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This cake ended up being a science experiment.

I wanted to make a red velvet cake without any red food coloring. Though I can handle a little food coloring here and there, the idea of putting in such large amounts into a homemade cake . . . well, I just couldn’t do it. I mean, why would I want to eat a cake that is red for no reason, other than the fact that someone calls it red?

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In my research, and the research of my sister (who actually inspired my making this cake after she had made an attempt at something similar), we discovered a number of people in the blogosphere that get quite uppity about what a red velvet cake is and isn’t. I won’t get into that. But I will say that many of these red velvet soap boxers were suggesting the color should come from beets.

So I started there.

My first attempt was brownish purplish. My daughter called it the Purple Satin Cake. It tasted good, so good in fact, that when I stood there, holding the last piece, thinking that I should snap a picture for the blog to show what it looked like, my will power buckled, and into my mouth it went. But it was still brownish purplish.

I spent the next few days reading other blogs and websites. Amy, from BakeCakery*, had a recipe that was a great starting point. From her post, I could see that it could be done. Then, with the help of her descriptions, beet cooking methods, and links to other bloggers, I was able to piece together the science I needed to get a red cake. Oh, and by the way, if you haven’t seen her blog yet, she is extremely talented you should definitely take a look.. She has this tres leches cake that will amaze you.

Amy directed me over to bittersweetblog, where the writer painstakingly experimented with the pH levels in the cake, and how it affects color.

Armed with that knowledge, and before I dove in and wasted another couple pounds of ingredients, I put a small amount of beet puree into two small cups. Then I added different ingredients to each, to see if they would keep the color pink, or turn it purple. Once it turns purple, you see, you will be making the lovely Purple Satin Cake, instead. Which, sadly is more brown than purple.

The goal was to keep the pH as acidic as possible, with no additions of anything alkaline. So baking soda is obviously out. Anyone who has ever helped their kid with a model of a volcano for the science fair knows what I’m talking about. And then Dutch Process or Dark Cocoa powder is out, too. Apparently, chocolate is sometimes processed with alkali to make it smoother, so don’t add regular chocolate or melted chocolate chips, either. To achieve the chocolate taste, you can really only use natural cocoa powder. It’s easy enough to find, though. Hershey’s cocoa powder—as long as it’s not the Special Dark variety—works perfectly. (In the pictures, I used only two tablespoons of the cocoa powder, which kept things very red. If I were to make it again, though, I’d probably add as much as 4 tablespoons.)

Working with this knowledge, I took out my trusty old cream cheese pound cake recipe to use as a base, and created this cake. It’s moist, but dense, smooth, and has the exact crumb I was looking for. My kids loved it, even after I told them it was made with beets. They didn’t care. This cake was all they talked about for days. They wanted it after school, for breakfast, and dessert.

While I was frosting this, I kept thinking of Rosie and her blog Sweetapolita. Oh my goodness is that girl talented! And she has a beautiful family, and she’s an excellent photographer. She’s is the Queen of Cakes. Here are some of my favorite posts:

Her asparagus cake. Crazy beautiful.

This chocolate bundt cake is so stunning.

And her latest is a buttermilk cake with fudge frosting.

So if you’ve never seen her blog, make sure you go take a look.

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For good measure, and based on Amy’s suggestion, I used quite a bit of lemon juice just to keep things as bright as possible. So keep these things in mind when you make your cake. Keep the acidity high, and the pH numbers low!!

*Earlier, I had said that Amy’s blog was called CakeBakery, when it is actually BakeCakery. Sorry, Amy! And sorry for any confusion!

all natural red velvet cake

2 large beets (enough for 1 1/2 cups puree)
1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 tablespoon vinegar
2 sticks (16 tablespoons) unsalted butter, softened, but not quite room temperature
1 8 ounce package of cream cheese, softened slightly
2 1/3 cups sugar
4 eggs
1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
4 tablespoons natural (not dark or dutch processed) cocoa powder*
cream cheese frosting (recipe follows)

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees (165 degrees celsius). Place beets in a small baking dish and add a 1/2 cup of water. Cover with parchment paper and foil, and roast until quite tender, about 60-90 minutes. Allow to cool completely.

2. Butter 3 8 inch cake pans. Cut out parchment paper circles and place in the bottoms of the pans. Butter the parchment paper and dust with flour. Set aside. Peel the beets and cut into large chunks. Place in a food processor (or a very good blender) with the lemon juice, and pulse until smooth and pureed.** Stir in the vinegar.

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3. In a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream together butter and cream cheese. Pour in sugar and mix until smooth. Add in eggs, one at a time, mixing well until each is incorporated. Mix in vanilla.

4. While ingredients are mixing, whisk together flour, baking powder, salt, and cocoa powder in a separate bowl. Slowly add flour mixture to the wet ingredients. Measure out 1 1/2 cups of the beet puree mixture, and fold into the cake batter. Divide the batter evenly between the cake pans. Tap pans on the counter to remove any air bubbles.

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5. Bake at 350 degrees for 20-35 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cakes comes out clean. Invert cakes onto cooling racks, and allow to cool completely. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate or freeze until ready to frost.

*Some people have commented and said that their cake has turned out maroon in color, instead of the red like the picture. I just tested the recipe again, to see if I could recreate what happened. It could be the cocoa. In the photographs, I used only 2 tablespoons of cocoa because the red color was my main objective, not the chocolate flavor. So, if you’re more concerned about the color than the chocolate flavor, then just use 2 tablespoons of cocoa instead of the 1/4 cup.

**The other thing I discovered while testing it today, is that I didn’t make my puree as fine. In the pictures from last time, you can see that the texture of the beet puree is very smooth, almost like baby food. I think that may have affected the color. Each tiny piece of beet adds to the color, and if there’s more surface area surrounding each teeny tiny piece, then you’ll get a stronger red. I think.

cream cheese frosting

2 packages cream cheese, at room temperature
2 sticks (16 tablespoons) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 pound (4 cups) confectioner’s (powdered) sugar
2-3 tablespoons heavy cream
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 teaspoon pure almond extract

Combine all ingredients in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Switch to the whisk attachment, and mix until smooth and slightly fluffy.

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