cocoa, such as regular Hershey’s (see ingredient note)
1/4 cup butter, softened
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1 egg
1/2 tsp vanilla
1/4 cup buttermilk (see ingredient note)
1/2 cup boiling water


Line cupcake pans with paper or foil liners. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Whisk together the flour, baking soda, and cocoa, and set aside. Cream butter and sugar. Add egg and vanilla and beat well.

Beat in dry ingredients, alternating with buttermilk, scraping the bowl as necessary and keeping the beaters on low speed to avoid depositing the powdery ingredients over your work surface. The batter will become very thick. Pour in the boiling water and use a whisk to distribute it through the batter evenly. The final batter will be very runny. 

Fill the cupcake liners about two-thirds full. Bake about 22 minutes, or until a cake tester comes out clean. Cool cupcakes completely before decorating. Frost with a vanilla buttercream or frosting of your choice.

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