Something Different
Week of: April 23, 2012
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Unbeatable Red Velvet Cupcakes

By Dana Jacobi
for the American Institute for Cancer Research

You would have to live under a rock to avoid red velvet cupcakes. Satisfying our love of chocolate, retro desserts and the desire to indulge in small bites, this adorable and adored cupcake hits the trifecta for sweet perfection.

But red velvet also presents a problem, namely the artificial red dye that gives it vivid color. Pastry chef Stella Parks blogs about the history of red velvet cake and why red dye has played such a large role.

Making red velvet cupcakes with color that meets our expectations without using dye has become a holy grail for pastry chefs favoring natural ingredients. Their experiments have relied mostly on hoping that the acidity in the recipe's buttermilk and vinegar is enough to preserve the redness in the anthocyanins found in cocoa and in red foods like raspberry puree or concentrated pomegranate juice. So far this approach has failed to give the desired hue.

Beets, though, are a logical choice for making a red velvet cupcake that is naturally colored. Besides being loaded with richly red betacyanin, their natural sugar content makes them as logical as any fruit ingredient. They do indeed give a nice ruddy cast, which I enhance by adding a touch of cinnamon.

My unique method of combining cold egg and oil assures a moist, velvety texture that is complemented perfectly by the customary cream cheese frosting.

American Irish Stew

Red Velvet Cupcakes

  • 1 cup canned beets, drained (see note)
  • 1/2 cup reduced-fat buttermilk, divided
  • 1/2 tsp. white vinegar
  • 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 3/4 cup plus 2 Tbsp. unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 6 Tbsp. unsweetened natural cocoa, plus 1-2 tablespoons for decorating
  • 1/2 tsp. baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp. baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp. salt, preferably kosher
  • 1/3 cup canola oil, chilled
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1 large egg, cold

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Drop paper liners into cavities of a 12-cavity regular size muffin pan.

Working a knife up and down in a measuring cup, coarsely chop beets. Place beets in blender, add 1/4 cup buttermilk and whirl until beets are finely chopped. Add remaining buttermilk, vinegar and vanilla and whirl to a puree, making sure no lumps of beet remain. Set beet mixture aside.

In small bowl, combine flour, 6 tablespoons of cocoa, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon and salt, and set aside.

In medium bowl, combine cold oil and sugar. With hand mixer on medium speed, mix until sugar is evenly moistened. Add cold egg and beat at high speed until mixture resembles mayonnaise and sugar is almost completely dissolved, 90 seconds. Add beet mixture and beat until combined. Sift dry ingredients into bowl and mix, either on low speed or by hand until combined with wet ingredients. Divide batter evenly among lined muffin cups, filling them about two-thirds full.

Bake cupcakes for 28-30 minutes, or until tops feel springy and when one cupcake is lifted out, bottom feels springy, too. Immediately transfer cupcakes to wire rack and cool completely before frosting. Cupcakes are best when stored overnight at room temperature in covered container.

Ice cupcakes, using about 1 tablespoon of frosting for each. Place remaining cocoa in a strainer and sprinkle it over frosted cupcakes. If desired, let cupcakes sit at room temperature to let frosting set, about 2 hours. The frosted cupcakes can sit at room temperature for up to 12 hours.

Makes 12 cupcakes.

Note: Use either sliced or whole beets, whichever costs less. An 8 1/4-ounce can yields slightly more than 1 cup. Look to be sure there is no sugar added and make sure not to grab pickled beets.

Cream Cheese Frosting

  • 2/3 cup confectioners sugar
  • 4 Tbsp. reduced-fat cream cheese
  • 1/2-1 tsp. vanilla extract

In small bowl, work sugar and cream cheese together with wooden spoon or hand mixer until combined. Mix in vanilla.

This frosting is best when refrigerated 8 hours to overnight, loosely covered, before using. It keeps in refrigerator for 5 days.

Makes a generous 2/3 cup.

Per serving (plain cupcake): 159 cal; 7 g fat, 1 g sat fat, 198 mg sodium, 23 CHO, 1.5 g fiber, 3 g protein

Per serving (frosting): 34 cal; 1 g fat, <1 g sat fat, 15 mg sodium, 6 CHO, 0 g fiber, 0 g protein

Something Different is written by Dana Jacobi, author of 12 Best Foods Cookbook and contributor to AICR’s New American Plate Cookbook: Recipes for a Healthy Weight and a Healthy Life.

Our Mission: The American Institute for Cancer Research champions the latest and most authoritative scientific research from around the world on cancer prevention and survival through diet, weight and physical activity, so that we can help people make informed lifestyle choices to reduce their cancer risk.

We have contributed over $105 million for innovative research conducted at universities, hospitals and research centers across the country. Find evidence-based tools and information for lowering cancer risk, including AICR’s Recommendations for Cancer Prevention, at

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