February 13, 2013

Soup to Nuts: Seeking chic? Go velvet

Red velvet cake has long been a Valentine's Day tradition. Lately, it's a theme that food and drink makers think bears repeating.

By Meredith Goad mgoad@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Remember when salt caramel was something new?

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Above, a red velvet cocktail and red velvet cake with beets from The Salt Exchange in Portland; below, a traditional red velvet cake. You can get the red color in the cake two ways. Cocoa contains a natural pigment called anthocyanin that is brought out by the addition of acids like buttermilk or vinegar, which are key ingredients in traditional red velvet cake recipes.

John Ewing/Staff Photographer

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Once only in the culinary repertoire of pastry chefs, now the flavor is used in candies, brownies, ice cream and in unexpected products like hot cocoa and vodka. And they are sold everywhere, from the finest restaurant to big box stores.

The same thing appears to be happening with red velvet.

Red velvet cake, a perfect choice for Valentine's Day, is a classic Southern dessert once only brought out for holidays and other special occasions. The staff at the Waldorf Astoria in New York claim to have invented it, and their recipe is all over the Internet, but that story is suspect. Wherever it originated, it's the South that lays cultural claim to the dessert.

Known for its moistness, traditional red velvet is a classic layer cake, consisting of chocolate-y cake that's got a distinct red tint to it covered in cream cheese frosting. Depending on the cocoa and the amount of coloring, the cake may look like a dark devil's food cake with just a touch of red, or the cake may be more of a brownish-red color. Some people enjoy making it a bright red -- so bright that it's almost fluorescent and you can't tell there's any cocoa in the cake at all.

You can get the red color in the cake two ways. Cocoa contains a natural pigment called anthocyanin that is brought out by the addition of acids like buttermilk or vinegar, which are key ingredients in traditional red velvet cake recipes. Don't ever use Dutch process cocoa if you want to go the natural route.

"Most cocoa powders, unless they're natural, have some sort of alkali in them to keep them in the powdered state so they don't clump," says Adam White, executive chef at The Salt Exchange in Portland, who will be serving red velvet cake on Valentine's Day. "So it's really important not to use a Dutch cocoa, or anything that has an additive in there because it will definitely deteriorate the pigment."

Over the years, as Dutch process cocoa took over the shelves, bakers enhanced the redness of their cakes with red food coloring. (Marketing by food extract companies didn't hurt, either.) Most old recipes call for at least a 1-ounce bottle or two of food coloring, and I have seen some recipes that call for two 2-ounce bottles, which seems crazy.

If the idea of using food coloring turns you off, there's an old story that says bakers used beets during World War II rationing to color their red velvet cakes. That's what White uses in his red velvet cake, which he will be serving Thursday in the shape of a heart with some raspberry cream and a heart-shaped chocolate mousse.

"Beets have been used for dying food and clothes throughout the centuries," White said. "There's great antioxidants in beets as well, so it can't hurt."

Using beets can also be tricky, though, and mess with the chemistry of the cake.

"The beets are very sensitive to water, and an abundance of water will obviously dilute the pigment," White said. "Too much alkaline -- baking soda or baking powder -- will also dilute the pigment. And heat. Acids are really good, so we added a little bit more lemon juice just to hold that pigment in place, and a little bit of vinegar."

Using pureed beets is like adding applesauce to a cake -- they keep it very moist.

White used a little almond extract in his cream cheese frosting to cut the sharpness of the cream cheese. "Very subtle," he said, "but also very good."

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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Red velvet doughnuts have joined more traditional varieties on the menu at Tony's Donuts in Portland and South Portland.

Wendy Almeida photo

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Red Velvet Chocolate Tea from the Republic of Tea.

Courtesy photo


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