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Red Velvet is sacred southern fare, and I’m a southern girl, so this recipe was high on my “make-gluten free now” list! However, in my research to devise a delicious gluten free red velvet cupcakes recipe, I was disappointed to learn that there is actually little mystique around making red velvet. In fact, red velvet cakes are just chocolate or Devil’s Food cakes with lots of artificial red food coloring and gobs of white or cream cheese frosting (not that there’s anything wrong with that).
As anticlimactic as that may be, I was intrigued by this tidbit I unearthed: during World War II food rationing, boiled beets were used to enhance the red color of these cakes. Now that is interesting!
Let me take a moment to mention (at the risk of offending some) that I don’t particularly love for beets. I appreciate their health benefits, but don’t gravitate toward them as a side dish, if you know what I mean. I don’t want to count myself among those who have maligned the beet through the centuries though. As one of my favorite dog-eared books, Cupboard Love: A Dictionary of Culinary Curiosities, describes in the history of this under-appreciated root-vegetable:
[B]eets were planted every spring and harvested every fall; they were eaten regularly by every person in England; their tops and leaves were fed to thousands of hungry pigs; and yet it appears that not once did the beet inspire anyone who possessed pen, paper, and the ability to write, to jot down its name, even in passing.
So I decided to take another look at the somewhat unorthodox (to me, at least) idea of using beets as natural food dye in a cake recipe. It does seem like a far less artificial way to get that beautiful red tint in a cake (food dyes never have thrilled me), and I really couldn’t knock it until I gave it a fair shot, so I decided to craft my Gluten Free Red Velvet without food dyes, opting for beets instead.
Upon taking this fork in my recipe road, I recognized that my cakes would be more dense and moist than a traditional layer cake. This type of recipe always performs better when baked in smaller sizes, like cupcakes (the same way quick breads heavy on the fruit, or using applesauce in place of some of the fats, often work better as muffins).
If you are set on making a layer cake with your Red Velvet instead, I’d suggest using a lighter chocolate cake and simply adding 1-2 ounces of red food coloring (see my crowd-pleasing Best Gluten Free Cake Recipe with Chocolate Option and choose a light colored cocoa).
You’ll be proud of your results, and you can still avoid chemical food dyes if you like, by using a beet-based food coloring like the ones from India Tree, Seelect or Color Kitchen. All natural, these require a good bit more colorant added to your recipe to get a red hue, so be aware you may need to reduce other liquids in your cake recipe by the same amount, if using the whole bottle of color. Also, the darker the cocoa used, the less likely you’ll notice much of a red color to your cake, but for me, it’s all about the delicious cocoa, so I choose rich cocoa instead of rich red color.
If you are up to trying the historic approach to Red Velvet though, join me in making these amazingly decadent — yet healthy — Real Gluten Free Red Velvet Cupcakes! The beets offer extra Potassium, Iron, Magnesium, Manganese, Phosphorus and Copper; and among other vitamins they are high in both vitamin C and Folate. They also don’t impart any flavor that isn’t smothered by chocolate, so feel good feeding these gorgeous and delicious berry-colored treasures to your family with love this Valentine’s Day, or on any yummy occasion!Print
*Depending on how many beets you use, you can make up the difference with natural applesauce. For example, boiling only 4 medium-large beets will yield approximately 1 cup of beet puree. Supplement that amount with 1 cup of no sugar added applesauce to get to 2 full cups. If using enough beets to make 2 cups of purée, add no extra applesauce.
** Reader Tessa C. suggests this modification if using canned beets: “1 can of drained beets equals 1 3/4 cups, so I added 1/4 of applesauce to get to the 2 cups.”
Cream Cheese Frosting (note: you may halve this recipe if you prefer less frosting)
**If you run out of powdered sugar mid-recipe like I did, never fear! Make your own powdered sugar by blending 1 cup granulated sugar + 1 tablespoon cornstarch in a blender until light and fine. Easy fix!
Real Red Velvet Cupcakes
Wash beets and remove greens. Boil until fork-tender, approximately 40 minutes for medium-large size beets. Drain and allow to cool. Peel skins off (they will come off easily once boiled) and puree in a food processor or mash until smooth. Measure purée to equal 2 cups (total beets + applesauce should be 2 cups, so if you have less purée, simply make up the difference with applesauce).
Preheat oven to 350 F (static) or 325 F (convection).
Cream butter and sugar until light. Add eggs, vanilla, cider vinegar, applesauce and cooled beet purée. Whisk together dry ingredients, then add to wet mixture, slowly pouring milk in, while mixing. Beat an additional 3 minutes.
Spoon batter into lined or oiled muffin tins, filling 3/4 full. Bake for 25-30 minutes, or until cake tester or toothpick inserted into the center comes out nearly clean.
Makes approximately 24 cupcakes.
Cream Cheese Frosting
Bring cream cheese and butter to room temperature, then cream together with remaining ingredients. If the frosting is not stiff enough, add more powdered sugar until the proper consistency is achieved.
Non-dairy cream cheese products tend to have less body than dairy varieties and thus, require more confectioner’s sugar or less liquid to achieve the proper frosting consistency.
Add a tablespoon or two of extra puréed beets (or food coloring) if you’d like a pink hue to your frosting.
(For extra fun, use the water from boiling the beets for tie-dye! A couple of pointers: use natural fabrics like wool or silk for best results, since fabrics like cotton will resist the dye and the colors will fade quickly; to help set the color, use a mordant. While the beet juice is a brilliant purple-red color, it will set in the fabric with a lighter brown hue and will not last without mordant).