Tag Archive for red velvet

Black tea red velvet cake and fear of the unknown

I made this cake for Father’s Day (which was only a week ago for Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and Fiji, in case you thought I was posting a recipe I made in June… or any other of the assorted dates Father’s Day falls on around the world) and, being the calculating and malevolent character that I am, I forced everyone to guess what this particular red velvet flavour was and refused to tell anyone until they guessed its exact identity. NO CLUES! And if they didn’t guess it, well, they would just have to live with never, ever knowing, and it would be all their own fault.

Apparently that was the wrong thing to do, according to research. According Okamoto et al., when a person knows what they’re tasting, they rate the flavour as significantly more likeable compared to when they’re just given something mysterious and have to taste it without having any idea what it is. Participants in the study were given a range of flavoured liquids to taste. In one condition, the samples were labelled with their correct flavour names (“lemon”, “caramel candy”, “consommé soup” and “coffee jelly”… this interesting selection of flavours may have something to do with the study being conducted in Japan). In another condition, the samples were just labelled with a random number. Participants rated their liking for any given liquid’s flavour on a scale of -100 to +100, and it turns out that they liked a liquid when they knew what it was much more than when they didn’t know what it was, even if it was the exact same liquid.

Moreoever, the average rating for name-labelled liquids was above zero, which meant people liked them, whereas the average rating for number-labelled liquids was below zero, which meant people disliked them — the exact same liquids. You can make someone dislike something that they might otherwise like, just by not telling them what it is! Not telling people what a flavour is is a bad idea! So I issue this public apology to my family, whose experience of red velvet cake may have actually been marred, nay, ruined by my megalomaniacal obsession with forcing everyone to eat the cake and guess what flavour it was.

Then again, I’m not sure if a label with a random number on it was a good control condition for that study. I would say that in the context of food and drink, numbers are usually associated with artificial flavourings and preservatives, and a lot of people like to avoid those wherever possible. Getting a mysterious liquid with a mysterious number on it: yeah, I might not like it so much either. If I liked it, I’d mysteriously number my own drinks to get that thrill of the unknown.

So consider not serving people something like, say, duck surprise, without at least telling them what the surprise is. Otherwise, no matter how good the surprise is (“It’s stuffed with red velvet cake!”), they might not like it.

Okamoto et al., 2009. Influences of food-name labels on perceived tastes. Chemical Senses, 34, 187-194.

Recipe for black tea red velvet cake (full name: Earl Grey black tea red velvet cake, just to get another colour in there) under the cut.

Sweet potato red velvet cakes (with sweet potato icing and white chocolate, sweet potato & ginger truffles)

Red velvet variation #11, I think (I for one am amazed that the number is not close to 11 million, but apparently I have not been as industrious as I had previously thought or assumed). So, sweet potato and red velvet. Sounds like a match made in some sort of southern state in some sort of set of united states. And like the rest of the vegetable/cake chimaeras I have attempted, this turned out pretty well. Well done, Team Vegetable.

Red velvet is arguably quite a good candidate for including sweet potato in, since vanilla and sweet potato apparently go quite well together (I also read somewhere that regular potato goes well with vanilla, so don’t hold back from adding a tiny bit to your next batch of mashed potatoes… I will if I ever remember).

As for the sweet potato + white chocolate + ginger combination for the truffles, that’s one of my first experiments using flavour pairing (or… trioing, as the case may be) based on odorant compounds, courtesy of the database at the fantastic FoodPairing site. Sweet potato, white chocolate and ginger share a lot of common odor compounds, which suggests they should complement each other rather well. Only problem is, at the moment the relationships in the database are based on the number of shared odor compounds between two ingredients, not the relative contribution of each odor compound. Maybe they share a heap of odor compounds that play only minor roles in the perceived tastes? (Although the database does only take into account odors that are above the threshold of perception, so presumably there aren’t entirely negligible odors being factored into the flavour relationships).

Strangely enough I’m reasonably sure I don’t have the facilities to conduct gas chromatography to find out the details myself about relative contributions. But until we have a database that shows the relative contributions of individual odorants to overall taste, and can match flavours based on such contributions, I’m going to have to work with numbers for now as a general guide. It’s working pretty well so far!

Ultra-important lesson I learned from devising this recipe: the majority of the flavour of the baked sweet potato is in its skin. Precious, precious, burny-baked skin. I was adding dangerous levels of mashed sweet potato to the cake mix and getting barely any sweet potato taste. But include that skin and you’ve got all the sweet potato flavour you ever dared to hope to wish for.

These cakes were for Dr Tash PhD’s party, which was a cornucopia of fantastic southern-US dishes. The side-dish of sweet potato bake was at least a million percent sweeter than these cupcakes, since these cupcakes don’t involve tooth-achingly and deliciously large amounts of condensed milk and brown sugar. And more’s the pity, really. (Condensed milk icing in the future, yes?)

Red velvet cake with raspberry cream cheese icing

Red velvet recipe #8402445, red velvet cake with raspberry cream cheese icing. Made as a large double-layered cake for my mum for her birthday (happy birthday!) but some leftover batter got made into cupcakes as seen in the photo.

I’ve been wanting to make a raspberry red velvet cake for ages, just because apparently that’s one of the more common red velvet permutations in the wider world. Well, I guess in the U.S. maybe, since red velvet is pretty uncommon in general here in Australia… although they’re never going to convince anyone of red velvet’s worth if they don’t try to sell it convincingly.

For example, at the lovely Poppy Cakes a while back, I overheard a rather loud woman shout at the baker “WHAT FLAVOUR IS RED VELVET?” while gesticulating at some red velvet cupcakes, and he replied with “Well… umm… it’s kind of a mix of vanilla and cocoa…” and of course, Rather Loud Woman immediately ordered a chocolate cupcake with chocolate icing.

The baker didn’t sell the mystique, the ineffable, transcendental flavour of red velvet that dares the English language (and probably all other languages ever) to even attempt to describe it. The look on people’s faces when they try red velvet for the first time is remarkable because it’s the look of realisation that language, in this moment, is useless to them.

So if the question is:
What flavour is red velvet?

Then the answer is:
You wish you knew what flavour red velvet is! It’s the flavour that will have you yelling “Where have you been all my life?” in a wounded, accusatory tone after you first try it! Your life is all the poorer for not having tried it, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, oh just try it already and stop wasting away in pathetic ignorance of its greatness of which you are quite possibly not worthy. Now is your chance to enlighten yourself.

Then either the person will try red velvet, or they will flee. What am I, a customer service representative?

You know the rigmarole with the standard red velvet recipe. And the icing?

Raspberry cream cheese icing
500g cream cheese, at room temperature
100g unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup icing sugar, sifted
1 tsp vanilla paste
400g frozen raspberries

Put the frozen raspberries in a saucepan and cook them over medium-low heat until they reduce down to a thick liquid. Remove from the heat and leave to cool slightly. (This works best with frozen raspberries, which I only used because I didn’t feel that the fresh raspberries were worth $9 a punnet, but you could use fresh raspberries in a similar way.)

Beat the cream cheese and butter together in the bowl of an electric mixer with a paddle attachment until well combined. Add the vanilla and beat again, then the icing sugar and beat again. Add the slightly cooled raspberries and beat until well combined, then ice your red velvet cake/s.

Tamarind red velvet cakes

As some of you astutely and presciently guessed, a while back I partook of Iron Chef-style shenanigans. The fly lab at my institute (as in, the lab that does their research on Drosophila melanogaster flies, not the lab comprised of things that look like this — I WISH!) challenges other labs in the institute every couple of months to an Iron Chef battle with a secret theme ingredient. We find out the theme ingredient a couple of weeks before the battle, and we do our best to channel Rokusaburo Michiba (rather than, say, Masahiko Kobe, that loser) and come up with bizarre and wonderful dishes featuring the theme ingredient.

So the fly lab challenged my lab (the human lab) to a battle, and the theme ingredient was… tamarind.

There was probably something like 40 or 50 dishes between the two labs. Tamarind ice cream, tamarind bundt cake, ox tongue with tamarind jelly, tamarind gnocchi, pork in tamarind-chocolate sauce with stewed plums, and of course a wide array of curries containing tamarind in varying amounts on the continuum from I-can’t-really-taste-it all the way to my-face-is-contorting-with-pain-at-the-sourness.

My contributions were tamarind gingerbread (which was a bit failcakes, really; it just tasted like normal gingerbread despite the quarter cup of tamarind chutney in it), tamarind toffee truffles (accursed alliteration! — but the truffles turned out amazingly), and tamarind red velvet cakes, which should not surprise any of you in the least.

On the assumption that the creative effort we put in to the dishes would determine whether we would be victorious or not, I drew neurotransmitter molecules all over my cakes using white chocolate icing, thinking that, you know, neuroscientists would find that pretty nifty.

It is somewhat disarming to turn up to a party full of scientists and realise that what you have done is so spectacularly nerdy that people almost can’t quite cope with it and don’t know what to say when you explain that the neurotransmitters they’re eating are actually the three primary neurotransmitters that you are working with in your PhD. Seriously, people who thinks fruit flies are the best and most interesting things ever will think you’re the nerd. Awkward.

Anyway, it was all a wasted effort, since victory was determined by which team could shout the loudest. Yeah, your eyes do not deceive you — a bunch of scientists who presumably know accurate ways of sampling to determine relationships between variables think that shouting is how you figure out which team created better tamarind dishes. Oh and the fly lab also invited along a whole bunch of people we had never seen before in our lives so who would have thought — the group with the most people can shout the loudest. We should publish that in Nature… or maybe The International Journal of Shouting and Other Dumb Behaviours.

So it left a sour taste in our mouths… no, that was the tamarind. Iron Chef was quite a lot of fun, as long as you don’t mind having your hours of precise and painstaking delineation of relevant chemical structures invalidated by a mob with the particular ability to be rather loud.

The recipe! Do you even want it? In the scheme of things, I don’t think many people out there would care much for tamarind red velvet cake. It’s actually pretty good, but I can’t imagine that people would want to go to the effort of making it even if I could say it was the most magical and transcendentally amazing cake you could ever hope to shove into your face by the handful. Which it isn’t, but it’s still nice, since the sourness of the tamarind does a good job of offsetting the sweetness of the cake.

In any case, I used this tried and trusted red velvet recipe, which forms the backbone of all of my red velvet adaptations. For the tamarind version, the cake is changed simply by creaming 1 1/2 cups of sugar and 1/2 cup tamarind chutney into the butter (instead of 2 cups of sugar). The icing is changed just by adding as much tamarind paste as you can, until you get an icing that isn’t too runny or sour but still has the tamarind flavour coming through (I also added a tiny bit of red dye to tint the icing pink). And that’s about it. Give it a go or don’t.

Malted red velvet cakes

I had lunch the other day at what must surely now be the exact hipster epicentre of this city. I don’t think it had an epicentre before; it was just a nebulous region with a slightly higher concentration of hipsters than other areas. But this little café must surely have become like hipster Mecca since it has opened. Everything is just. so. ironic. From the astroturf flooring with kitschy lawn ornaments, to the creepy foot-shaped salt and pepper shakers originally souvenired from some obscure Western Australian mining town then brought to the table via the box in your crazy aunt’s attic, to the big, brightly coloured plastic cups that make you feel like you’re not old enough to be allowed to use fancy glassware just yet.

Oh and it was full of hipsters. One was wearing a dress with a cartoon dinosaur on it and a very serious expression on her face (the hipster, not the dinosaur, the dinosaur looked quite happy). The hipster couple seated in front of me wearing socks with sandals and expensive-looking architectural quiffs ordered massive soft-serve ice cream sundaes as their entrée (studded with sprinkles and cheap wafers), followed by hotdogs with potato chips out of a packet as their main. So. ironic.

For the record, I really have nothing against hipsters, except maybe when they take themselves too seriously. But then I wonder if taking yourself too seriously is an essential criterion for being a true hipster. They’re a fascinating bunch of people to look at and wonder about (“Why did she decide to use a bulldog clip to hold her skirt up? Was it for practical or aesthetic reasons?”) and hey, at least they’re expressing themselves creatively through their appearance… I think…

The point of all this is that at this hipster café, one of the things I ordered was a malted chocolate milkshake. Of course it was served festooned in multi-coloured sugar sprinkles, which even my 6-year-old niece would have possibly found lacking in sophistication (she of the “I want a cake made out of a mountain of doughnuts” fame), but it was such a good milkshake. I had forgotten how much I like malt. So there and then I resolved to make multiple (OR MALTIPLE! HA! HA!) recipes to showcase its fantasticness.

And given my history of forcing red velvet cake into strange new formats and unfamiliar territory, it was at the top of the list for a malt-based transformation. Transformation is probably a bit of an overstatement — this is just a normal red velvet cake plus about a dozen tablespoons of malt. But the flavours work so well together. I would consider not making a normal red velvet cake ever again; I think I might prefer it with the addition of malt.