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When I decide to bake, I always go to four sources for ideas. First, I start with Rombauer's "Joy of Cooking," because it has a basic recipe that works and suits most tastes. Then I check Cook's Illustrated, which goes through dozens of variations until someone stumbles upon something they can use to be original; in the process, they often unlock the important principles to keep in mind - the recipes themselves tend to be overly fussy and temperamental. Next, I check Alton Brown, who starts with an idea and the science to make it happen; the results, however, are often surprisingly pedestrian. Lastly, I look for a vegan recipe, as they often have to find a way around a problem that involves some lateral thinking.
I'd never eaten red velvet cake, but was intrigued; then I saw that every recipe involved an ounce of artificial dye and I no longer wanted to try it. The history is interesting: originally, a small amount of cocoa was added for a reddish coloring, then people tried adding beets for color (oddly, not one of these old recipes is available), then artificial dye took over. New recipes still have the cocoa, but it's pointless with all the dye. New recipes using beets invariably taste like beets, which only vegans seem to find acceptable.
The first recipes were variations of devil's food, jiggered to be red. The plan for me, then, was to make a red cake that tasted of cocoa and had a fine velvety mouthfeel. Others have done some of the groundwork. A good comparison is here. A good description of the beet color problem is here. To get a fine texture, one needs to use butter and cream it and sugar together, but butter leads to a drier cake than oil does. Some devil's food cakes use brown sugar to overcome the dryness, but the molasses color is hard to cover with red. The biggest problem when using beets is that the color turns brown upon heating, turns purple in base (and all the recipes add the base baking soda to get it to rise) and degrades a bit in salt or upon standing.
I tried a number of approaches that failed. What works is a variation of Food Network Magazine's recipe with Alton Brown's frosting. Instead of Dutch process cocoa, I used natural (what you find at every grocer's), which is redder by nature, but more difficult to blend into liquids; I sifted the flour and cocoa together to evenly disperse the cocoa and get rid of lumps in the flour. I used distilled white vinegar, rather than apple cider.
The liquid from cooked beets tastes like beets and I couldn't eliminate that taste; raw beet puree has the same problem. The trick is to get beet color without beet flavor. The way to do this is actually rather clever ("my genius is eclipsed only by my hubris"): Place a cup of buttermilk in a freezer bag with a tablespoon of vinegar. Cut a beet roughly into cubes and add to the bag and place in a refrigerator for an hour. Then put the bag in the freezer and allow to freeze solid. Then take the bag out of the freezer and thaw in warm water. I did the freeze/thaw cycle three times over the course of the day before baking (perhaps overkill, but I didn't want to do it again). The component in beets that makes them taste like dirt, geosmin, degrades in the acid over time. What the process does is cause the cells to absorb liquid. The liquid expands upon freezing, which creates tears in the cell walls, which allows the coloring matter, betanin, to leak out. The resulting liquid has the beet color, but not the beet flavor. Add it as in the Food Network Mag recipe, substituting it for buttermilk and eliminate the food dye.
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