Cheryl Day, co-owner of Back in the Day Bakery in Savannah, Ga., has noticed this surge in the confection’s popularity. Normally a steady third place behind the bakery’s Old-Fashioned Vanilla and Chocolate Heaven cupcakes, the Red Velvet variety is now tied for No. 1.
Why? Day’s husband and business partner, Griff, says it’s the cream cheese frosting.
She muses it’s the mysterious balance of tartness and sweet that is so intoxicating.
“You can’t really explain what it tastes like, so people want to try it,” Day said.
“People think it’s Southern — that’s always the debate whether it’s Southern or from New York — I say it comes from here. Southern foods seem to be coming into the forefront of American culture again. That’s what we have found.”
The history of red velvet cake is as winding as the best of Southern tales, although urban legend credits the confection’s invention to a kitchen far above the Mason-Dixon Line.
Many sources say a recipe was circulated in the 1920s by a woman who ate the dessert at the famed Waldorf-Astoria. When she returned home, she wrote the hotel asking for the recipe. She later received the recipe — and a bill for upwards of $350. After consulting an attorney, the scorned woman paid up and then sought revenge by distributing the recipe.
What we do know is “velvet” refers to any cake with a fine crumb, said pastry chef Stella Parks. By 1910, she added, the “red” alluded to the cake’s use of “red sugar,” now known as brown sugar. Bakers of that time would have understood the rich, chocolate-brown-sugar cake to be a cross between red devil’s food and chocolate velvet.
Well, what about that shockingly red hue?
The folks over at America’s Test Kitchen say red cakes of the late 1800s — red devil cake and oxblood cake —got their color from a chemical reaction between an acid, such as vinegar or buttermilk, and cocoa powder.
“But using just these ingredients, the color is faint,” Parks said. “The red of red velvet had more to do with naming flourishes and symbolism than coordinates on a color wheel.”
That is, until John A. Adams devised a ploy to save his family’s food coloring and extracts business during the Great Depression. According to Parks. Adams distributed in the Midwest and South a cake recipe that included two bottles of Adams Red Color along with Adams Best Vanilla and Adams Butter Flavor. Almost immediately, the dessert took on a life of its own, Parks said.
So-called dye-deniers attribute red velvet’s color to thrifty bakers using beet juice during wartime rationing. However, Test Kitchen experts found beets give the cake a vegetal flavor.
Perhaps there’s validity to Parks’ food-coloring-ploy theory. With the exception of her Red (Wine) Velvet Cake, which gets its coloring from vino, modern recipes tend to rely solely on at least half a bottle of food coloring. Some also skip the classic cocoa ingredient all together.
Back in the Day bakery keeps with tradition but adds a twist. Their cupcakes are a deep-red, old-fashioned buttermilk cake with a hint of cocoa — and a delightful sprinkling of miniature chocolate chips.
“Griff and I try to treat our from-scratch baking like a pastry chef and layer flavors,” Day said. “I think that little bit of chocolate really brings out the chocolate flavor. It’s a tiny little extra flavor that brings it all together.”
Red Velvet Cake
21/4 cups all-purpose flour
11/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 cup buttermilk
1 tablespoon white vinegar
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
2 large eggs
2 tablespoons cocoa powder
One 1-ounce bottle red food coloring
11/2 sticks unsalted butter, softened
11/2 cups granulated sugar
Heat oven to 350 degrees; grease and flour two 9-inch cake pans. Whisk together flour, baking soda and salt. Combine buttermilk, vinegar, vanilla and eggs. Mix cocoa and food color until a smooth paste forms.
Beat butter and granulated sugar together on medium-high speed until fluffy, about 2 minutes. Alternately add the flour mixture and buttermilk mixture. Add the cocoa mixture and beat until incorporated.
Pour into prepared pans and bake until done, about 25 minutes.
2 sticks unsalted butter, softened
4 cups confectioners’ sugar
16 ounces cream cheese, cut into 8 pieces, softened
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Pinch (1/8 teaspoon) salt
Beat the butter and sugar until fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add cream cheese, one piece at a time, and beat until incorporated. Beat in vanilla and salt.
— “America’s Best Lost Recipes: 121 Kitchen-Tested Heirloom Recipes Too Good to Forget,” by the Editors of Cook’s Country, 2007
Red Velvet Brown Pie
1 pie crust
3 tablespoons cocoa powder
2 teaspoons vanilla extract, divided
1 ounce red food coloring
1/2 cup butter, softened
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 1/4 cups flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
2/3 cup chocolate chips
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Prepare pie crust and chill until ready to fill.
Mix cocoa powder, 1 teaspoon vanilla and food coloring until a paste forms.
Cream together butter and sugar until fluffy. Mix in eggs, one at a time, then add remaining 1 teaspoon vanilla. Add cocoa powder mixture and beat until completely incorporated. Mix in flour and salt. Fold in chocolate chips. Pour into prepared crust.
Bake for about 30 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out only slightly colored. Serve with Cream Cheese Whipped Cream.
Cream Cheese Whipped Cream
Beat 1 cup heavy whipping cream with 1 tablespoon sugar until soft peaks form. Mix 4 ounces softened cream cheese with 1/2 cup sugar and 1/2 teaspoon vanilla. Fold into whipped cream.
Red Velvet Caketini
2 ounces vanilla-flavored vodka
1 ounce creme de cacao
1 ounce buttermilk
1 tablespoon chocolate sauce
3 drops red food coloring
8 drops vanilla extract
Measure all ingredients into a cocktail shaker; fill with ice, shake and strain into chilled martini glass. Makes 1 cocktail.
Optional: Dip the glass rim in a saucer of water and then powdered cocoa. Mix equal parts cream cheese frosting and Cool Whip and garnish with a dollop, sprinkled with miniature chocolate chips.
— Adapted from the Cooking Channel