Saturday, January 28, 2012

cherry velvet•cupcakes with cherry cream cheese•frosting

Give Owen something with artificial food coloring in it, and prepare to watch him transform into a maniac.  He gets this checked-out look in his eyes (his pupils may as well be giant rotating spirals...); he gets extremely hyper and loses all sense of self-control (his head may as well be spinning on his shoulders with steam shooting from his ears...).  
This all sounds kind of comical and cartoon-like, but I assure you, it's not funny.  It's like a scary cartoon.  Freaks me out.
Shortly after Halloween, I made the mistake of letting him eat some Smarties in the car.  Not so smart...  "How bad could it get?"  I asked myself.  The answer was, it turned out: pretty bad.  Kicking, yelling, paying no heed to gentle reminders, then firm reminders, then desperate pleas from me until I was in tears.  Not him-- me.
Give Owen a piece of chocolate, and he's fine.  Six pieces of chocolate, even-- he'll maybe get a slight sugar buzz, but it's nothing like the food color trance.
So, needless to say, we avoid artificial food dyes.  Like the plague.
Let's just say I love him too much to put him through that.  And I love the rest of us in the family too much to make us witness or deal with that.  
So, with Valentine's day coming up, how do I tell my guys I love them without putting them through something potentially scarring?  Red velvet cake seems to be all the rage lately and there's something appealing about the red color.  It's so fun and festive-- especially for Valentine's Day.  I'm often tempted by these ruby-red treats (whoopie pies, big cakes, cute little cupcakes-- all so pretty) when I see them at a coffee shop or bakery-- until I read the ingredients list or a recipe for red velvet cake.   Red # 40 (the devil as far as I'm concerned-- who is appropriately dressed in red) is a big star in most of them.  I came across one recipe that called for a full third of a cup of red food coloring!

Thus my latest mission: red velvet without the Red #40 (or any color # anything, for that matter).  My secret ingredient: beets (with a little help from cherries).  This took a bit of research and testing to get the recipe right, but I think I've hit the sweet spot (please excuse the pun).  These are smooth, sweet, cherry-kissed (not beety), and a fun, festive color, to boot.  They are not the radioactive red of some red velvet treats, but I didn't have to sell my soul (or sacrifice anyone's sanity) to achieve it.  These are, lets say, a nice cherry tone.  Top them with pretty, pink cherry cream cheese frosting and something naturally red (I've used raspberries, fruit spread, and craisins on these), and you've got a pretty, festive, delicious treat that says "I love you" more earnestly than any Red #40-laced treat ever could.

the veggies:
-for the cupcakes:
  • 1/2 cup white whole wheat flour
  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 TBS cocoa powder (natural-- not Dutch process)*
  • 1 tsp baking powder**
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 8 ounces cooked beets, plus any juice***
  • 1/2 cup black cherry fruit spread (like Smucker's Simply Fruit)****
  • 2 TBS lemon juice
  • 2 tsp vanilla
  • 1 cup packed brown sugar
  • 1/3 cup canola oil
  • 2 eggs
-for the frosting:
  • 1/2 cup cream cheese (half an 8-ounce container)
  • 1/2 cup black cherry fruit spread
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 1/4 cup powdered sugar

the love:
-for the cupcakes:
  1. Preheat your oven to 350° and prep a twelve-cupcake pan.
  2. Sift together the flours, cocoa, baking powder and salt in a large mixing bowl.
  3. In your blender, finely chop the beets and their juice (if any), stopping to scrape the sides of the pitcher as needed.
  4. Add the fruit spread, lemon juice, vanilla, brown sugar, canola oil and eggs, and blend until smooth.
  5. Stir the wet ingredients into the dry until just combined.
  6. Fill your cupcake cups and bake for about twenty minutes, or until cupcakes are firm in the center and/or a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.
  7. Cool completely before frosting.
-for the frosting:
  1. In a medium mixing bowl, combine the cream cheese, fruit spread and vanilla and beat with a mixer on high for a minute or two, until light and smooth (except for any cherry chunks).
  2. Add the powdered sugar and beat another minute or two 'till smooth (besides cherry chunks).
  3. To frost the cupcakes, I like to add a spoonful of frosting to the center of the cupcake then gently push the frosting out towards the edges with the spoon.  This frosting is pretty thin and smooths out easily.
  4. Top with naturally red decorations, if desired.  To add a heart: add a dollop of fruit spread slightly higher than the center of the cupcake, then drag a knife through the middle of the dollop, top to bottom, to pull into a heart shape.
  5. Store frosted cupcakes in the fridge, but let them sit at room temperature to warm up before serving.  Brock and I think these pair well with red wine...

* Using non-alkalized cocoa is important because it preserves the low pH of the batter, which helps keep the color bright.
**Double the baking powder at lower elevations.
***For this I just buy a package of peeled, steamed beets, found by the salad stuff in the produce section at the grocery store.  If you're cooking your own you'll need about 6 small, 4 medium, or 2 to 3 large beets.
****Get a 10 ounce jar of fruit spread and you'll use the whole thing between the cupcakes and the frosting.

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