For most 14th of February’s in my life I have been single and life has been status quo. I wouldn’t consider myself a Valentine’s Day fanatic, although I will admit to looking forward to the bright red boxes of tasty chocolates and the heart-centric paraphernalia and puppy pictures that in the dictionary rest under the word “cuteness”. Seriously, can’t get enough of this one.
When I think back though, I remember how lucky I am to have had so many special ones. Every year since I moved away to college, my mom has sent me a valentine with a heart-shaped Reese’s (she knows the holiday ones are the best). My real-life-Pinterest friend once sent me a valentine in the form of a front cover of an old romance novel – a postcard with glittery hearts, an inappropriate quote from the book, and, following the hashtag trend, #ewww and #getaroom. I will be stealing this idea for next year.
Then there were the other, more romantic ones when I was younger. On my first real Valentine’s Day, my then-boyfriend took me out to the fanciest Chinese restaurant in Pittsburgh (yes, we are talking P.F. Chang’s) and said the first ever “I love you” I would hear from anyone I dated from then on. Understandably my memory of that night is very vivid, and I could somehow now describe to you the exact location where we were sitting and describe to you the nervous and excited expression on his face.
In college, my Valentine walked a mile in the freezing cold and snow of Penn State just to hang out and play Nintendo for the night. If it helps to explain the Nintendo part of this story, both of us nerds studied engineering.
Last year I was able to gift someone else a Valentine’s Day memory, which also happened to be my first paid gig out of Shelley’s Cafe. I was hired to make cupcakes for a friend’s bridal shower, red velvet to be exact, which instigated a flurry of recipe testing and an equal number of times taste testing at different bakeries in NYC and Brooklyn. No complaints there. Here is the recipe I ended on, perfectly domed cupcake tops and the right balance of vanilla, chocolate, and tangy-ness, topped with my cream cheese frosting recipe of choice.
One of the things that motivated me to try out this red velvet cupcake recipe is the detailed description of what red velvet is actually supposed to taste like and the science behind it. Technique here is key towards the end of the batter recipe, so be ready to bust a move.
Happy Valentine’s Day everybody.
RED VELVET CUPCAKES (Adapted from Sally's Baking Addiction) Makes: 12-14 cupcakes
2 large eggs, separated and at room temperature
1 1/3 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup cornstarch
1/2 tsp. baking soda
4 tsp. natural unseated cocoa powder
1/4 tsp. salt
1/4 cup unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
1 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup canola or vegetable oil
2 tsp. vanilla extract
1/2 tsp. distilled white vinegar
2 Tbsp. red liquid food coloring
1/2 cup buttermilk, room temperature
8 oz. cream cheese, softened
1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
3 cups confectioners’ sugar
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1-2 Tbsp. milk or heavy cream
Color me bad – The red food coloring doesn’t actually give the cupcake any flavor. Surprise! The red color was added in WWII by bakers using beets, to brighten the color of the limited food supply. If you don’t have any red food coloring (or beets!) handy, just omit and go all natural.
Preheat oven to 350°F (177°C). Line a 12-count muffin pan with cupcake liners. This recipe makes 14 cupcakes, so you will have 2 cupcakes to bake in a 2nd batch.
Make the cupcakes: With a handheld or stand mixer fitted with a whisk attachment, beat 2 egg whites on high speed in a medium bowl until soft peaks form, about 2-3 minutes.
Sift the flour and cornstarch together to make sure it is evenly combined. Whisk this, along with baking soda, cocoa powder, and salt together in a medium bowl. Set aside.
Using a handheld or stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, beat the butter on high speed until smooth and creamy – about 1 minute. Add the sugar and beat on high speed for 2 minutes until creamed together fairly well. Scrape down the sides and up the bottom of the bowl with a rubber spatula as needed. Add the oil and beat on high for 2 minutes. The butter may look “piece-y” and not completely combine with the oil. This is normal and ok.
Add 2 egg yolks and the vanilla. Beat on medium-high speed until combined. Scrape down the sides and up the bottom of the bowl with a rubber spatula as needed. Beat in the vinegar and the food coloring– until you reach your desired color. I use 2 Tablespoons. With the mixer on low speed, add the dry ingredients in three additions alternating with the buttermilk, beginning and ending with the dry ingredients, and mixing each addition just until incorporated. Do not overmix. Fold whipped egg whites into cupcake batter with a rubber spatula or wooden spoon. The batter will be silky and slightly thick. (If there are still pieces of butter – and there were in 1 test batch for me – again, this is ok. They will melt inside as the cupcakes bake. Making them even more buttery.)
Spoon batter into cupcake liners filling 1/2 – 2/3 of the way full. Bake for 20-21 minutes or until the tops of the cupcakes spring back when gently touched and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Don’t overbake; your cupcakes will dry out. Allow to cool in the pan for 5 minutes, then transfer to a rack to cool completely.
Make the frosting: In a medium bowl using a handheld or stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, beat the cream cheese and butter together on medium speed until smooth, about 2 minutes. Add the confectioners’ sugar and 1 Tablespoon cream. Beat for 2 minutes. Add the vanilla and 1 more Tablespoon cream if needed to thin out. Beat on high for 1 full minute. Frost cooled cupcakes immediately before serving.
Make ahead tip: Cupcakes can be made ahead 1 day in advance, covered, and stored at room temperature. Frosting can also be made 1 day in advance, covered, and stored in the refrigerator until ready to use. Decorate/assemble cupcakes immediately before serving. Leftover cupcakes keep well covered tightly at room temperature or in the refrigerator for 3 days. Unfrosted cupcakes can be frozen up to 2-3 months. Thaw overnight in the refrigerator.
*HINT: If possible, bake all 14 cupcakes at the same time. Because the eggs are whipped and then folded in, the batter will lose its buoyancy if it sits for too long. This will cause some unhappy yet still tasty cupcakes.