Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Happy Birthday Beth

As it turned out, the birthday of Beth (our ISS/MCSA Administrative Assistant) was mid-week last week, but in the tumult of all the event planning, we had waiting until last Friday to celebrate it. Before Friday and the great Flash Mob, I asked Beth what her favourite cake was and she responded with the one type I was hoping she would not say: red velvet cake. As you may know by now, dear Reader, I am up for a wide range of culinary challenges, but there was something about the traditional flavours of a red cake and cream cheese frosting that made it seem like quite a daunting task. To boot, I am not all that familiar with this cake of cakes so it was a bit difficult to determine as I was putting this together as  to whether or not I was on the right path. All this said, I set off knowing I would deviate from tradition and, after at least an hour or two comparing at least a dozen recipes for red velvet cakes and frostings, as well as devouring sites such as this one which focused on experimentation and even the technical science behind baking a perfect red velvet cake, I came up with this concoction which I have officially added to my list of very lucky culinary results.

After completing my "research," it seemed there were eleven basic ingredients in common amongst all the recipes I read, all of which are presented in the above photo. And knowing I would be adjusting accordingly to make my red velvet cake a dark cocoa red velvet cake, I surmised the following process (and yeah, I should probably purchase another hand mixer...).

First off, cream together 3/4 c vegetable shortening and 1.5 c granulated sugar. Some of the recipes called for butter and I ended up deciding against that because 1) the cake itself is supposed to be light and 2) to cream butter by hand would take more time than to work with the shortening. Next, beat in 2 large eggs and then 1 tsp vanilla extract. For this first part, I used my spiral hand whisk.

Though I assume it is for reasons of consistency, I chose not make a paste out of my cocoa powder and red food colouring. Instead, I went with whisking in 1.25 fluid ounces of red food colouring into 1 c buttermilk. I am fairly confident you could get away with only using 1 oz, but with most of the recipes erring on the side of 2 oz in total, I stopped at a point when the food colouring was no longer changing colour overall. The other variable could be the quality/brand of the food colouring itself; in any case, the cheap, store brand red food colouring I purchased baked into what turned out to be the perfect shade of red for the cake.

At this point, the other bowl you will need to prepare is the cocoa flour mixture. I had seen it in recipes past, but this time I went with using actual cake flour (which, apparently, is sifted 27 times to create a light and airy flour). Making it sift 28, then, I re-sifted 2.5 c cake flour into a bowl along with 1 tsp ground sea salt and 2 tbsp dark cocoa (most recipes hovered around 1 or 1.5 tbsp of cocoa but remember, I am the one who loves chocolate). When this is prepared, you can go ahead and preheat the oven to 350 °F. Also, make sure your baking dishes have been greased and floured, if they are not already.

Now, it is time to bring out the heavy duty machinery (read: strong whisk). Beginning with the cocoa flour mixture, add a fourth of the mix to the shortening mixture and combine well. Then, add in a third of the buttermilk mixture, again combining well. Continue this alternating pattern, making sure everything is thoroughly combined. 

You should end up with something of the above photo's nature.

Next up is the chemical reaction part of this cake which I believe adds to the unique taste of the cake (well, this along with the food colouring itself and the use of buttermilk). Different recipes had different amounts, but I eventually went with 1 heaping tsp of baking soda and 1 tbsp of white vinegar. Allow the reaction to occur and fizz, then quickly fold this into the cake batter.

Again, working quickly, get these into your baking dishes and into the oven. In my particular case, I went with a 13" x 9" cake; the batter did not completely fill the bottom of the dishes but as it baked, it did expand to fill the space. For a red velvet cake that bakes this thin, I left it in the oven for about 30 minutes. Adjust the time accordingly to match the thickness of your cake and remember to test it with a toothpick or cake testing device of some kind; remember, you are looking for the toothpick, etc., to come out cleanly. Allow the cakes to cool completely before either 1) taking them out of the baking dishes; or 2) frosting them. One recipe writer actually sticks her cake in the freezer before frosting.

Speaking of frosting, which really could be buttercream or cream cheese frosting or whatever you want it to be, I ended up making a lemon Neufchâtel cheese frosting. According to the packaging, Neufchâtel has 1/3 the fat as cream cheese, but with the addition of a whole stick of butter, does it really matter? In any case, I found Neufchâtel to be very easy to work with.

The first step is creaming together the butter and Neufchâtel cheese, and for this I used a fork. I then whisked in, 1/2 c at a time, a total of 2 c powdered sugar. As I mixed this in, the frosting naturally reached the correct consistency. This is the point in which you then add 1 tsp vanilla extract, blend thoroughly, and give it a taste. If you want the frosting to be a bit sweeter, add a bit more sugar. I ended up adding a bit more because I also added the grated lemon zest of one medium lemon, as well as the juice of half of that lemon.

Having prepped (read: scrape off any burned areas from the bottom of) my cakes, place a thin layer of frosting on the dish itself, and build up using about half the frosting between the two 13" x 9" cakes. In retrospect, I would probably make at least 1.5x the frosting.

At this point, you could be asking yourself, "Well, what do I do with the other half of this lemon?" And if that is indeed what you are asking yourself, you are in luck! Using a reduced version of Martha Stewart's recipe and a different technique, I made a royal icing for piping lettering on the frosted cake. Into a resealable plastic bag, put in the whites of one egg, the juice of the half of the lemon in question, and two cups powdered sugar. Seal up the bag and mix it all up using your hand. If the icing seems too thin, add a little more powdered sugar (and thin with either more lemon juice or water if need be). As you can see in the photo above, I inverted the top of the bag over the lip of a tall glass so I could pour everything in and not need to hold the bag.

So that I did not need to worry about liquefying my icing any further, I added a touch of "no taste" red and a touch of copper icing colour to my icing and again mixed it in with my hands. Using a pair of scissors, cut a small part of the tip of the bag...

...and pipe on your design. Can you figure out what that thing over Beth's name is supposed to be?

And voilà ! You have my take on red velvet cake with cream cheese frosting. In the end, it tasted better than I had expected and for those who have had red velvet cake in the past, this version did not seem to disappoint. If nothing else, one suggestion was to take away the lemon for a more traditional taste to the frosting, but overall, again I add this cake to my list of lucky culinary creations. For more cake and frosting photos, click here. (ps/ The thing above Beth's name is supposed to be a pink bow.)

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