Life, death and miracles of the Red Velvet Cake

After posting the recipe for the Red Velvet cake I have received a few messages with doubts and questions about it. It is true that for us, in Italy, this is quite a strange cake, very different from what we are used to find in the pastry shops!

Rose Red Velvet Cake from Rose's Heavenly Cakes

So I have decided to write about it, to tell you  the story of a cake that has a more intricate past than a soap opera!

Well, if you are american, probably you will find that in this post I don’t really say anything new to you. But if not….keep reading!

The origin of the Red Velvet cake go back in time up to the middle of 19th century, but, the legend says that at that time, it was really fashion to give very important names to very common stuff…and also, “red” referred to what  we would now call brown sugar.

So no scoop for now.

Getting right to the period of World War II the story becomes more interesting: First of all the bakers would add beets to the cake mix to keep them moist for longer.

Also, cocoa powder was processed  in a different way, leaving the acids at their natural level. Due to a chemical reaction, the pigments contained in cocoa, the anthocyanin, would react with the baking soda (a base) creating a reddish colour. Nowadays the cocoa powder acidity is washed off with an alkaline solution and this reaction doesn’t happen anymore. That is why we add some vinegar or buttermilk to the mix.

Ok then, looks like at this stage the Red Velvet cake is still a brown-sort of-reddish colour one.

But, during the great depression, things get even more exciting.

“Adams extract”, one of the first companies to produce food colouring, used this cake to promote its revolutionary new product..and that’s when this baby gets promoted..from brownish velvet, to red OMG velvet.

So as you already now all the scientific facts, we can talk about gossip.

Another urban legend says the Red Velvet cake was invented by the chef of the prestigious Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York.

In the book The Vanishing Hitchhiker (W.W. Norton, 1989) by Jan Brunvand we find this interesting story:

Our friend, Dean Blair, got on a bus in San Jose one morning and shortly after, a lady got on the bus and started passing out these 3 x 5 cards with the recipe for “Red Velvet Cake.” She said she had recently been in New York and had dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria and had this cake. After she returned to San Jose, she wrote to the hotel asking for the name of the chef who had originated the cake, and if she could have the recipe.

Subsequently she received the recipe in the mail along with a bill for something like $350 from the chef. She took the matter to her attorney, and he advised her that she would have to pay it because she had not inquired beforehand if there would be a charge for the service, and if so, how much it would be. Consequently, she apparently thought this would be a good way to get even with the chef.

So now we know why this cake is also knows as “100$ cake”, “200$” and maybe more…Also, we are now big fans of the lady on the San Jose bus.

What’s sure is, if I can add my professional opinion, that leaving the great red colour on a side for a second, this is just a…..vanilla- chocolate- none of the above- cake.

So, especially talking to those who have doubts about it (“can I use something more natural instead than food colour?”) I would suggest to look for brands that produce naturally derived colours- especially talking about red colour that is known to be extract from an insect..cochineal. Or, simply do it the old fashioned way..bake a nice, good, natural Red-Browinsh Velvet.

Happy baking!


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