Well, we were going to have to talk about it sooner or later.
Is there any cake more overdone, more fetishized, or more completely unrelated to its ancestors than the red velvet? Not in the last 30 years, I’d wager. People tell stories about their grandmothers making red velvet cake as an indication of provenance, but it’s probably not older than their mother, let alone grandmother. Sometimes grandmothers can be pretty hip.
A red velvet cake is a cake made with cocoa, some form of acid (usually sour milk or buttermilk, sometimes with vinegar added), and in most modern iterations, red food coloring. Also in the modern versions, it’s topped with cream cheese frosting, though before that it was a no-cook frosting, and before that a seven-minute frosting.
The origins of the descriptor red are a combination of science and legend, something we talked a bit about in the post for devil’s food cake from Wichita, Kansas. The short version is that, depending on what you do with them and in what order you do it, unprocessed cocoa can hypothetically react to acids in a way that releases reddish compoundds called anthocyanins.
Does that make it particularly red? No, not particularly; it gives it maybe the merest hint of red. Compare the low-to-no dye version on the left to the better-living-through-chemistry one on the right.
Before the use of the word “velvet,” recipes that would come to travel under this name kicked around the continent in the 1930s, like this recipe for “red devil cake” from the November 3, 1930 edition of the Hattiesburg (Mississippi) American:
Red Devil Cake
1/2 cupful shortening
Cream shortening and sugar until light. Add well-beaten egg yolks, then sour milk or buttermilk alternately with four, salt, and baking powder, sifted together. Pour boiling water into melted chocolate, adding soda. Stir until thick. Let cool sightly. Mix thoroughly with cake batter. Fold in stiffly beaten egg whites and vanilla. Bake forty-five to sixty minutes in 350-degree oven in loaf-cake pan.
2 egg whites
Beat egg whites until stiff. Put in upper part of double-boiler with sugar, water, and cream of tartar. Beat with rotary beater until thoroughly mixed. Place over boiling water, beating constantly, and cook seven minutes or until frosting will stand in peaks. Remove from fire and add flavoring. Beat until thick enough to spread.
So far, the earliest mention of the “red velvet cake” name that I’ve found is Canadian–from the October 24, 1950 edition of The Birtle (Manitoba) Eye-Witness, in the “Table Talks” column by Jane Andrews:
Almost every cook has her own favorite chocolate cake, and almost every recipe differs slightly from the others.
Which is the best of all–well, it isn’t for me to say. They claim that it’s difference of opinion that makes horse-racing; and there’s almost as much difference of opinion about the “perfect” chocolate cake as there is regarding the bangtails. Some families like their chocolate cake very dark and very moist; others think it should be feather-light, finely textured and no more than a deep red in colour.
Red Velvet Cake
Bake in a 9 x 13-inch pan.
Stir egg mixture into dry ingredients.
Beat 3 minutes. if you use an electric mixer, set at low to medium speed.
Pour into greased and lightly floured 9 x 13 inch cake pan.
Bake at 350 degrees (moderate) 45 minutes.
Meanwhile, the earliest domestic mention I’ve been able to find is in the March 23, 1951 edition of The San Antonio Light, under the name “Red Velvet Devil’s Food:”
Mrs. Herman S. Walker, 137 Evans ave., wins the week’s $6 prize for her Red Velvet Devil’s Food cake recipe printed below:
Red Velvet Devil’s Food
Set this mixture aside until the rest of the cake is mixed.
Cream shortening until light and creamy. Add sugar. Continue to cream until well blended. Add well-beaten egg yellows. Beat a few strokes to blend. Add alternately sour milk and flour (with salt) beating after each addition. Add cocoa mixture and blend well by betting. Add vanilla and well-beaten egg whites, folding carefully to prevent breaking down whites. Bake at 350 degrees for about 60 minutes in greased, floured cake tube pan. Turn out on cooling rack. Ice with:
2 cups brown sugar
Heat until above mixture boils up in heavy froth. take from fire. Stir in 1/2 teaspoon of baking soda. If too thin for spreading, add powdered sugar. If too thick, add a bit of cream.
Don’t forget that next week’s pie recipes must be submitted by monday, March 25. Winner to be announced March 30.
Around 1962, the the Adams Extract company (then) located in Austin, Texas was promoting its version of the recipe on recipe cards distributed in stores, calling for not only two ounces of its red food coloring, but its butter flavoring and vanilla to boot. This version of the card is from around 1969:
Red Velvet Cake Recipe
1/2 cup shortening
Cream shortening, add sugar gradually and cream until light and fluffy. Add eggs one at a time, beating vigorously after each addition. Add flavors.(Click here to expand an the rest of the recipe.)
Make a paste of cocoa and food coloring and blend in. Sift dry ingredients together and add alternately with buttermilk. Add vinegar with last half of buttermilk. Beat only until smooth. Bake in 3 greased and floured 8 inch or 9 inch pans for 20-25 minutes at 350 degrees, or until cake tester comes out clean. Cool 10 minutes, remove from pans and cool completely.
1 lb. confectioners sugar (sifted)
Sift confectioners sugar. Blend well about 1/2 the sugar with shortening, flavors and salt. Alternately add rest of sugar and enough milk to get a smooth spreadable icing.
Today, the Adams company plays an odd kind of shell game with the origins of red velvet cake. They sell a mix they call the “original” and don’t mind taking credit; at the same time, they say versions of red velvet cake date to the 19th century under the name mahogany cake. From what I’ve been able to find, the cakes identified as mahogany cakes don’t look to have anything resembling the kind of tangy acidity you’d expect out of a red velvet cake.
(Click here to expand an example of a mahogany cake.)
One and one half cups sugar, 1/2 cup butter beaten together to a cream, 3 eggs, whites and yolks beaten separately, 2 cups sifted flour, 1 teaspoonful soda dissolved in 1/2 cup of sweet milk, 1/2 cup grated chocolate cooked in 1/2 cup sweet milk until thick. When cool stir in last. Flavor with vanilla.
One cup sugar cooked in 1/4 cup water until it will hair. Pour over well beaten white of 1 egg and beat till cool. Flavor with vanilla.
It’s not that Adams didn’t do a lot to promote the popularity of the red velvet cake. But if the sum total of your contribution to the life of a cake is to add huge amounts of artificial coloring to it, I just don’t know that you want to call it a culinary triumph.
And until the late 1980s, most people didn’t. James Beard didn’t think it was anything special. Most cookbooks didn’t mention red velvet cake at all. At a glance, after all, it was a neon-dyed chocolate cake with insufficient chocolate. And it would’ve stayed that way, except for Hollywood.
What really led to the popularity of the modern red velvet cake (although it slightly preceded the last bit of evolution of the recipe) was its inclusion in the 1989 movie Steel Magnolias, where it was used as the filling for an armadillo-shaped groom’s cake.
Suddenly, everyone started having memories of how their grandmothers made this cake, and by the 1990s, it was with cream cheese frosting–something that didn’t even show up on carrot cake in their grandmothers’ time, let alone red velvet cake.
From the box of J.L. from Westborough, Massachusetts.
Red Velvet Cake
- 1/2 cup Crisco
- 1-1/2 cups sugar
- 2 eggs
- 2 cups flour
- 2 Tbsp. cocoa (I used 3 Tbsp.)
- 1/2 tsp. salt
- 1 Tbsp. baking soda
Combine and add to creamed ingredients alternately with sifted dry ingredients:
- 1 cup buttermilk
- 1 tsp. vanilla
- 1 tsp. vinegar
Add 2 oz. red food coloring (2 small bottles). When thoroughly mixed, pour into two layer pans (greased and floured).
Bake 350 deg. for 30 to 35 minutes.
Recipe from the kitchen of Marilyn