Friday, January 8, 2010

Seeing Red: Cupcakes and Sunsets in Los Angeles

There is nothing like a road trip -- especially after the hectic holidays.

This week we headed back to the Los Angeles area to take in a few museum exhibits and (of course) to check out more sweet shops.

After viewing the Irving Penn photo exhibit at the Getty Museum and swooning over the L.A. skyline at night, we headed to our hotel for a late check-in.

The Hotel Palomar, owned by the Kimpton Group, is known for its quirky interiors and overall playful approach to the hotel scene. Last time I stayed in a Kimpton Group Hotel, we were offered a plate of warm chocolate chip cookies as we checked-in. Sadly, no cookies at this check-in but the hotel (almost) made up for the loss with free cocktail coupons.

The next morning we headed to the Eagle Rock neighborhood -- the latest "fringe" neighborhood to become somewhat gentrified in L.A.

We decided on Auntie Em's Kitchen in Eagle Rock for breakfast. Described by the blog, Eat: Los Angeles, as "essentially L.A.", I had first read about this snug cafe months ago in an article praising not only its cupcakes, but also its French toast. And the French toast was indeed delicious. No pats of butter or pools of syrup topped the diagonal slices of brioche but instead honey and oranges gave the dish a hint of sweetness.

We snagged one of their mini red velvet cupcakes to feast on later as we headed to our next stop.

I had been looking forward to seeing the Wayne Thiebaud exhibit at the Pasadena Museum of Art. I'm a big fan of his pastry paintings but hadn't seen his very vertical paintings of San Francisco or any of his early paintings from the 1940s.

It seemed fitting after viewing all those paintings of cakes to search out a few pastry shops.

Sunday in Pasadena isn't exactly bustling but we were lucky to find Dots Cupcakes open in Old Town Pasadena and ready to serve us as many cupcakes as we could consume.

We selected two mini cupcakes: Fleur Del Sel and red velvet. We decided a taste test between Auntie Em and Dots red velvet cupcakes must be held!

The Auntie Em's cupcake with its bright red cake and swirl of frosting looked like a practiced home cook had baked it for a party. By contrast the Dots cupcake could have been in a Thiebaud painting -- it was certainly a work of art with its tiny swirl of vanilla cream cheese frosting topped by a delicate frosting flower. The cake was more dark red than the Auntie Em cupcake.

Both cupcakes were tender and not dry -- often an issue with red velvet cakes.

A quick call to both bakeries confirmed that while both cakes are a buttermilk chocolate cake, red food color is used to enhance the natural reaction between the buttermilk, vinegar, baking soda and cocoa powder.

Obviously Auntie Em uses a heavy hand with her red food color!

But despite its homely and homey appearance, the cupcake from Auntie Em's Kitchen was the winner -- its cake was just a bit more tender and flavorful than the Dots cupcake.

Although red velvet cake is often thought of as a traditional southern dessert, many of my fellow Midwesterners would disagree with that assumption.

In fact, before I left on my road trip, my sister-in-law and fellow Midwesterner requested that I bake her a red velvet cake for her birthday. But despite being from Indiana, I didn't have a red velvet cake recipe and didn't have time to find one for her big celebration.

I must admit that I always thought of the red velvet cake as a novelty cake and had never been motivated to perfect a recipe for this cake. Making a cake with a bottle of red food color seemed wrong somehow.

When the cupcake craze hit and red velvet cake became a measure by which cupcake shops were compared, I still wasn't motivated to try my hand at baking the cake.

And then Rose Levy Beranbaum released her latest bible -- Rose's Heavenly Cakes. To my surprise, in her introduction to Rose Red Velvet Cake, she had similar feelings about this cake:

"I long resisted the charms of this cake, believing it to be merely a layer cake tinted red with a bottle of food coloring. But when several people on my blog sang its praises, I decided to investigate it more thoroughly. It turns out that there is more to this cake than its shocking color."

Beranbaum goes on to create a cake that she liked so much -- she put her name on it!

So what exactly is the background of this crowd-pleasing cake?

According to Cooks Illustrated, the word velvet that always follows the red in red velvet cake refers to the cake's texture as well as distinguishing it from what a classic devil's food cake, which is sweeter and more spongy.

According to the blog, The Joy of Baking, "even though the original red color of the cake was supposed to have been achieved by the reaction of vinegar and buttermilk with the cocoa powder, it is no longer the only reason for its bright red color."

In fact, my research found that now most recipes for red velvet cake include red food color as a standard ingredient to enhance the red color of the cake. So while traditional red velvet cake recipes always included vinegar, buttermilk, baking soda and cocoa powder as standard in its ingredient list, some newer recipes are simply a devil's food cake with red food color added to the batter.

In Beranbaum's recipe, she does away with the baking soda and the vinegar and uses baking powder with the buttermilk to create a tender cake.

Red velvet cake is also typically prepared with oil, not butter. Beranbaum also messes with that tradition by using both oil and butter to create a more flavorful cake.

So, according to Beranbaum, she has turned the traditional red velvet cake recipe on its head by eliminating the traditional ingredients of baking soda and vinegar and by using both oil and butter to create a cake which is tender and has a great taste.

I had to bake this cake to see if Beranbaum had truly improved this classic.

Following Beranbaum's always exacting guidelines, the cake was indeed a thing of beauty.

But how did it taste? The cake had a tender and delicate crumb unlike any red velvet cake I had ever tasted. I didn't top the cake with the white chocolate frosting Beranbaum suggested. I instead used a vanilla cream cheese frosting since that is the type of frosting traditionally used on a red velvet cake.

The cake's red color was indeed a vibrant red. While the cake and its nail polish hue seemed a bit out of place in January, it would look appropriate at Halloween, Christmas and of course, on Valentine's Day.

But more importantly, it would look just right set aglow with birthday candles.


  1. what a magnificent job you did with that cake and how pleased i am that you understood so perfectly what i was trying to achieve. hope to meet you in april when flo braker and baker's dozen will be hosting me at an event in s.f.!

  2. How excited am I to have a comment from RLB! Thank you for your comment. I look forward to seeing you at the Bakers Dozen meeting.