FOOD: Kristin Kuhlke's red velvet cupcake 

Red-Blooded Beauty

Red Velvet Cupcake
$2.75
at Cupcake
433 King St., Downtown
(843) 853-8181
Mon.–Sat: 10 a.m.-7 p.m.

Red velvet reigns supreme at Cupcake, the King Street bakery that specializes in its namesake. Owner Kristin Kuhlke estimates that they sell over 500 luscious red beauties a week, and it's no surprise, considering their obvious sex appeal. For starters, they are intensely red. Some red velvet cakes appear a bit maroon, but not these. They are the color of fine rubies. And that's just the beginning.

One moist bite reveals a hint of smoky chocolate, and then you get to the icing. While some bakers use buttercream, Kuhlke goes with the other traditional red velvet accompaniment — cream cheese icing. Hers comes out silky smooth, and the bold tang provides the perfect backdrop to all that lush cake. Thankfully, there's ample icing to smear on just about every bite, and it's no wonder that Kuhlke decided to make them a staple on her menu.

Before opening in spring 2006, Kuhlke tested all her cupcake recipes, but the red velvet took some extra time. She went through 10 variations before finding the winning combination, and now she rightfully refuses to give away her secrets. She does admit to using buttermilk and a bit of vinegar along with some cocoa powder and a substantial amount of red food coloring.

Those who have never tried their hand at red velvet cake might be in for a surprise. One three-layer cake requires nearly half a cup of red food coloring, and if you doubt this truth just wait until your pretty cake comes out pink.

While pondering all this intensely artificial red food coloring you might wonder how or why such a cake came to be, and that's where the culinary history lesson begins. Rumors abound about the beginnings of red velvet cake. Most food writers attribute it to the South, but one widely distributed tall tale links it to New York's Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. It has indeed been a signature there since the 1920s, but they do not claim ownership of the cake, according to a New York Times article that debunked the myth in February 2007.

Thankfully, there does seem to be at least one probable truth with scientific backing. Many baking recipes call for an acid (like buttermilk or vinegar) to activate the leavening agent (baking soda). When cocoa powder enters the picture, another reaction takes place. Acid tends to turn cocoa powder a bit red, and thus, you have a naturally reddish cake.

From this point on, there are many theories, but basically some bright person decided to enhance that redness with the magic of artificial food coloring. Today, more naturally minded chefs refuse to go down this route and prefer to use beets in their red velvet cakes. Yet, there's an allure to Cupcake's best selling seductress that makes you think — maybe there is beauty in a bottle...

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