UPDATE: I've since come up with a better red velvet cake recipe that I'm satisfied with (after 7 tries) that I posted HERE.
I was completely surprised by the enthusiastic response to my last post, especially the food styling sketches I shared. Thanks, you guys! Sketching won't be to everyone's taste, but I do really find it helps me stay organized when I'd otherwise leave all preparation to the last second 8). I also have to confess I started sketching more as a way to kill time during my 1 1/2 hour public transit commute to school than out of pure devotion to photography. You never do know what circumstances will end up improving your skills! Now, as promised, I'm back with not only a freshly baked treat but a "behind-the-scenes" look at my (really quite simple) photo set-up. But first let me say a few things about these velvet cupcakes.
Let's talk food coloring...I'm simply not a fan and try to avoid it most of the time. Yet I'm also a girl who demands her right to like pretty, colorful things from time to time. Is that worth a bottle or more of food coloring for a single recipe? Not for me...which is why this isn't my first time making "redless" velvet cupcakes. You're obviously welcome to your own views on the matter, though ^_^. Which is why you'll find directions for adding food coloring, should you desire it, in the headnotes to the recipe below.
Now it's on to flavor and texture...I'm by no means a true American Southerner or even a connoisseur of red velvets. But I do have an image of the "perfect" red velvet cupcake based on what I liked and didn't in the dozen or so I've sampled thus far. First and foremost, it needs to be moist and tender. It shouldn't taste like chocolate cake, yet there must be enough cocoa to make each bite flavorful. I also couldn't do without some tanginess, which should be subtle in the cake and more prominent in the cream cheese frosting.
While the original recipe I followed (the one pictured above) fell short of my red velvet ideal, my significantly tweaked version published below was greatly improved on all counts. I'm not the type to call anything "The Best" but this is by far the most delicious out of the 5 recipes I've tried! What I am still on the hunt for, however, is a recipe for fluffy but not supersweet cream cheese frosting (meaning no more than 2 1/2 cups of powdered sugar per 8 oz. of cream cheese/butter). Can ya please help a girl out? 8)
Now as requested, this photo and those below are of the set-up I used to take the top photo in this post. I use a Canon EOS Digital Rebel XS camera most often with the Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II lens. Both are on the lower end of the price range for dSLR equipment. Though I love my XS, I'd recommend starting with a slightly higher-end model if you plan to use it often. Regardless of the camera, I guarantee the 50mm lens is a great buy and much cheaper than most lenses of such high quality. FYI, my camera isn't pictured above since I had to use it to take the photo 8D.
What you can see are 2 white foam boards (available at most craft or art supply stores) and a round 40-inch 5-in-1 flexible reflector (mine is this one from Amazon) to bounce light back onto the food. In this shot I used the silver side of the reflector, but you could easily replace it with another foam board that's left white or covered in aluminum foil. When I actually took my food photos, I picked up the reflector and angled it downward to reflect the maximum amount of light onto the cupcake.
I included the above photo to give you a clearer view of my window. It's quite tall (almost 5 feet) and almost twice as wide and faces west. If you look closely, you may see the seams of large pieces of white parchment paper that I've taped together then up across the entire window to soften the often-harsh natural light. You could use vellum paper (available at art supply stores) or a sheer white curtain for the same effect. I use one of the above materials to diffuse the light for practically all my food photos. Finally, I want to draw your attention to the styrofoam pieces below the window and next to the heating vent. Sometimes when the food or props look tilted in a photo despite adjusting my shooting angle, I use small pieces of styrofoam or balled up foil underneath to level things out.
Finally, I included this shot to show you my tripod. Seriously I have the shakiest hands known to man, which have gotten worse due to some sleep problems I've been having. So believe me when I say that I NEED my tripod to get clear shots. Fortunately, even the cheap ones can greatly improve your photography. I have this one from Amazon. What you see above, though, is not only the tripod but also this 38-inch horizontal tripod arm extender. It's neither as crucial nor as affordable as my tripod, but I've found it really helpful for getting overhead shots or just squeezing into tight corners in my small apartment.
I hope this is interesting/helpful to some of you. As I've said before, I'm always happy to take your questions or suggestions about content you'd be interested in for future posts.
Velvet Cupcakes with Cinnamon Cream Cheese Frosting [Printable Recipe]
Loosely adapted from Cakeman Raven, Joy the Baker, and Martha Stewart
Makes 12 to 14 cupcakes
XIAOLU’S NOTES: It’s my personal decision to avoid this large an amount of food coloring, but you should feel free to make these red if you’d like. To do that, add 1 tablespoon of liquid red food coloring to the batter with the liquid ingredients. Speaking of buttermilk, I love its favor but rarely have it on hand, so I often use the following substitution. For 1/2 cup of buttermilk substitute, use 1 1/2 teaspoons of white or cider vinegar and add enough milk to make 1/2 cup total. Stir well and let sit for at least 5 minutes before using. While delicious, the cinnamon frosting actually overshadowed the cupcake a bit for me and reminded me more of a carrot cake, so I'm leaving the spice optional in the recipe.
1 cup MINUS 1 Tbsp all purpose flour [stirred, spooned, and leveled to measure]
2 Tbsp cornstarch
1 Tbsp PLUS 1 tsp unsweetened cocoa powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
3/4 cup PLUS 1 Tbsp sugar
6 Tbsp vegetable or canola oil
2 Tbsp (1/4 stick) unsalted butter, melted and slightly cooled
1/2 cup buttermilk
1/4 cup unsweetened applesauce
1 large egg, room temperature
1 large egg yolk, room temperature
1 1/2 tsp distilled white or apple cider vinegar
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
Cinnamon Vanilla Cream Cheese Frosting (Recipe Below)
12 chocolate-covered raisins, to garnish (optional)
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line a standard muffin pan with 12 baking liners [with 2 standalone baking cups OR another pan and 2 baking liners ready just in case].
Sift the flour, cornstarch, cocoa powder, baking soda, salt, and sugar into a large bowl; set aside. In a separate medium bowl, whisk together the oil, butter, buttermilk, applesauce, egg, yolk, vinegar, and vanilla until well combined. Then add the wet ingredients to to the dry, and gently fold them together, mixing just until combined and the batter has no large lumps (tiny lumps are fine).
Distribute batter evenly among baking cups, filling each about 2/3 full. When finished, slam the whole pan firmly downward from 1 to 2 inches above the counter to remove any large air bubbles. Bake for 16 to 22 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center of a cupcake comes out clean. Let cool for 5 minutes, then transfer cupcakes to a wire rack to finish cooling. Once cupcakes have cooled completely, pipe or spread on frosting. Top with chocolate-covered raisins, if using, and enjoy with friends!
Cinnamon Vanilla Cream Cheese Frosting
5 cups powdered sugar
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon (optional)
6 Tbsp (3/4 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 1/4 cup (10 oz.) cream cheese, room temperature
1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract
Sift powdered sugar and cinnamon into a medium bowl; set aside.
Place butter and cream cheese in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment; beat on medium-high speed until light and creamy, about 1 minute. Add 1 cup of the powdered sugar mixture at a time, mixing until evenly combined between each addition. Before adding the last portion of sugar, scrape down the sides of the mixing bowl to ensure even mixing. Finally add vanilla, then beat on high speed for 1 to 2 minutes until smooth and fluffy.