When I set about to make my first Red Velvet cake, I did a lot of homework on the recipe. Red Velvet is a southern tradition, and I’m a southern girl, so I just had to get this one right!
I could find nary a recipe for Red Velvet in the first dozen cookbooks I poured over, though. This apparent scarcity heightened my interest, to be honest, which then sadly only increased my disappointment when I discovered that there is actually little mystique around making this cake. In fact, Red Velvet cakes are just chocolate or Devil’s Food cakes with lots of red food coloring and gobs of white or cream cheese frosting! As anticlimactic as that may be, I was intrigued by this tidbit I unearthed: during World War II food rationing, boiled beets were used to enhance the red color of these cakes. Now that is interesting!
Let me take a moment to mention (at the risk of offending some) that I don’t like beets. I hate to count myself among those who have maligned the beet through the centuries though. As one of my favorite dog-eared books, Cupboard Love: A Dictionary of Culinary Curiosities, describes in the history of this underappreciated root-vegetable:
[B]eets were planted every spring and harvested every fall; they were eaten regularly by every person in England; their tops and leaves were fed to thousands of hungry pigs; and yet it appears that not once did the beet inspire anyone who possessed pen, paper, and the ability to write, to jot down its name, even in passing.
So I decided to take another look at the somewhat unorthodox (to me, at least) idea of using beets in a cake recipe. It does seem like a far more natural way to get that beautiful red tint in a cake (food dyes never have thrilled me), and I really couldn’t knock it until I gave it a fair shot, so I decided to craft my gluten-free Red Velvet recipe using beets and see where it led.
Upon taking this fork in my recipe road, I recognized that my cakes would be more dense and moist than a traditional layer cake. This type of recipe always performs better when baked in smaller sizes, like cupcakes (the same way quick breads heavy on the fruit, or using applesauce in place of some of the fats, work better as muffins).
This light and moist chocolate cake needs only a healthy dose of red food coloring to become Red Velvet cake!
If you are set on making a layer cake with your Red Velvet instead, I’d suggest using a lighter chocolate cake and simply adding 1-2 ounces of red food coloring (see my crowd-pleasing Chocolate Cake recipe).
You’ll be proud of your results, and you can still avoid chemical food dyes if you like, by using a beet-based food coloring like the one from Seelect. It is all natural, and comes in 2 ounce bottles – you’ll need to use the full 2 ounces for a real red color, so reduce other liquids in your cake recipe by the same amount. (Seelect also makes other natural food dyes using other vegetable and plant-based ingredients)
If you are up to trying the historic approach to Red Velvet though, join me in making these amazingly decadent — yet healthy — Real Red Velvet Cupcakes! The beets offer extra Potassium, Iron, Magnesium, Manganese, Phosphorus and Copper; and among other vitamins they are high in both vitamin C and Folate. So feel good feeding these gorgeous berry-colored treasures to your family with love this Valentine’s Day, or on any yummy occasion!
Real Red Velvet Cupcakes
- 1-2 cups pureed beets (4-8 medium-large beets)*
- 1/2 cup butter or non-dairy substitute, room temperature (e.g. Earth Balance® Buttery Sticks)
- 1 1/4 cup granulated cane sugar (e.g. Wholesome Sweeteners®)
- 3 eggs
- 2 tsp. gluten-free vanilla extract (e.g. Nielsen-Massey®; Kirkland®)
- 1 1/2 Tbs. apple cider vinegar
- 1-2 cups applesauce (no sugar added)*
- 1 1/4 cup milk, dairy or non-dairy vanilla milk (e.g. So Delicious® cultured Coconut Milk; Earth Balance® Soy Milk)
- 2 cups Jules Gluten Free™ All Purpose Flour
- 3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa (not Dutch Alkali processed)
- 2 tsp. gluten-free baking powder (e.g. Rumford®; Clabber Girl®; Hain®)
- 1 1/2 tsp. baking soda
- 1 tsp. ground cinnamon
*Depending on how many beets you use, you can make up the difference with natural applesauce. For example, boiling only 4 medium-large beets will yield approximately 1 cup of beet puree. Supplement that amount with 1 cup of no sugar added applesauce. If using enough beets to make 2 cups of puree, add no extra applesauce. If you are concerned about there being a beet taste in your cupcakes, use only 1 cup of beet puree and 1 cup of applesauce.
Wash beets and remove greens. Boil until fork-tender, approximately 40 minutes for medium-large size beets. Drain and allow to cool. Peel skins off (they will come off easily once boiled) and puree in a food processor or mash until smooth. Measure puree to equal 2 cups (total beets + applesauce should be 2 cups, so if you have more or less puree, simply make up the difference with applesauce).
Preheat oven to 350 F (static) or 325 F (convection).
Cream butter and sugar until light. Add eggs, vanilla, cider vinegar, applesauce and cooled beet puree. Whisk together dry ingredients, then add to wet mixture, slowly pouring milk in, while mixing. Beat an additional 3 minutes.
Spoon batter into lined or oiled muffin tins, filling 3/4 full. Bake for 25-30 minutes, or until cake tester or skewer inserted into the center comes out nearly clean.
Makes approximately 24 cupcakes.
Cream Cheese Frosting
- 1 cup butter, shortening or non-dairy alternative (e.g. Earth Balance® Buttery Sticks)
- 2- 8oz containers cream cheese, dairy or non-dairy (e.g. Follow Your Heart® soy cream cheese)
- 3 cups confectioners’ or powdered sugar**
- 2 tsp. gluten-free vanilla extract (omit if you want bright white frosting)
- 1 1/2 tsp. lemon rind (optional)
**If you run out of powdered sugar mid-recipe like I did, never fear! Make your own powdered sugar by blending 1 cup granulated sugar + 1 tablespoon cornstarch in a blender until light. Easy fix!
Bring cream cheese and butter to room temperature, then cream together with remaining ingredients. If the frosting is not stiff enough, add more powdered sugar until the proper consistency is achieved.
(For extra fun, use the water from boiling the beets for tie-dye! A couple of pointers: use natural fabrics like wool or silk for best results, since fabrics like cotton will resist the dye and the colors will fade quickly; to help set the color, use a mordant. While the beet juice is a brilliant purple-red color, it will set in the fabric with a lighter brown hue and will not last without mordant).