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An All-Natural Red Velvet Cake That's Truly Red

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Red velvet is a classic cake, flavored with just a hint of cocoa powder, that has a deep red crumb contrasted with fluffy white icing. The early versions of the cake weren’t quite as technicolor as the ones we see today, but in the 1940s, the Adams Extract company saw an opportunity to sell some food coloring and reimagined the cake with a hefty dose of their product. It was a huge hit.

Now, while I love the idea of red velvet, ingesting that much Red 40 isn’t quite as appealing, so for this Valentine’s (or Galentine’s) Day, I set out to make an all-natural red cake, using red beets.

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Photo by Yossy Arefi

Casual research indicated that the batter needed to be acidic to hold the color, so I pulled out my favorite red velvet recipe from my bakery days. In addition to buttermilk and vinegar (which I figured would provide sufficient acid), it calls for an entire 1-ounce bottle of red food coloring—yikes! I added some cooked beet purée, made a few swaps to account for the extra liquid it contains, and crossed my fingers.

The batter looked rosy and beautiful, and I had high hopes. But, while what came out of the oven tasted great, the color left a lot to be desired...

Not the color I was going for.
Not the color I was going for. Photo by Yossy Arefi

I went back to the drawing board and tried a couple of more recipes with beet powder and beet purée without much luck. After a bit more research and a very helpful social media S.O.S. (see below), I learned that even though my batter had just a hint of cocoa and some acidic ingredients, those things alone weren’t enough to make a truly red cake.

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Many, many folks chimed in with advice, and here are the top tips that helped make my red velvet truly red:

  1. For this recipe, fresh beet purée is the key to the color. Cooked beets were easier to purée but oxidized in the cooked batter and turned brown.
  2. The batter must be very acidic to prevent the beets from oxidizing. That means no baking soda and lots of acidic ingredients like buttermilk, lemon juice, vinegar, and, for a little extra acidic punch, some cream of tartar.
  3. Just a touch of natural cocoa powder does the trick—too much and the cake looks too chocolatey. Dutch process cocoa is also a no-go for the same reason.

The finished cake has a slight earthy flavor from the beets, but it's barely noticeable—especially with a healthy swipe of cream cheese frosting.

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Naturally-Dyed Red Velvet Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting

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Makes an 8-inch cake with two layers

For the cake:

  • 1 cup beet purée, from fresh red beets (not cooked)
  • 3/4 cup buttermilk
  • 1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
  • 2 1/2 cups cake flour
  • 3 tablespoons cocoa powder, not Dutch-process
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon cream of tartar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup neutral-flavored oil
  • 1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
  • 2 cups granulated sugar
  • 3 large eggs

For the cream cheese frosting:

  • 8 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
  • 8 ounces unsalted butter
  • 2 tablespoons crème fraîche
  • 1 pound confectioners' sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon lemon zest
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 pinch salt

To make the cake, preheat oven to 350º F and position a rack in the center of the oven. Butter two 8-inch cake pans and line them with parchment paper. Butter the paper too, then dust the pans with flour.

Photo by Yossy Arefi

Add the beet purée, buttermilk, vinegar, lemon juice, and vanilla extract to a food processor fitted with the steel blade and process until very smooth.

Sift the cake flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, cream of tartar, and salt together in a bowl. Beat the sugar, oil, and butter together in a large bowl until creamy, then add the eggs one at a time, mixing for 30 seconds after each addition.

Alternate adding the flour mixture and beet mixture to bowl, beginning and ending with the flour mixture. Divide between the prepared pans and bake until a cake tester inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean, 20 to 30 minutes.

Cool the cakes on a rack for 20 minutes then invert onto the rack to cool completely.

Photos by Yossy Arefi

To make the frosting, beat the butter and cream cheese together on high speed until fluffy and smooth, then add the crème fraîche. Turn the mixer to low and gradually add the confectioners' sugar until just combined, then turn the mixer up to medium-high and beat until fluffy and smooth, making sure to stop the mixer and scrape down to the bottom of the bowl so everything is evenly mixed. Add the lemon zest, vanilla extract, and salt.

Photo by Yossy Arefi

To assemble the cake, trim the tops of the cake layers so they are flat, if necessary. Place one layer on a serving plate or pedestal and spread about 1 cup of frosting on top. Top with the second cake layer, then smooth a thin coat of frosting on the outside of the cake.

Photos by Yossy Arefi

Chill for at least 30 minutes, then cover the cake with a second, heavier coat of frosting to finish.

Photo by Yossy Arefi

What's your favorite Valentine's Day dessert? Share with us in the comments below!

Tags: red velvet, cake, classic cake, layer cake