This week’s excuse, nay, *reason* for baking was Sport Relief. I volunteered to contribute to a baking stall to raise money, which is why the stroke of midnight on this very morn found me elbow deep in butter icing. Again. The other reason, the real one, was that I was desperate to try red velvet cake. Ever since I first stumbled across the concept of red velvet cake, I’ve been somewhat fascinated by it. It looks, well, wrong. Fake. Red, for goodness’ sake. And the fact is that it’s only red because you *dye* it red. Why? I don’t know! From what I can make out, from reading all of one article (this one), nobody knows. However, it is certainly visually stunning, and eye-catching, especially when it’s all layered and covered with some kind of white icing, to mask the colour of the cake until you cut into it. My friend Miss P, the wonderful baker, made us some red velvet cupcakes on one of our cupcake nights, which further fuelled my fascination (and aided my already able alliteration). An aside, here, if I may: every girls’ night is cake night, really, but we also have specific cupcake nights. Usually I will make something savoury on these nights, for balance, but also because Miss P’s cupcakes cannot be matched, let alone beaten. Now that I’m working on my presentation, and have new icing tools, maybe I’ll be more confident next time and go for it. It’s not a competition, of course, but I would feel sad for my cupcakes if they were clearly inferior, and had to sit next to some glorious creations, while they felt like stank monsters of the cake world, and thought of going to live under a bridge and taking up eating goats…
This is a picture of a cupcake night table, courtesy of Miss J. I think the ones nearest the camera are the red velvet ones, with ones further back looking like chocolate and vanilla variations on the cupcake theme. Also, you will note a plate of home-made custard creams on the left of the picture. All of these were Miss P’s work, and this is why you don’t take a day off work when you are hosting girls night, because you can run the risk of baking yourself right out the door. There was also a big old cheeseboard on the table but I cropped it out, just wanted to focus on the cupcakes. So many cupcakes.
To get back to red velvet cake, Miss P explained to me that the raising agent in it is bicarbonate of soda mixed with vinegar, which sounded excitingly sciencey to me. It’s a different technique, and the more baking techniques I can learn the better, I say. Basically, it’s a different kind of cake to ones I’d made before, and I wanted to try it. This was one of those recipes that didn’t leap into the forefront of my brain and demand to be made immediately, though; luckily not all of them are. It’s been months since I tasted the red velvet cupcakes, and I only got round to trying them for myself last night. I also thought they’d be quite appropriate for Sport Relief, being red and all, like the charity’s logo. There were only a few hitches with the plan…
Firstly, the G man and I were going out last night, to see Dara O’ Briain. He was really good – we’ve gone to a number of comedy gigs together (the G man and I, not Dara and I) and it’s a really fun night out. We also went for a bite to eat first, so we had a lovely evening of it. This meant, however, that I didn’t go home after work, and the gig didn’t finish until about half ten. The second problem was that I was uncharacteristically unprepared, and had to buy some ingredients before I got home, further holding up the commencement of the baking until after 11pm. Also, I needed buttermilk, and while I had a small amount in the fridge it wasn’t enough. I had read that you can make your own with milk and lemon juice, so I decided that’s what I would do – really this was a necessity, I wasn’t about to go strolling into the Spar giving it ‘Here, where’s your buttermilk, mate?’. Unfortunately the milk I had was semi-skimmed, and the technique didn’t really seem to work. What you do is mix a tablespoon of lemon juice in with a cup of milk, and leave to sit for fifteen minutes. The semi-skimmed milk didn’t curdle like it was supposed to, it just sat there, mild as milk that hasn’t had lemon juice added to it. Perhaps if I’d left it for longer something would have happened, but I decided just to use what I had to to top up the buttermilk I did have, and hope for the best. Now that I had finally got into the house and started, I loosely followed this recipe for red velvet cake, with the following adjustments:
- I halved the recipe. I thought that, if the whole cake served 10-12, it must be a bit of a monster, and I didn’t want to make much more than 18 cupcakes. The thought of icing more than that was not a happy one, not at that time of night anyway.
- I used wheat-free flour. I felt that it would be good if there was at least one item on the baking stall that was wheat-free, and two of the people in my department have wheat issues and almost always miss out on baked goods, so I really wanted to make something they could have. Also, it had been annoying me that I hadn’t been able to successfully make wheat-free cake.
- I added an extra egg to avoid repeating the falling apart disaster that was my last wheat-free attempt. Well, I say I added an extra egg – I halved all of the ingredients in the recipe except for the eggs, would be a clearer way of putting it.
- I made a plain buttercream icing for the cupcakes instead of the recommended milk-based icing. It was quicker, since I already knew how to make it, and I didn’t want to mess with *too*many unknown quantities in one go, particularly since they had to be right first time or I wasn’t taking anything with me to contribute, and I would have felt terrible about it since it had been arranged for weeks.
- I used apple vinegar and not apple cider vinegar. I’m not sure what, if any, the difference is.
- I didn’t have enough red food dye, I fell short by about half a wee bottle and several shades. Hence they were called pink velvet cakes.
Let’s break this up with a pretty photo of the finished article:
So, I made the cake mix in vague accordance with the recipe, being sure to have the cupcake cases all ready before I did so, so that I wouldn’t waste any time between adding the vinegar and bicarbonate of soda mix and getting the cupcakes in the oven. I’m given to understand that working quickly is essential if the cakes are to rise. I did see a difference in the cakes that were on the good side of my oven compared to the bad side – even though I turned the shelf round half way, the ones that started on the bad side didn’t rise nearly as well as the ones on the good side. Luckily I was giving them all a swirl of buttercream icing in the end so it didn’t matter. I baked them for 17 minutes in all, which I think was too long as they were a little dry once they were cooled. Once again, the buttercream sorted this out just fine, but I’d like to iron out that problem, you don’t want a dry sponge. Not when it comes to cake. Actual sponges should be pretty dry, except when they’re underwater… I’m just going to stop myself on this train of thought, it’s not really going anywhere. Sponge chat – is that really the best I can do? Really? No. More cake chat now.
I made a proper note of the buttercream icing this time, it was:
- 150g margarine (but I think butter gives better flavour and consistency so I think I’ll stick with the real thing from now on)
- 500g icing sugar (I know, my teeth are whimpering at the very idea)
- three pinches of sea salt flakes
Whisked the whole lot up until well combined, fluffy and sweet without a margariney aftertaste. This made enough to ice 18 cupcakes, with some left over, possibly enough for another six. I’ve frozen the leftover stuff for use at a later date; there is also toffee sauce in my freezer, perhaps some kind of toffee cupcakes are in order.I had a banana and fudge muffin today, it was pretty good, a classic combination. I also used leftover toffee sauce before to make an apple, date and toffee crumble, which was very satisfying indeed, but did not require the use of buttercream.
Here is my final photo of the completed cakes, and the one that I love the most:
I did a lot of cake posing once they were ready, trying different numbers of cakes, different angles, having just one with various decorative arrangements of coloured sugar stars around and about it, but in the end the simpler ones worked out best. You can see from the pictures that they are definitely not red, they’re a sort of pink-brown colour. It’s not the nicest colour of cake but not off putting, either. I’ve already bought more red food dye for my second attempt.
Tonight I also bought myself some fresh basil and tarragon, some little rice pancakes for spring roll making and some bigger cupcake cases – muffin cases, really. I’m finding the ones I’ve got to be a little on the small side, or maybe I’m not filling them up enough, or maybe I’m just greedy. Scratch the maybe, I think the constant talk of and pictures of food have given that away already. Anyway, some bigger cases for bigger cakes, should I want to make any. The basil was for making basil oil, as I just ran out of my last shop-bought bottle and I really love basil oil. I put 25g of fresh basil in a blender along with enough oil to give a thin consistency, plus a couple of pinches of salt and a few tarragon leaves for extra flavour. I added the resulting mix to the rest of a small bottle of olive oil, shook it up and have left to infuse. We’ll see how it goes, not sure if that was the right way to go about it but I wanted to try. The rest of the tarragon was for another project, and one that I didn’t get quite right tonight but will have another go at soon. I want to make a tarragon syrup – the herb is so aniseedy and sweet, I just think it would be a great ingredient in some kind of fruit-baked cake or dessert. I over heated the mix tonight and burned the sugar, but until I did that it was looking good with a light green colour and really sweet, aniseedy but with a subtle difference flavour. I’ll keep you posted – you must be fascinated…