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The evolution of red velvet

May 11, 2011

Red velvet is in, and I’m not talking about that fancy get-up a certain prince was wearing at a certain wedding that I certainly didn’t watch.  I’m talking about cake.  Get on the red wagon or get left behind, it seems.  Cupcake shops have adopted the red velvet cupcake as their star treat.  Red velvet whoopie pies have made it into venues as exclusive as Starbucks.  There was a day when this crimson confection was my sworn enemy, but lately, my culin-osity has gotten the better of me. And I have questions.   
First of all, where did it come from?  With just a little research, I discovered that nobody has the foggiest idea.  Some claim it as a Southern cake; others give credit to Canada.  The most common story originates at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York.  As the story goes, in the late 1950s, a lady liked it so much that she wrote the chef and asked for the recipe.  He obliged, but sent a bill for $350 along with it.  She paid the bill, but sent the recipe out in a chain letter to get her revenge on the chef.  That’s an interesting yarn, but it sounds too much like the chocolate chip cookie story from Neiman Marcus to make me believe it.
True or not, to have an urban legend attached makes red velvet a bit special.  Plus, this cake has also made appearances at a few other celebrated venues.  Fans of “Steel Magnolias” will never forget the armadillo-shaped groom’s cake.  I also read that Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey had a red velvet cake at their wedding.  I guess it’s not necessarily a good luck charm. 
Stories abound about the color as well.  Food science fans might know that anthocyanins in the cocoa are supposed to react with acidic ingredients to produce a reddish color.  Today’s processed ingredients, however, simply would not produce the deep reds we see in cakes today.  Others speculate that red beets were used to sweeten the cake in days of sugar rationing during WWII, but there are not enough historic recipes to justify that, either.  It turns out - at least in today’s kitchens - that the deep red color comes straight from lots of red food coloring.  Bo-ring. 
Inquiring minds also want to know which flavor is red.  Usually red means a berry of some sort, but in the case of red velvet the flavor is basically chocolate.  Many of the traditional recipes contain a magic trio of ingredients – cocoa, buttermilk, and vinegar – which in combination may produce the unique flavor of the cake.  But as with just about any recipe, especially one that I get my hands on, ingredients vary. 
Today’s interest in this ruby-hued sweet stands in stark contrast to a time in my early teens when I would have nothing to do with it.  It must have started after being served a piece of the cake that was aged beyond its prime.  Thereafter I associated the taste I now recognize as “spoiled cake” as the natural flavor of red velvet.  This avoidance led to one of the great social embarrassments of my formative years.  The setting: a church Valentine’s banquet in 8th grade.  Navy blazers, khakis, oxford-cloth button-down shirts, and burgundy ties were in vogue and the Carousel children’s store had supplied the proper duds. (I was really short then.)  My dad drove me to pick up my date - perhaps my first, if having a parental chauffeur counts as a real date - and I recall discussing facts about volcanoes with her father as we waited for her to come out.  Once we were safely deposited in the fellowship hall, I was disappointed to see that red velvet cake was the dessert of the evening, despite the reflection of traditional Valentine’s Day colors.  After finishing our roast beef, green beans, and potatoes – standard youth banquet fare – the adult servers began to clear the tables.  I decided to be helpful and hand to the server my uneaten piece of cake, which was on a small paper plate apparently not built to withstand such weight.  The plate folded, the cake tumbled, and the traditional cream cheese icing landed directly on the lapel of my dark navy blazer.  No amount of rubbing could erase the stain, and it was there to remind me of my shame throughout the rest of the evening.  Thankfully, my date was gracious – she even gave me another chance to be seen in public with her, though it was a couple of years later and in less formal clothing.   I, on the other hand, was less forgiving to the cake, and red velvet stayed off my favorites list for many years.   

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