Friday, October 5, 2012

It's all about air...and Red Velvet Cupcakes with Creamy Vanilla Frosting

I decided that during my 'offseason' of cycling, I would put my 'free' time to good use and do things that I enjoy the most, one of them being baking.  I was asked by my girlfriends if I would mind showing them how to bake.  After some thought, I decided to hold a baking demonstration in my kitchen.  I inquired as to which recipes would like to be demonstrated, and to my chagrin, one was Red Velvet Cupcakes - my absolute favorite cupcake recipe that I shamelessly stole from Magnolia Bakery :).

Seven friends showed up yesterday morning to make Magnolia Bakery's Red Velvet Cupcakes with a Creamy Vanilla Frosting.  What a recipe to demonstrate!  Not only can you touch upon most of the science in baking when making this recipe, but can these cupcakes be any prettier?  I ask you.

So that you can follow along on the 'science' of this recipe, here's the recipe:

Red Velvet Cupcakes with Creamy Vanilla Icing

Epicurious  | February 2008
by Allysa Torey
More From Magnolia: Recipes From The World-Famous Bakery and Magnolia's Home Kitchen


  • 3 1/2 cups cake flour (not self-rising)
  • 3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 3 large eggs, at room temperature
  • 6 tablespoons red food coloring
  • 3 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 1/2 cups buttermilk
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons cider vinegar
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1 recipe Creamy Vanilla Frosting


Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease and lightly flour three 9- by 2-inch round cake pans, then line the bottoms with waxed paper.
To make the cake: In a small bowl, sift the cake flour and set aside. In a large bowl, on the medium speed of an electric mixer, cream the butter and sugar until very light and fluffy, about 5 minutes. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. In a small bowl, whisk together the red food coloring, cocoa, and vanilla. Add to the batter and beat well.
In a measuring cup, stir the salt into the buttermilk. Add to the batter in three parts alternating with the flour. With each addition, beat until the ingredients are incorporated, but do not overbeat. In a small bowl, stir together the cider vinegar and baking soda. Add to the batter and mix well. Using a rubber spatula, scrape down the batter in the bowl, making sure the ingredients are well blended and the batter is smooth.
Divide the batter among the prepared pans. Bake for 30-40 minutes, or until a cake tester inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean. Let the layers cool in the pans for 1 hour. Remove from the pans and cool completely on a wire rack.
When the cake has cooled, spread the frosting between the layers, then ice the top and sides of the cake with Creamy Vanilla Frosting .
Epicurious Test-Kitchen Tip: This recipe also makes 2 dozen cupcakes. Use 2 muffin pans, each with 12 (1/2-cup) muffin cups, and line each cup with a paper liner. (There's no need to grease the cups.) Arrange the oven racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven and bake the cupcakes, switching positions of the pans halfway through baking, until a tester comes out clean, about 20 minutes. Cool the cupcakes in the pan 10 minutes, then remove from the pan and cool completely on a rack before icing. To ice, mound about 1/4 cup of frosting on top of each cupcake and use an icing spatula to make a swirl on top. If desired, decorate with colored sprinkles.

Creamy Vanilla Frosting

Epicurious  | February 2008
by Allysa Torey
More From Magnolia: Recipes From The World-Famous Bakery and Magnolia's Home Kitchen

yield: Makes enough for one 3-layer 9-inch cake
This recipe originally accompanied Red Velvet Cake with Creamy Vanilla Frosting .


  • 6 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 2 cups milk
  • 2 cups (4 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract


In a medium-size saucepan, whisk the flour into the milk until smooth. Place over medium heat and, stirring constantly, cook until the mixture becomes very thick and begins to bubble, 10-15 minutes. Cover with waxed paper placed directly on the surface and cool to room temperature, about 30 minutes.
In a large bowl, on the medium high speed of an electric mixer, beat the butter for 3 minutes, until smooth and creamy. Gradually add the sugar, beating continuously for 3 minutes until fluffy. Add the vanilla and beat well.
Add the cooled milk mixture, and continue to beat on the medium high speed for 5 minutes, until very smooth and noticeably whiter in color. Cover and refrigerate for 15 minutes (no less and no longer—set a timer!). Use immediately.

The question that entered everyone's mind yesterday while making these cupcakes was, 'why the heck do you put cyder vinegar in cupcakes'?  Ahhh yes, the science.

What is the purpose of vinegar in Red Velvet Cupcakes, you ask?  Great question.  The short answer is that vinegar -- an acid -- reacts with the baking soda -- an alkaline -- to release carbon dioxide gas in the form of bubbles that expand and cause the batter to rise in the pan while baking (the comprehensive answer can be found here -  Worth noting is that buttermilk (an acid) is also used in the recipe, but so is cocoa (an alkaline) - you see where i'm going with this?

But what is this REALLY about?  The answer is air.  Air is your friend when baking items that you want to rise (sounds obvious, doesn't it?).  But do you know HOW to incorporate air into your batters? Sure, mixing alkaline chemical leaveners with acids helps a bunch, but there are many batters out there that are too thick to be leavened solely by chemical leaveners (baking soda, baking powder).  So how else can you incorporate air?

The answer, of course, has to do with my favorite ingredient: BUTTER (well, partially, anyway, but I get excited when I'm able to talk about butter :))What's not obvious to a lot of peeps, and isn't discussed enough if you ask me, is that the 'creaming' of butter and sugar is the start of the leavening process. Poorly creamed butter can result in cakes and cookies that are disappointingly dense and coarse. Thick batters get their rising power from the air that's incorporated into butter as the butter is combined with sugar.  Creaming butter and sugar together incorporates air, both through the action of the beaters, and because jagged sugar crystals “grab” air as they come to the surface.  The temperature of the butter that is about to be creamed is also very important.  Butter that is too cold won't blend with sugar, and butter that is too warm won't hold air. So what is the correct temperature for butter when it is to be creamed?  65-68F (this is commonly referred to as 'room' temperature (which is only accurate if your room temp is indeed between 65-68F) or softened butter).  If you don't have time to soften your butter, simply beat it for a longer period of time to get it to it's desired temperature and state (do NOT microwave butter to warm it as some recipes suggest). 

Eggs are also incredibly interesting to me.  In the cupcake recipe, they too are to be at 'room temperature' and are added to the creamed butter and sugar mixture one at a time until well combined. Interestingly, but not surprising, is that creaming eggs and butter produces an emulsion that can hold more air than either alone.  However, if eggs are too cold, they won't incorporate into the butter and sugar easily (you'll have to beat them for a longer period of time, but this could lead to overbeating the butter and sugar mixture - gasp!). 

Something else I do automatically when a recipe asks me to combine my dry ingredients is to whisk them together.  My friends too asked me why I did this while making the cupcakes.  Need I tell you why I do this?  To incorporate air, of course.  Aerated flour mixtures will get whatever you’re baking off to a much lighter start.

And why should my butter and eggs be at room temperature (65-68F) for baking, but my liquids remain cold?  Cool liquids have more oxygen than warm ones, of course!

So then, it really is all about air (and temperature of refrigerated goods), isn't it?  Indeed it is.

Me with the final product.  LOVE the color!  So very pretty indeed (the cupcake, that is).

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