Authentic Red Velvet Cake with Beets
Beets are serious business. They rank among the most vibrantly colored foods from the plant world. Their color is so intense that beets are used to dye all sorts of things from wine to tomato paste to jams and jellies. Here, I will show you how to use them in a delicious, old-timey Red Velvet Cake!
We get loads of beets from our farm share. To be perfectly honest, beets on their own do not get me too excited. I find them a bit too sweet when simply boiled or even roasted. However, I know that beet consumption supports brain health and is cancer protective, and that they are delicious when properly prepared. So each year, I experiment with a new beet preparations. I love pickled beets, and you can get my simple and all natural recipe here! I also enjoyed them well-roasted and then added to a pungent salad, such as arugula and radicchio. This year, I am working on the perfect Borscht recipe (stay tuned)!
I almost always make a new cake recipe for the kids’ birthdays. So, this year I decided to introduce beets into the mix. Fortunately, my kids, while picky, are also open-minded and willing to try new things. I also think this would make a great, showy dessert for Christmas or Valentine's Day.
I love the idea of this cake because it harkens back to a time when cocoa was a luxury, this nineteenth century. As such, recipes calling for it only used a few spare tablespoons. A far cry from the death by chocolate sorts of desserts we have today! Why is it called velvet? Well, this recipe originated in a time when flours were course and grainy, lacking the ultra-processing available now. The addition of cocoa smoothed out the texture, making it more velvety than standard cakes of the day.
In addition to the texture, what is most notable about this cake, of course, is the deep and striking color. Traditionally, red velvet cake was made with beets, which naturally impart their deep purply red color Getting beets to retain their color in the batter, however, takes a little kitchen chemistry. In order to prevent he same type of oxidation reaction that can turn the white part of an apple brown in the presence of oxygen, traditional recipes from the early 1900’s add acid and avoid alkalizing agents, such as baking soda. A little complicated, right? True to form, the food industry swept in around the 1940’s with a simple and even more effective method of achieving this cake’s red hue, food coloring. Did you know that food dyes are made from petroleum? Yuck. Don’t use petroleum in your cake when you can use beets! Even though you need a few extra ingredients and some time with a food processor, the results are worth it, I promise!
For the finishing touch, I used a non-traditional cream cheese frosting. The slight tang of the cream cheese really balances the sweetness of the frosting. I know this frosting lacks the powdered sugar bomb that many folks might be looking for, but my kids were big fans. After all what’s not to love about vanilla and honey together on top of your cake? I used plant based cream cheese and milk, but you can certainly use a milk cow milk, if that’s your jam. For tips on choosing a plant milk, you refer to my explainer post on the subject here.
A word on cocoa. This recipe uses natural cocoa, which means that it is non-alkalized. Dutch-processed cocoa is processed with an alkalizing agent, such as potassium, to neutralize the acid. Dutch-processed cocoas are darker and more mild in flavor. Apparently, I am not the only one thinking about natural vs. Dutch cocoa. You can Alton Brown's summary here.
Regular Hershey’s cocoa that you find in the store is natural and works in this recipe. However, since cocoa comes from a part of the world where labor practices are not the best and sustainability is not a high priority, you can also look for a brand that covers it’s bases in this regard, such as NOW Foods.
To dispel any worries about the taste, the final product did not “taste like beets.” Instead, it had some subtle earthy notes and an old-timey kind of sweetness that seemed just right to me! Try it for yourself and let me know.
1 cup beet purée, from fresh red beets (not cooked)
3/4 cup buttermilk
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
2 1/2 cups cake flour
3 tablespoons natural cocoa powder, not alkalized
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon cream of tartar
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup coconut oil
1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
2 cups coconut sugar
3 large eggs
8 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
¼ cup raw honey
2 tablespoons plant milk
1/2 teaspoon lemon zest
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 pinch salt
For the cake:
1. Preheat oven to 350° F and position a rack in the center of the oven. Butter two 8-inch cake pans and line them with parchment paper.
2. Peel and roughly chop beets. Add beets to food processor, and begin to process, gradually adding buttermilk, vinegar, lemon juice, and vanilla extract until a frothy, smooth mixture forms.
3. Combine cake flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, cream of tartar, and salt together in a bowl, whisking or stirring until evenly combined.
4. In a large bowl, beat the sugar, oil, and butter together until creamy. Add the eggs one at a time, mixing for 30 seconds after each addition.
5. Alternating, add the flour mixture and beet mixture, beginning and ending with the flour mixture. Divide between the prepared pans and bake until cakes are baked through, 20 to 30 minutes. If a toothpick inserted in center comes out clean, the cake is done.
6. Cool the cakes on a rack for 20 minutes, then invert onto the rack to cool completely.
For the cream cheese frosting:
1. Place the cream cheese, honey, and vanilla extract in the bowl of a stand mixer and beat on medium speed.
2. Add milk one teaspoon at a time until the frosting reaches desired creaminess.
3. Frost cake immediately and then chill until serving.