Red Velvet, the 'Lady Gaga' of cakes, wears well during the holidays

Red Velvet is the Lady Gaga of layer cakes. Dramatic, over-the-top, in your face and artificially colored. You either love it or hate it.

As long as you are redding up the house for the holidays, you might as well red it up with this fabulous dessert. Red Velvet Cake with cream cheese icing is all dressed up in candy cane colors for any celebration you plan. It is a cake for the season.

But before you bake, you need the back story of this All-American cake to understand its popularity.

In early American kitchens, there were no cakes at all. Women cooked in the fireplace or used an outdoor oven, and the daily fare consisted of stews, biscuits and food-in-a-kettle. Cake -- a family should be so lucky -- would have been in the form of a steamed pudding.

When kitchen stoves and ovens came along, baking was still rough going. Oven controls offered choices of warm, medium and hot, and maintaining a proper temperature was difficult at best. There were no artificial leavenings and no standards of measurement at all. A teacup of this, a lump of that and a handful of something else was no path to the exacting needs of scratch cake baking.

Baking powder was invented around 1850, opening the door to recipe development. By the 1920s and '30s, home cooks were deep into the heyday of homemade cakes. Many took great pride in making chiffon, 1-2-3-4, angel food, devil's food, pound, loaf, jam and layer cakes in number.

One of the first layer cakes was the velvet cake, so named because of its fine crumb, not its color. An early sighting of a velvet cake dates from a recipe book by Dr. Alvin Chase in 1873. He noted that "nice smooth names for things" were in fashion, mentioning velvet cake and velvet cream. Any mention of the color red was a reference to brown sugar, sometimes called "red sugar." A "red" devil's food cake was so named because it took on a rusty hue as a result of the chemical interaction of brown sugar, cocoa and buttermilk or vinegar.

Fannie Farmer's early cookbooks list velvet cakes made with all-purpose flour cut with cornstarch, and sometimes cocoa, to soften the firm, coarse protein structure of the all-purpose flour. These cakes also appear in her updated cookbooks available today. Fannie's Vanilla Velvet Cake is a bland, basic blonde with a fine crumb. Some historians believe that velvet cakes that included cocoa -- as a tenderizer, not a flavoring agent, and which gave the cake a reddish cocoa hue -- were the inspiration for a visually red cake.

Enter John A. Adams, whose family founded The Adams Extract Company in 1888. Over the years, the company's line of food colorings and extracts sold well. But by The Depression, sales were slumping. What's a businessman to do? A born marketer, John A. set up displays of his company's products under a big color illustration of a crimson-tinted, velvet layer cake in groceries in the Midwest and South. A free recipe and two bottles of Adams Red Color came with every purchase.

Red Velvet Cake as we know it took off and never looked back.

The recipe circulated widely, helped along by regional newspapers, where it seems that every food writer tweaked it. Butter, vegetable oil or shortening might be used. The cornstarch was lost in favor of cake flour. Cocoa was added in any number of proportions to add color, not flavor. (Red Velvet Cake was and is not about a chocolate-ish flavor.) The constants were buttermilk-vinegar-soda leavening and a heavy hand with the food coloring.

The semantics shifted, and now the red color, rather than a fine crumb, became the defining property of the velvet cake.

Red Velvet Cakes became, and still are, a mainstay of black community cookbooks, especially in the South and Midwest. Even today, it is the favorite of Juneteenth holiday celebrations, a date that celebrates the ending of slavery in the United States.

President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863, in the middle of the Civil War. But word of the Proclamation didn't reach many slaves until much later. It wasn't until June 19, 1865, two months after the Civil War ended, that slaves in Texas learned that they were free. Former slaves and their descendants continued to celebrate the anniversary of their freedom every year on June 19, which came to be known as "Juneteenth." As African Americans migrated to other parts of the country, they took the holiday with them.

A Juneteenth picnic table might be laden with many red foods because red symbolized the blood that was shed during the Civil War and slavery. Musts are chicken barbecue, watermelon, red pop and Red Velvet Cakes. The black communities' versions of the cake are almost always filled and frosted with tangy cream cheese frosting and studded with chopped pecans.

The Red Velvet bandwagon

Home cooks love cakes with an unusual back story or a "secret ingredient." Wacky cake, tomato soup cake, sauerkraut cake, mud cake and mayonnaise cake are just a few of the weirdos many of us have in our recipe files. When professional food writers feature them, we refer to them as "Hey, Maude" stories, because almost as soon as the newspaper hits the front porch we imagine women hollering over the back fence, "Hey, Maude, wait till you hear this!"

The cake was so popular, it became a cliche. But why knock something so delicious, moist, tender and dramatic?

• The Waldorf Astoria hotel in Manhattan wanted to take credit forits "original" Red Velvet Cake as served during in the 1920s. All hype, that.

• When George's aunt, Rosemary Clooney, sang "If I Knew You Were Comin' I'd've Baked a Cake" back in the 50s, during one of the cake's several heydays, she was probably crooning about a Red Velvet.

• In 1972, James Beard in his book "American Cookery" weighed in, probably reluctantly. He called Red Velvet Cake bland and uninteresting, with a flavor too subtle to stand up to its intense color. He suggested adding a bit of cocoa and a teaspoon of cinnamon to bump up the flavor.

Then in 1989, there was yet another resurgence in the popularity of this cake, attributed to the film "Steel Magnolias," in which the traditional groom's cake, a Southern tradition, is a Red Velvet Cake in the shape of an armadillo. (Don't ask, just Google it.)

Today's chefs also climb aboard. There are Red Velvet versions by Paula Deen, Martha Stewart, Food Network chefs and magazines such as sophisticated Cook's Illustrated, with each recipe a tad different from the rest. The basic cake recipe also morphs into cupcakes, cookies, cheesecakes and even whoopie pies.

But there's an elephant in the room. Artificial food coloring is not organic, grass-fed, free range or suitable for compost. But it won't hurt you. Much of the public reticence about using food dyes harks back to the worldwide hysteria following the announcement by Soviet scientists in 1971 that the widely used Red Dye No. 2 causes cancer in rats. In 1976, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration reacted by banning it, even though there was no evidence that it causes cancer in humans. It is still legal in many other countries.

In the United States, today's red food dyes are Red No. 40 and Red No. 3, both of which have been declared safe by the FDA without restriction. And those are precisely the colors in McCormick's Red Food Color, which is used in PG-tested recipes.

Nevertheless, some food-health activists want all artificial food colorings banned regardless of their chemical composition, because a few unconfirmed studies have hinted that they may increase hyperactivity in children. These flimsy studies have never been confirmed.

What's a cook to do? Some recipes call for as much as two 1-ounce bottles of artificial food coloring. Others primly call for only one teaspoon, which might make for a better conscience but not a very reddish tint. The amount to use in your cake is up to you.

Will your version come on like Lady Gaga? Or Pat Boone?

Sylvia's Red Velvet Cake

PG tested

To ramp up flavor, add 1 teaspoon cinnamon to the dry ingredients when mixing. Because fresh cakes are fragile, this velvet cake will improve in flavor and texture if allowed to rest for a day before frosting and serving. The color is dramatic. Be sure to choose white plates to show it off. Got leftover cake? Imagine an English trifle or parfait around the December holidays or Valentines Day.

For the cake
  • 2 1/2 cups sifted cake flour
  • 2 teaspoons Dutch process cocoa powder
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon, optional
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, softened
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 cup buttermilk
  • 2 ounces red food coloring
  • 1 teaspoon distilled white vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla

For the frosting:

  • 8-ounce package cream cheese, softened
  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
  • 1-pound box confectioners' sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 cup chopped pecans

For the cake: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Spritz 2 9-inch round cake pans with nonstick baking spray. Line the pans with parchment or waxed paper circles.

In a medium bowl or on a piece of waxed paper, sift together flour, cocoa, cinnamon (if using), baking soda, baking powder and salt; set aside. In a large bowl, cream together sugar and butter. Beat in eggs one at a time. Alternately add flour mixture and buttermilk. Beat in food coloring, vinegar and vanilla.

Spread the batter evenly in the pans; give each pan a sideways shake to settle the batter. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes or until a wooden toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Cool in the pans for 5 minutes before turning out onto racks to cool completely.

For the frosting: Place 4 (2-inch wide) strips of wax paper on the cake plate or stand. Place the bottom cake layer on the strips. In a large bowl, cream the cream cheese and butter. Beat in confectioners' sugar until fluffy. Beat in vanilla. Use to fill and ice the cake. Spread some of the chopped nuts in the palm of your hand and pat them onto the sides of the cake. Continue around the cake until the sides are covered with nuts. Makes about 10 generous servings.

-- "Sylvia's Family Soul Food Cookbook" by Sylvia Woods and Family (William Morrow, 1999)

White Velvet Cake

This simple cake with its fine flavor and smooth, velvet texture is an old classic. It would be a good simple cake to fill and frost for a child's birthday. This was a Fannie Farmer favorite, circa 1950.

  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, softened
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 4 large eggs, separated
  • 1/2 cup cold water
  • 1 1/2 cups cake flour
  • 1/2 cup cornstarch
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 4 teaspoons baking powder

For the cake: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Spritz 2 8-inch round cake pans with non-stick baking spray. Line the pans with parchment or waxed paper circles. Cream the butter and slowly add the sugar, beating until light. Beat in the egg yolks and cold water and combine well. Combine the flour, cornstarch, salt and baking powder. Add to the first mixture and beat thoroughly.

With clean beaters, beat the egg whites separately until stiff but not dry. Gently stir a third of the whites into the first mixture, then fold in the remaining whites.

Spread the batter in the pans and bake for about 25 minutes, until a toothpick comes out clean. Cool in the pans for 5 minutes before turning out onto racks to cool completely. Frost with chocolate butter icing, or, for an old-fashioned topping, caramel or penuche frosting. Makes about 8 pieces.

Orange Velvet Cake: This is often called Princeton Orange Cake. Make a White Velvet Cake, but add the grated zest of 1 orange to the butter and sugar mixture, and substitute orange juice for water. Fill and frost with cooked white mountain frosting and sprinkle with 3/4 cup sweetened coconut. Makes about 8 pieces.

-- "The Fannie Farmer Cookbook" by Marion Cunningham (1990), and Fannie Farmer (1959).

Marlene Parrish, 412-481-1620 or First Published December 15, 2011 5:00 AM


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