Red Velvet Cake -- What's all the hype about?

Aloha friends!

In a post this week featured on Refinery29, a writer discussed their dislike for red velvet cake. In short, the writer seems to feel that red velvet cake is nothing more than chocolate cake with a huge amount of red food colouring thrown into it. We have to say that we disagree! Over here at the Domestic PhD our mouths are melting just at the thought of eating red velvet cake. Although you can't always quite pinpoint the flavour of the cake, who doesn't want a smooth, chocolately cake smothered with cream cheese or buttercream frosting!? What is with all the hype you ask? Let us break it down for you.

What makes the 'red' in red velvet cakes?

Traditionally, the natural red hue came from the reaction between the cocoa powder and the vinegar and baking soda. Cocoa naturally contains anthocyanins (compounds found in red foods, such as cabbage), which gives the cocoa the strong red pigment. These days cocoa is processed much differently. Cocoa is now treated with an basic alkalizing agent (i.e., a base) that neutralizes the acid, causing the red hue to be less vibrant (this is why current recipes rely on adding food colouring). However, some also say that the 'red' refers to the sugar that used to be used (brown sugar used to be called red sugar) and the 'velvet' comes from the smooth texture of cake. Last, some also say the colour comes from beets that were added to cakes to make them moist and appealing during World War II when typical baking items may not have been accessible (e.g., sugar and butter).

Where did the red velvet cake originate?

The jury is still out on this one. There are different stories circulating about the origins of the red velvet cake.

  • One theory states that an extract company in the 1920's came up with the recipe in response to decreased sales of food colouring. It is thought that the company came up with the red velvet recipe, which was simply a concoction that used red food colouring and butter extract instead of the traditional ingredients. The cake was a hit because it was a cheap way to make a cake look glamorous and the recipe was offered for free.
  • Another theory states that the cake was first served in a restaurant in the famous Waldorf-Historia Hotel in New York in the 1930's. The urban legend that gets passed around says that a lady emailed the hotel to ask for the recipe. She got her wish, but also got dinged with a $350 bill for being provided with the recipe. For revenge, she put the recipe on cards and handed it out to passengers on her bus route.
  • There is also a theory that dates back to the early 1800's. A velvet cake (referring to the tender, moist and smooth texture) first made an appearance, but it was a lemon loaf rather than chocolate. Eventually this led to a chocolate version of the velvet cake that was popularized in the 1940's (although not with food critics) and eventually the modern red velvet cake (which is 'red' because of the food colouring).
  • The cake is also thought to have African-American roots, as this cake is often included at celebrations for Juneteenth (the eradication of American slavery).

Are your heads spinning yet? Regardless of the origin of the red velvet cake, the modern version is what we all know and love/hate. For those of us who love red velvet cake, the smooth, moist, chocolate cake with a slight bit of tang to it, is the perfect treat. However, the key to making the modern cake is to use a concentrated red dye (e.g., powdered or gel form) to get that vibrant red hue. The liquid forms will need a substantial amount of dye added to the recipe to get a red hue that would match that of a concentrated dye, which often leads to an unpleasant taste. On that note, we will leave you with one of our favourite red velvet cupcake recipes by Martha Stewart.

xo Michelle & Kathryn

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