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So one of my coworkers requested I make red velvet cupcakes for my regular Monday-morning office treat, which posed a bit of a dilemma. While I’m not a food nazi, I do try to avoid the patently unnatural, and red velvet cake is defined by the glowing red produced by huge quantities of artificial food coloring.

What to do: compromise my principles, or settle for less-incendiary red from some more natural source?

As much as I like to please my coworkers, the idea of pouring two bottles of blood-red fluid straight from some Frankenfood plant on the New Jersey turnpike weirded me out too much, so I decided to go the natural route. Since research pointed to beets as an accepted coloring agent in the early history of the red velvet cake, and beets are one of my favorite vegetables, that’s what I chose to experiment with.

My first attempt used a Cook’s Country recipe, since despite my continuing annoyance with Kimball for the polenta fiasco, a lot of bloggers had used it with good results. While I agreed that the taste and texture were good, the pretty magenta color of the batter baked out to an extremely generic tan. I got no complaints when I passed them off as Brown Suede cupcakes, but I still wanted to make genuinely red red velvet without resorting to food coloring.

A little more research turned up the cause of the color change and a potential solution. Rose Levy Berenbaum’s most recent cake book has a recipe for red velvet cake, which uses artificial color but includes a note about baking soda neutralizing the natural pigments in beet juice. Her batter, in contrast, is highly acidic, which should preserve the color.

And it did! Although there was a little fading from bright raspberry to dusky pink in the oven, the resulting cupcakes were definitely in the red end of the spectrum. Because it’s an egg-white-only chiffon batter, it was considerably drier than the conventional Cook’s Country one, but a thick coating of cream cheese frosting mostly took care of it.

I won’t call these the best cupcakes I’ve ever posted here, but they’re perfectly respectable and they are a legitimately non-toxic red. And no, they really don’t taste like beet, I swear. They taste mildly of cocoa and of the cream cheese frosting, which, besides the inflammatory color, is what I understand the whole point of red velvet to be.

Non-Radioactive Red Velvet Cupcakes
(Adapted from Rose Red Velvet Cake in Rose Levy Berenbaum’s Rose’s Heavenly Cakes)
Makes 24 cupcakes

For the cake:

1 large beet, peeled
3 large egg whites, at room temperature
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 cups minus 2 tablespoons cake flour
1 cup granulated sugar
3 teaspoons baking powder
2 tablespoons natural cocoa powder, sifted
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup grapeseed or canola oil
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup buttermilk

For the frosting:

8 ounces cream cheese, softened
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
1 tablespoon creme fraiche or sour cream
Pinch of salt
1 cup powdered sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Set the rack to the lower-third position and preheat the oven to 350 F. Line two muffin tins with paper liners.

Run the beet through a juicer. Skim off any foam, and measure out 2 tablespoons of the juice. Whisk the beet juice and vanilla into the egg whites just until the color is evenly distributed.

Whisk together the flour, sugar, baking powder, cocoa and salt in a medium bowl.

Mix the oil and butter together in a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment for 1 minute on medium speed. Add the flour and buttermilk, and mix on low until the dry ingredients are moistened, then increase the speed to medium and beat 1 1/2 minutes longer. Scrape down the bowl and add the egg mixture in two parts, beating 30 seconds on medium speed after each addition.

Using an ice cream scoop, evenly divide the batter among the cups. Bake for 16-18 minutes, until the tops spring back when pressed lightly. Cool for a few minutes in the tins, then turn out onto a wire rack to cool completely.

While the cupcakes are cooling, combine the cream cheese, butter, creme fraiche and salt in a food processor and pulse until smooth. Add the sugar and vanilla and keep pulsing until evenly incorporated. Spread the cupcakes with this frosting once they’ve cooled.

Notes:

If you’re less gunshy about fake food coloring than I am, you can replace the beet juice with the same amount of liquid red food color to get a really bright red cake, but if you’re going to do that, I’d go with the moister, richer Cook’s Country version.

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