Magic of Color

I love color!  The magic of color and cakes cannot be understated.  When I first started messing around with cakes and color, I learned a few things.  And I’m happy to share that.  There are no secrets when it comes to color and cake and good times.
Let’s start with a simple Red Velvet cake.  Color is in the name – this must be important!  Before I started baking from scratch, I didn’t realize what was the base of a Red Velvet cake…because what exactly does ‘red’ taste like?  A key ingredient is chocolate (not very much, but critical).  I favor using Hershey’s Dark Chocolate for my go-to chocolate cake recipe. 
BUT, in the Red Velvet Cake – dark chocolate diminishes the bright red color, in fact it was more maroon than red.  This is a key feature and needs to be right.  I switched to Hershey’s Cocoa and the red really popped.

Now we’ve got the chocolate figured out, how do we get that red?  Unfortunately, no matter how much red coloring gel a baker uses, the end product still appears as a hot pink (maybe fuchsia?). Really, no matter how much I added, the color wasn’t red. 

McCormick, Red Food Coloring 29mlAfter some research on line and reaching out to other bakers, it was recommended I try using McCormick’s Red Food Color.  [The image shows a bottle of red food coloring sized at .29ml.  I have the 32oz bottle in my cabinet.]  Some recipes will call for anywhere from 2T to 6T red food coloring per batch of Red Velvet Cake.  It works.  The cake bakes red.  It’s beautiful.
Typically, I love using gel colors – it doesn’t distort the gentle balance of liquids to solid in the batter; however, I will use the liquid red coloring for its distinctive abilities to achieve RED.

Living is Europe is as amazing as it sounds.  It also means that I buy many of my baking needs online.  “American” baking is different from German-style baking – we tend to add more sugar and aim for a lighter, multiple layer cake with plenty of buttercream.  This is a picture of the cake decorating aisle at the largest grocery near my home – plenty of things I don’t know how to manipulate, heavy into marzipan, and if you look in the center..there is a basic four color box of food gel. Ok.  I’ll keep ordering my must-have items online.  No problem.

When preparing a multi-colored cake…such as the Citrus Neapolitan Cake or the Rainbow Cake, I always, even now after having baked each several times over, bake a cupcake.  Taking the time to bake a cupcake or two of the batter may save me time down the road.  One:  I can cut into a cupcake to test for color intensity whereas I cannot cut into the cake (and we know the baked outside of the cake round does not accurately reflect the interior color of the cake).  Two: If I’m not happy with the color, I can add more color and bake another cupcake.  I have a pretty good eye now and can tell by looking at the batter if I’ll be happy.  And I still bake the test cupcake.

Regarding the Citrus Neapolitan, I was working with three colors and was happy with the color the first go-round.  Coloring the buttercream was more challenging.  I wanted it to match exactly – so it took time to arrive at the same hue without overshooting the mark.  The results on this cake coincide with what I had in mind.  It’s a miracle!

Producing the Rainbow Cake was more about creating a consistent intensity.  I used Wilton Icing Colors – a standard food coloring gel.  I used the colors as presented, but added just a wee tiny bit of Royal Blue to the Violet to deepen the color.  And, as previously stated, I used liquid McCormick’s Red Food Coloring.  The more coloring gel, the more intense the color of the end product.

To tell on myself…I was tired by the time the red layer was getting baked.  And I thought, “It’s no big deal.  I’ll just squeeze in a bunch of red gel and it’ll become red.”  Why do I do this to myself?  I even ignored the hot pink cupcake.  I even stacked it in place and told myself (out loud), “It’s fine…nobody will think that’s not red.”  Ugh.  I.would.know.

I went back and did it right.  This was a special order cake for a baby shower.  I wanted it to be right.  Maybe if it was for me or the family or some type of charity event..maybe.  But that wasn’t the case.

I thought about adding the hot pink layer and decided against it.  “Naahhh…, that’s not necessary.”  And all of that is ok.  I have to say that wasn’t really me talking…that was the 12-steps at work in my life.  It’s a program of honesty and integrity.  Those little things eventually add up and can make for a big pile of messes; I don’t care for cleaning up big messes so I try to take care of the little things as they come along.

Coloring buttercream was essential for the Superman Cake.  The first blue I tried…turned out battleship grey.  Epic fail!  Too much red (why did I add red?) and then tried to bring it down with brown (whaaa?).  I cried ‘Uncle’ and started over.  Royal Blue is the base for the iconic blue…and things went uphill after that.  Whew!

I am eager to work with an ombré style of frosting..again and again and again.  I really love color and the gradiant allows me to “see color move.”

Basic Coloring Tips

  1. One of the primary differences between White Cake and Classic Vanilla Cake is egg yolks. My White Cake calls for 5 egg whites and a splash of almond extract to pair with the vanilla. The Vanilla Cake uses four eggs. The color of the cake will be even more intense when used with a white cake; determine what flavor you profile you prefer and go for it. 
  2. When adding color to a cake, I used clear vanilla extract. Adding the dark brown vanilla dampens the color/intensity of the cake. Don’t splash your rainbow with a dark brown vanilla cloud.
  3. Add color as the last ingredient (exception: Red Velvet, it’s mixed with several ingredients in a separate bowl before adding to the batter). The color achieved when adding coloring gel to the wet ingredients of a vanilla cake will change after the dry ingredients are integrated. Wait until the end of mixing.
  4.  When coloring buttercream….wait until all the ingredients have been well mixed as is at preferred consistency. Again, if adding liquid red – keep buttercream stiff as the coloring will thin the icing.
  5.  “Well, Sugary Shrink…what do I do with all this red food gel?” Easy – lots of people love pink cake and icing. I add a small amount of red coloring when I want the pink to pop a little bit, e.g. strawberry cream filling, bubblegum frosting, or pink roses on the traditional Neapolitan.

Time to get back to work developing a luscious Cherry Cake recipe.  To add color or not….

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4 Responses

  1. John Murphy says:

    I’m a great fan, personally, of your test cupcakes, and I hope it’s a practice you don’t forego anytime soon. 🙂

  2. Julia Murphy says:

    We have miles to go before we’re out of test kitchen cupcakes.

  3. Afton says:

    I know what you mean about having to order “speciality” ingredients online. I very often find when I’m cooking recipes from back home that I have to order ingredients online, especially when I make Mexican food. The stuff they sell in the grocery stores just doesn’t cut it. Yay for the internet!

  4. dee says:

    I SO LOVE the cake/cupcakes that match the roses. That is beautiful and amazing. <3 (Diana here)

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