“I love bright red drinks, don’t you? They taste twice as good as any other color.”—L.M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables
It’s kind of a terrifying thing, truly, how books weave themselves into our souls. We each have just one heart, but tucked away within its fibers is an unfathomable tangle of lives. With each new book we open, our hearts are imprinted afresh with another set of characters that return to haunt the silences and orbit the recesses of our minds. One of the very first characters to haunt me was Anne of Green Gables. She was one of the first I ever met and has remained a favorite ever sense. I loved Anne’s spunk and how she always knew exactly who she was. A wise man once told me that when you know who you are, you know what to do. Anne always knew exactly what to do and it usually proved hilarious.
The above quote is taken from the scene when Anne invites her BFF Dianna over for tea and serves her what she thinks to be raspberry cordial–hence the comment that she loves red drinks.
We may not be talking about drinks today, but Anne is still right. For some reason, red foods just seem to taste better. It’s almost like we have taste receptors for beauty. Red velvet cake, for instance, always seems twice as special as just about any other cake.
The problem with red colored foods is that they are often dyed with Red 40, a dye that has been implicated as a carcinogen (a cancer-causing agent). Red 40’s real name is 6-hydroxy-5-[(2-methoxy-5-methyl-4-sulfophenyl)azo]-2-naphthalenesulfonic acid–and you thought “Worcestershire” was hard to say. It is classified as a “coal tar dye,” and it is, like many other artificial dyes, derived from petroleum. But wait! It get’s better (and by better, I mean worse). A few years back, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) did a study on the toxicity of different food dyes entitled, “Food Dyes: A Rainbow of Risks.” The findings indicate that nine artificial dyes are likely carcinogenic, the biggest culprits being Red 40, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6.
Even though Red 40 has been deemed “safe” by the Food and Drug Administration, I still try to avoid eating “coal tar dye” when possible. But, like Anne, I love red foods—especially red velvet cake. Most especially red velvet cake. So I began searching for other ways to make vibrantly red confections without sketchy petroleum colorings.
My answer? Beets.
In stark contrast to Red 40, beets are really good for you. They are packed with fiber, manganese, folate, potassium, vitamin C, iron, and powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, which can actually help to protect against disease. And the best part: in this recipe for Dye-Free Red Velvet Donuts, you can’t even taste the beets! I used my family, friends, classmates, and professor as guinea-pigs and they couldn’t even tell. The donuts practically evaporated because everyone ate them so fast.
Dye-Free Red Velvet Donuts:
Makes 16 donuts
For the donuts:
- 2 medium beets (you will only use 1 ½ for the donuts, but it is easier to roast two whole beets for even cooking time)
- 3 1/4 cups flour
- 4 tablespoons sugar, divided
- 2 tablespoons cocoa powder
- 2 ½ teaspoon yeast (approx. 1 packet)
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- 2 eggs
- 4 tablespoons butter, softened
- 1/4 cup water
- Olive oil, for roasting beets
- Oil for frying (canola, corn, sunflower, grape seed, or other high-heat oil)
For the icing:
- 2 ounces cream cheese, softened
- 2 tablespoons milk
- ½ teaspoon vanilla
- ¾ cup powdered sugar
Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.
Wash the beets, remove leaves, and peel off skin. Lightly brush beets with olive oil, wrap in foil, and roast until tender and easily punctured by a fork (50-60 minutes). Allow to cool.
Microwave water for 15 seconds, or until warm to the touch (note: warm! Too cold, and the yeast will not grow properly. Too hot, and the yeast will die.) In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook, combine the water and 1 tablespoon of the sugar. Sprinkle yeast over the top and allow to rest for five minutes.
Cut one of the beets in half. You will only need 1 ½ beets for this recipe (the remaining half would be lovely sliced over a salad!). Roughly chop the 1 ½ beets and place in a food processor along with 3 cups of the flour, the remaining sugar, and the salt and cocoa powder. Blend on high until it becomes an even, fine red powder. Sift this powder to ensure no large chunks of beets make it into your donuts. If a few chunks remain, discard them. If many large chunks remain, return them to the food processor with a little of the beet/flour powder and blend until fine.
To the yeast mixture, add the eggs, butter, and vanilla. Beat until incorporated. Add half of the beet/flour mixture and mix slowly. Once incorporated, add remaining mixture. If dough is still very sticky once everything is combined, add remaining ¼ cup of flour.
Turn dough out on a floured surface and knead for 3-5 minutes, or until it is smooth. The dough will be slightly sticky, but it should be manageable and easily handled. If it is too sticky to be handled, add a tablespoon or more of flour. Transfer dough to a bowl lightly greased with butter or non-stick spray and cover with a clean cloth. Allow dough to rise in a warm place for 30 minutes to an hour, or until noticeably increased in size. (Note: an hour is better, but if you are short on time, it is better to cut off a few minutes here than skimp on the final and more important rise. )
Punch dough down and knead again. On a floured surface, roll dough out into approximately ½ inch thick sheet. Lightly flour a donut cutter (I got mine on Amazon) and cut out as many donuts as you can. Transfer the fledgling donuts to a greased cookie tray and set in a warm place to rise. Gather up the scraps, knead well, roll, and cut again. It’s best if you do this no more than two or three times, as the dough will become increasingly tough the more times you have to roll it out. I saved a few of the donut holes to use as the cake crumbles you see atop my donuts, but I recycled most of the holes to achieve a maximum number of donuts.
Allow donuts to rise until doubled in size, approximately an hour. No skimping here! Don’t cramp their style. Let them do their thing and rise to puffy pillows of perfection.
Once donuts have risen, cover the bottom of a Dutch oven (or other large pot or deep pan) with 3 or so inches of oil. You don’t have to use canola oil, but it is important that the oil you use can withstand high heat (i.e. olive oil would be a poor choice). While oil is heating, cover a large plate with paper towels. The oil should be around 350 degrees when it is ready. You can use a thermometer, or you could check using one of those donut holes that you’ve saved. Once you think the oil is hot enough, drop in a donut hole. If it begins sizzling immediately, you are good to go. If not, restrain those horses and let it heat some more.
Once oil is heated, gently drop in a donut. Try not to drop it from up high because it will likely splash and burn you. Hold the donut right above the surface of the oil and let it slide in. Allow donuts to cook for 15-20 seconds on each side. I found it’s easier to cook them one at a time, since they cook very quickly. Remove donut with a strainer or slotted spoon and allow to drain on the paper towels. Cook the donut holes approximately 10 seconds on each side.
While they cool, make the icing. In a small bowl, whisk together softened cream cheese, milk, vanilla, and powdered sugar until smooth. Dunk donuts into the icing facedown, give them a gentle shake to remove excess icing, and transfer to a serving tray. Crumble donut holes over the top for a lovely pop of red.
Enjoy knowing that your gorgeous creations are utterly devoid of “coal tar dye” and are rather packed with fiber, antioxidants, minerals, and vitamins. In this case, donuts=salad. Am I right? A delicious, cream cheese frosted salad…
After making the comment about red drinks, Anne goes on to say, “Marilla is a famous cook. She is trying to teach me to cook but I assure you, Diana, it is uphill work. There’s so little scope for imagination in cookery. You just have to go by rules. The last time I made a cake I forgot to put the flour in. I was thinking the loveliest story about you and me, Diana.”
I love Anne, and while I wholeheartedly agree with her about the delightfulness of red foods, I have to disagree with her here. Sorry Anne, but there’s plenty of scope for the imagination in “cookery!”