Colour Me Beautiful

26th August 2011

Colour Me Beautiful

Lisa Graff discovers the pleasure and process of natural food colourings

I stood, perplexed, in a bakery in Soho. It felt more like a toy shop than a food emporium. The icing on the cakes ranged from fire engine red, past radioactive green, through rubber duck yellow to a pink so bright that Barbie would be proud to paint her walls with it. I wondered if these cakes were any more edible than Barbie's dream house and whether they would have Barbie bouncing off her aforementioned walls if she ever allowed one to pass her lips.

There’s much concern about food colourings, at both parental and governmental level. In fact, in 2010, the EU identified six artificial food colourings so damaging to children's behaviour that any foodstuffs containing them would have to carry a warning on the label.

Suzanne Bradshaw, of the British Dietetic Association, says that “different coloured foods are associated with different vitamins and minerals and we should eat the whole rainbow of colours”. By this, though, Dr Bradshaw is referring to natural colours…

To that end, I set out to discover a way of replicating this rainbow in my own kitchen – with the bright colours that children crave, but from natural sources without harmful side effects.

Finding edible bright colours isn’t hard. The world around us is naturally full of magnificent colour: the trick is to harness it.

My first trial involved a series of deeply coloured berries. You can use fresh or frozen fruit for this but I found that frozen ones not only gave a more intense colour but were also more economical to buy.

My hands-down favourites were the redcurrants. I waited for them to defrost, then pushed them through a sieve, and they gave up their red syrupy juice so easily. If any fruits or berries are not so co-operative, though, you can always warm them gently in a pan on the stove, which will help them to burst and yield maximum juice. Blackcurrants, blackberries and raspberries were also generous juice givers.

Like any food colourings, they become muted once mixed into butter icing. While blackcurrants and blackberries produce a deep black juice, in butter icing it becomes pale like lavender; redcurrants turn the icing sunset orange; raspberries deliver up a pale delicate pink. As a bonus they also make the icing taste sweet and inviting.

To retain the deepest colour possible, simply mix the extracted juice with icing sugar and drizzle it on a cake or cookie. This keeps the colours much more vivid: redcurrants, for example, yield a fabulous cough-mixture shade. For a two-tone effect, you could drizzle this icing over the butter icing.

Green was more challenging. I tried frozen spinach, but when it had defrosted, and the juice had been strained off through my trusty sieve, it yielded an uneven, unattractive greeny grey liquid. In an attempt to intensify this dubious pond water I heated it in a pan and reduced it, which did produce a stronger colour…

…and when I mixed this reduction into the butter icing, the result was surprisingly good. A tasteful shade of pale avocado. The downside was the slightly spinachy flavour – but I offset this with a little vanilla essence and extra sugar. The children didn’t notice.

A less labour intensive way to produce this shade of pale green is to mash ripe avocado into butter icing. Altogether easier, I found.

My next port of call was the humble beetroot. Raw, it is a gloomy, muddy root: unassuming but harbouring a phenomenal talent for staining everything in its wake. Its pigment is so strong, it has been used for millennia to stain fabrics pink and red.

To extract the colour I peeled the beetroot and boiled it in water until barely cooked. Then I removed it from the water, chopped it finely, and left it to soak in the cooking water for four hours. The result is stunning, but once you’ve removed the solid pieces and collected the brilliantly coloured liquid you must use it quickly as it will discolour if left for any time. Heat adversely affects the colour, too, so it’s best for use in cold foods such as icing, ice-cream, smoothies or cream fillings.

The other beauty of beetroot is that you can use the whole of it in your cooking. I took my favourite carrot cake recipe and simply substituted beetroot. It didn't turn the whole sponge into my daughter's preferred shade of chewing gum pink but it definitely made it a deep red. It also produces lovely red velvet cupcakes. The flavour is ever-so-slightly earthy, but just a little extra sugar in the icing would counteract this for any suspicious children.

Making brown was the next challenge. The two best ways to produce it, I discovered, were by soaking onion skins or making caramel. The resultant liquid can be added to icing in the same way as all the other colours I created.

Having tried fruit and veg, I was took up the challenge of spices. Turmeric, added to icing, gives a lovely eggy yellow tone, and the trick is to use old turmeric which has gone stale, so that the flavour has faded and won't corrupt the taste of the cake. As butter icing is already pale yellow, the turmeric lifts it a shade or two, allowing it to blend into my toyshop-coloured cupcakes.

These techniques may seem a great deal of effort. There was much pleasure, though, in both experimentation and results: feeding my children cupcakes that were perfectly palatable and much more nutritious than anything on the shelves was extremely gratifying…

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