f you know the difference between 'natural cocoa' and 'dutch processed cocoa', then you're smarter than me. At least I know enough to know that there is a difference. And I know that somewhere within the scientific explanation the word "alkaline" would be used but I'm not really all that interested. If you tried to explain it to me, I would smile politely and nod a lot but I'd really be thinking about something else. And wondering when you were going to stop talking.
I buy Fry's cocoa cause that's what's available in my grocery store. I dump it into a tupperware container to keep it fresh and I've never read the label so I don't even know what category my cocoa falls into. I use it for everything and it works, except when I try to make Red Velvet Cake. In the past 4 years or so, I've tried 3 different recipes for Red Velvet and all three went straight into the garbage. Flat, dry and a weird browny pink color - they all sucked. But I never knew why. I gave up trying. The only thing my search for the perfect Red Velvet Cake accomplished was undermining my confidence as a baker.
Then I bought the Cook's Illustrated Holiday Baking magazine and saw their recipe for Red Velvet Cake. The recipe specifies that natural cocoa must be used and that if Dutch processed cocoa is used, the cake will not rise, nor will it be the right color. Well, that changed everything. So, I'm guessing that the mystery cocoa in my cupboard is Dutch processed.
As luck would have it, a couple weeks ago, a friend of mine dropped off 2 containers of Hershey's cocoa in my mailbox. She had been down to the States and knew that I was coveting the Hershey's cocoa, because it's not available here. How sweet is that? Only a fellow baker can understand the delight one would experience to open their mail box and find an ingredient that they've always wanted to try but couldn't find. Thank you Dominika!!
After reading the recipe for the Red Velvet cake, I checked the label of the Hershey's cocoa and wouldn't you know it...it's 'natural cocoa'. Exactly what I needed for the recipe, a sign that my search for the perfect Red Velvet cake was not over after all.
So I made the cake and redeemed myself. It was perfect. A delicious, beautifully red-hued cake with a tender and moist crumb. If only I'd known about this cocoa earlier. So much pain could have been avoided. Better late than never.
Red Velvet Cake Recipe
(Source: Cook's Illustrated Holiday Baking 2010)
2 1/4 cups (11 1/4 ounces) unbleached all purpose flour
1 1/2 tsp. baking soda
pinch of table salt
1 cup buttermilk
1 Tbsp. vinegar
1 tsp. vanilla
2 large eggs
2 Tbsp. natural cocoa powder
2 Tbsp. (one 1 ounce bottle) red food coloring
12 Tbsp. (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
1 1/2 cups (10 1/2 ounces) granulated sugar
Adjust oven rack to middle position. Preheat to 350 degrees F. Grease and flour 2 nine-inch cake pans. (Or, I used a 13x9 inch metal cake pan).
Whisk flour, baking soda and salt in medium bowl. Whisk buttermilk, vinegar, vanilla and eggs in a large measuring cup. Mix cocoa with food coloring in a small bowl until smooth paste forms.
With stand mixer on medium high speed, beat butter and sugar together until fluffy, about 2 minutes, scraping bowl as necessary. Add one-third of the flour mixture and beat on medium-low speed until just incorporated (about 30 seconds). Add half of the buttermilk mixture and beat on low speed until combined (about 30 seconds). Scrape bowl as necessary and repeat with half of the remaining flour mixture, remaining buttermilk mixture, and finally the remaining flour. Scrape down bowl, add the cocoa mixture and beat on medium speed until completely incorporated (30 seconds). Using rubber spatula, give batter a final stir. Scrape into prepared pan(s) until toothpick comes out clean, about 25 minutes. (I baked mine 28 minutes in the 13x9 pan). Cool in pans 10 minutes, then turn onto wire rack to cool completely before frosting it. (I kept mine in the pan since I wasn't layering it.)
*Note - I made different cream cheese frosting. It was good but it was very soft, which was fine because I had a single layer cake. The recipe that was in Cook's Illustrated appears sturdier and therefore better for a layer cake. Here's their version:
16 Tbsp. (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
4 cups (16 ounces) confectioner's sugar
16 ounces cream cheese, cut into 8 pieces, softened
1 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
pinch of table salt
With stand mixer, beat the butter and sugar on medium high speech until fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add cream cheese, 1 piece at a time, and beat until incorporate, about 30 seconds. Beat in vanilla and salt. Refrigerate until ready to use.