But this time, I'm serious about this red velvet thing.
So I started with the history of Red Velvet Cake, according to Wikipedia (because everything you red online is true, right?). That wasn't very helpful, other than telling me that it became crazy popular in 1989, when the movie Steel Magnolia's came out with its red velvet armadillo cake.
See? Not very helpful. But now, after lots of helpful reading from the many, many websites that have already covered this topic, I've decided that the "original" red velvet cakes were probably chocolate versions of Velvet Cakes (named for their velvety texture). I'm guessing the "red" part of the name came from either recipes with brown sugar (aka red sugar), or from the fact that some of these hybrids cakes had red tints. Obviously the velvet part would've come from the texture of the cake. I take most of these assumptions from this good source.
- Some say that Devil's Food Cakes may have emerged from these chocolate velvet cakes, becoming distinct on their own with the addition of lots more cocoa and other "rich" ingredients like coffee. I don't know about this though - obviously, these days devil's food cakes are know for being dark, rich chocolate cakes.
In my Fannie Farmer cookbook, in fact, there are two cake recipes that reinforce this theory - Chocolate Buttermilk Cake and Velvet Cake. The Velvet Cake recipe is pretty plain, but add in the ingredients from the chocolate buttermilk cake, and it should have a nice texture and a good chocolate flavor.
I gather that most original red velvets had ingredients like brown sugar, cocoa, buttermilk, vinegar, etc, some of which did react chemically to give these cakes redish-color. I like this history lesson on the origins of red velvets the best.
- Let's go off on a quick tangent here. The reason these cakes were red-ish, was because of a chemical reaction that occurred between two of the primary ingredients - vinegar and buttermilk - and the cocoa. The reaction turned the cakes reddish-brown color.
- But I've never seen this happen, and apparently neither have a lot of other new bakers. Turns out we're either not paying attention, or using the wrong cocoa. According to the bakers/historians I've read, the color change is more pronounced when the cocoa you're using is less alkaline, aka, unprocessed.
- But at some point, Dutch processed cocoa, came out. This type of cocoa is treated with an alkalizing agent (potassium solution) to modify its color, neutralize its acidity, and give it a milder taste. And because of this, it is more alkaline, and doesn't react to the vinegar/buttermilk/cocoa reaction quite like unprocessed cocoa. (For a really great explanation of the cocoa powder difference click here).
- But guess what? Hershey's Natural, Unsweetened cocoa isn't alkalized, so it's perfect for "real" red velvet cake recipes. (Recipes that use it should contain baking soda though, for reasons that are starting to get way too chemically scientific for me to understand).
Anyway, back to the point. According to my reading, a traditional "red velvet" had a slight red/brown color. It certainly didn't have the vivid red color that we now associate with a red velvet cake.
That's right - red velvet cakes weren't born red!
So where did that come from? We'll get to that in a second...spoiler alert, it was a great marketing ploy to get bakers during the depression to buy food coloring and extract.
- Let's go off on another tangent, this time about tight money and frugal bakers. You'll find a few recipes out there that have beets as an ingredient. These recipes may or may not have emerged during WWII, to save sugar rations. Beets can replace sugar in recipes, or so I've been told. They may have also saved money on red food dye, considering beets can give cakes the original red tint the are known for. As the story goes, once food rationing ended, recipes using beets pretty much disappeared. Whether or not this is true, or if it's a great back story hatched up by food-dye haters, it's hard to tell without way more research than I'm willing to do.
- Of course, beets could have been called for in some of the original, turn of the century red velvet recipes. There would have been plenty of variations on red velvet style cakes back then. But a more likely explanation? Those were probably recipes for chocolate beet cakes. Yes, there is such a thing. And they're very similar to devil's food cakes AND red velvet cakes. (They're all pretty similar in fact).
Back to the topic at hand. Traditional red velvet cakes weren't vivid red, so what happened there? The Adams Extract Company happened.
During the depression, sales weren't so hot with the Adams extract company. So John Adams came up with a great marketing idea. A recipe for red velvet cake, (slightly modified to include ingredients like 2 bottles of Adam's red food coloring) was printed on tear off cards, and placed right by the Adam's products. Described as "The Cake of a Wife Time", the recipe was credited to John's wife Betty. These free take home cards were the source for the modern incarnation of brightly colored red velvet cakes, named these days not for their "red sugar", but for their red color.
(And because that was their original name of course. There was no official meeting deciding that, since they were still red colored, everyone would still call these cakes red velvet, even though they weren't really "red sugar" cakes anymore. Betty Adams' recipe didn't call for brown sugar, and most current recipes don't either.)
- Steve Gordon at Taste of Southern tells the Adam's story pretty well, and has step by step directions (with photos!) of the original Betty Adams recipe. Check it out Betty Adam's Red Velvet Cake Story and Recipe
The current Adams Extract company gives credit to the red velvet recipes from the turn of the century, which used the ingredients we mentioned above and had the original red/brown color. But Adams Extracts is most definitely responsible modern red velvet cakes.
So red velvet, in all its modern crimson glory, has been around since the depression. And before that, it existed in a more normal color. But how did it get so dang popular that you can buy red velvet flavored ChapStick? Of course, there are cakey urban legends about how modern red velvet became so popular:
Eaton's Department Store
Red velvet cake was a staple of the restaurants and bakeries of Eaton's Department store in Canada. That recipe, they say, was known only to the employees who made it, who were sworn to secrecy. Nothing like cake baking with a side of intrigue. The first documentation of Eaton's red velvet cake was in a 1961 newspaper announcement, enticing customers with their "new" red velvet cake.
The Waldorf Astoria Hotel
There's also a story about a lady who really enjoyed a new desert she had at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City - sometime in the late 50's. She liked it so much that when she got home, she wrote to the hotel and asked for the recipe. She got the recipe, along with a bill for $100 (or $200 or $350 depending on the story). As legend tells it, she was so mad that she distributed the recipe to everyone she knew through a chain letter, thus getting her revenge. This may or may not be an urban baking legend (Snopes seems to think it is), but the Waldorf Astoria did serve a red velvet cake during that time period, so who knows?
- Legends aside, the Waldorf Astoria did serve a mean red velvet cake.
Both of these places can probably credit themselves with helping make red velvet even more popular than it would've already been at that time, because both did serve red velvet cake. But neither one can take credit for "inventing" red velvet - although there are bakers who will argue that point until the cows come home!
Hollywood can take credit for making modern red velvet such a big deal. Think of the armadillo cake in Steel Magnolias, and you'll get it.
While educational, none of that was super helpful in reaching my original goal, which was to be able to offer red velvet cake to my customers. What should I offer them, knowing all this? The original red velvets that were named for their "red sugar" and velvety crumb? Or the modern red velvets that are colorful and kind of boring (in my opinion).
Or, in other words, do I offer "Red Velvet" cake or do I offer "Red Velvet" cake. (Haha, see what I did there?)
Well, I figured that there were two types of red velvet recipes I could look into - "modern" red velvet recipes, and "vintage" red velvet recipes. From there, I could go with what tasted best.
So for the "modern" red velvets, I relied on the red velvet taste-off done by "The Bake More":
The Bake More Red Velvet Cake Taste-Off
Her tasters, and many, many other bakers out there all agree that Cakeman Raven, of Cakeman Raven Confectionery in NYC has the best "modern" Red Velvet Cake recipe of all. Which you can find right here:
Cake Man Raven's Red Velvet Cake Recipe
For the "vintage" red velvets, one of the most promising I've found (although I've yet to try) is Sweetapolita's Red Velvet Supreme Cake. It has brown sugar, which makes my OCD happy - I want a red velvet to have red sugar in it, so that the name makes baking sense and all is right in the world. And it also has red food paste as an optional ingredient, to make everyone happy.
This one from Serious Eats is also super promising in the vintage category. (Although it does have beets in it, so perhaps it's more of a beet cake than a red velvet. Like I mentioned before, they are pretty darn similar.)
But I would still love to find an original, vintage red velvet recipe, preferably from a vintage cookbook. But for that I'll probably have to start scouring the second hand stores. The Internet hasn't been very helpful on that end of things.
So in the end, which recipe did I decide to offer to my customers? Wouldn't you like to know! But I'm not telling.
Haha, just kidding!
I like the Cakeman Raven's recipe, and I have high hopes for Sweetapolita's recipe too. So I have one good recipe from each category - modern and vintage.
But wouldn't you know it, my customers want the taste they recognize from red velvet BOX mixes! And that is a totally different animal. Since I aim to please though, that's what I give them. Except my close friends and family, who get whatever I bake (and better like it too!)
The recipe I use when customers ask for red velvet is an alteration to one from BlakesCakes on CakeCentral. Sure, I'll share it. It's not a big secret!
Red Velvet Redux - Easy and Durable
1 Duncan Hines Red Velvet Cake Mix (I use Betty Crocker though)
1 box white chocolate or chocolate instant pudding mix (I actually use red velvet pudding though)
1/2 c. sour cream
1/2 c. buttermilk. He use the powdered buttermilk mixed with the amount of warm water called for on the buttermilk instructions. (I use "real" buttermilk)
1/3 c. vegetable oil
1 tsp. vanilla extract (But I use white vinegar instead of vanilla)
BlakesCakes: Hand mix all ingredients until incorporated and then mix on medium with a hand mixer for 1:30 to 2:00 minutes. Bake at 325 until a toothpick comes out clean. The cake is tasty and sturdy. I often ice with a 50/50 mixture of homemade buttercream and canned cream cheese icing so that the cake can stay at room temp for long periods.
One last note...most doctored cake mixes were written using boxes that are 18.25oz. But the box cake manufacturers have reduced the amount of cake mix in the boxes. So you can either buy two boxes of cake mix and weigh out the extra ounces missing (that's what I do), or The Cake Mix Doctor suggests this:
Smaller Cake Mix Fix: Many cooks have been frustrated to watch cake mix package sizes shrink lately. But do not despair! If you are accustomed to baking my recipes with 18.25-ounce mixes, there is a simple way that you can add flour to the smaller mixes and still bake Cake Mix Doctor recipes. Pour the cake mix into a large bowl and whisk in 6 tablespoons all-purpose flour. Now proceed as the recipe instructs. Not only will the cake achieve good volume, but it will have a nice structure and slice evenly. I learned this trick years ago before the mixes were downsized. If I added a little flour to the cake mix, then the cake seemed to have more body, and it did not sink or shrink when cooling. I hope you enjoy this simple solution!