How red velvet cake became an obsession

New York TimesJune 24, 2014 

In the pantheon of food-related shark jumps, red velvet cake body mist may well be the greatest leap of all.

Red velvet cake, once a reasonably tender, softly flavored culinary gimmick, has become a commercial obsession, its cocoa undertones and cream-cheese tang re-created in chemical flavor laboratories and infused into all manner of places cake should not exist.

One can buy a red velvet scented candle, red velvet protein powder, red velvet air fresheners and red velvet vodka.

Even in the world of actual food, red velvet has taken over like so much kudzu.

In San Francisco, the American Cupcake bar and bakery offers chicken that has been soaked in red velvet cake batter, rolled in toasted red velvet cupcake crumbs and fried. The dish comes with garlic- and cream-cheese mashed potatoes and cocoa-infused slaw.

Dunkin’ Donuts sells red velvet lattes. Republic of Tea sells red velvet tea. There are red velvet waffles, Pop-Tarts, whoopie pies and, in a pileup of dessert trends, the red velvet molten cake sundae.

“Why this happened to red velvet is at the core of the culture’s spirit of democracy and innovation,” said the Canadian author David Sax, who writes about food trends and fads in his new book “The Tastemakers: Why We’re Crazy for Cupcakes but Fed Up With Fondue.”

“It’s just that pure, beautiful American capitalism, which is really uniquely suited to take any sort of advantage you can take and expand on it,” he said.

The red velvet cake, with its artificial coloring and benign cocoa sweetness, has always been about commercialization. But it has honest roots.

Cooks in the 1800s used almond flour, cocoa or cornstarch to soften the protein in flour and make finer-textured cakes that were then named velvet. All of this led to the mahogany cake, with its mix of buttermilk, vinegar, cocoa powder and coffee, and its cousin, the devil’s food cake.

How it all began

Chemists, bakers and historians still debate whether the dance between cocoa and acid gave devil’s food cakes a hint of red and thus its name, or whether the name came from brown sugar, which used to be referred to as red sugar.

By the 1930s, recipes for red devil’s food cake were showing up in West Coast and Midwest newspaper food columns as a Christmas cake. “Generally popular,” wrote Irma S. Rombauer in the 1943 edition of “The Joy of Cooking,” “but not with me, which is not to be taken as a criterion.”

But the garish modern red velvet cake, like so many food trends, likely started among the elite.

Erin Allsop, archivist at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York, places the cake’s debut at the Waldorf in the 1930s, though some Southern cake historians believe that story is more legend than fact.

Meanwhile, in Austin, Texas, John A. Adams was getting rich selling vanilla and food dyes. He and his wife, Betty, ate the cake at the Waldorf, said Sterling Crim, managing partner and chief marketing officer for the Adams Extract Co. Through company histories and interviews with former employees, Adams Extract traced the red velvet cake back to that trip to the Waldorf.

“That’s the cake that started us down this path,” he said.

After Congress passed the federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act in 1938, shoring up regulations for food coloring, Adams figured he could sell a lot more extracts and dyes, and a red cake would be just the way to do it. Sometime in the 1940s, the company tricked out a mahogany cake recipe with food coloring, printed it on cards and began plans to merchandise it alongside bottles of vanilla, red dye and artificial butter flavoring, which was popular when butter was rationed during World War II.

The cake was iced with a roux of milk and flour that was whipped into butter and sugar, creating a stark white, fluffy mixture called ermine or boiled-milk frosting.

Armed with dye and a supermarket recipe, home cooks fanned out in Texas kitchens and beyond. Red velvet cake recipes won at state fairs in the Midwest, where food companies used cooking contests to promote their products.

Southern? Not exactly

This is a good time to counter the notion that the red velvet cake is an original member of the classic Southern cake collection.

Nor is it historically a cake that sprang from the African-American table. But the cake is an important part of Juneteenth parties, where red food is served ostensibly to symbolize the blood shed during slavery and in the Civil War. The June 19 celebrationmarks the date in 1865 when slaves in Texas found out they had been freed.

The cake rolled with the times, its recipe getting simplified to accommodate a cup of oil instead of the creaming of butter or shortening and flour.

But it was never the most popular cake in the room. In 1972, James Beard sneered that the cake was bland and uninteresting. Cake and baking experts like Rose Levy Beranbaum did not mention red velvet in their books in the 1980s and early 1990s.

Now a ‘force of nature’

Then, driven in part by a cameo as an armadillo groom’s cake in “Steel Magnolias” in 1989, red velvet gained new life.

The cake became a top seller at the Magnolia Bakery in New York City’s West Village, which also turned it into cupcakes. As the nation swung into its post-9/11 comfort-food phase, both cupcakes and Southern food offered solace. Red velvet became a superstar, and the merchandising arms race was on.

In 2009, red velvet cake flavoring was part of 1.5 percent of all items on menus. By 2013, it was in 4.1 percent of items, according to David Sprinkle, research director of Packaged Facts, a publisher.

A key year was 2011, when “red velvet cake flavor emerged as a force of nature,” Sprinkle said. That’s when the body mist made its debut.

For those who just can’t bear one more red velvet product, relief is in sight. The number of new products with red velvet in the title is slowing slightly.

“There is a limit to the red-velvetization potentials in different categories,” said Marcia Mogelonsky, a director in the food and drink group at Mintel, a global marketing research company. “Red Velvet wine, for example, is an effort that may not lead to more product launches.”

Like a species that adapts to a new environment, red velvet endures. In the age of allergies, agriculture and artisan food, some chefs have taken on a renewed effort to rid the cake of its food coloring.

One is Pamela Moxley, the pastry chef at Miller Union in Atlanta, who has perfected a beet red velvet cake. She uses a lot of acid to keep the color bright and balance the taste of roasted beet.

In homage to beet and goat cheese salad, she tops the cake with a mixture of goat cheese and cream cheese, and serves it with tiny beet chips and tarragon ice cream.

This has traditionalists shaking their heads.

“The secret to red velvet is the flavor of the red food coloring,” said Ted Lee, half of the Charleston cooking duo the Lee Brothers. “It is part and parcel to the cake. It really is. Without the coloring, I think the concept is gone.”

The Adams Extract Co. is pushing back against the twisted permutations of red velvet, too. The company this year began marketing the original scratch-cake recipe in a vintage-style box with cocoa, flour and bottles of extract and dye.

“We’re purists,” Crim said. “What I don’t want to happen is for it to become white cake painted red slopped over with cream cheese.”

Red Velvet Cake

Adapted from the original Adams Extract Co. recipe

1/2 cup (113 grams) butter, at room temperature, plus 2 tablespoons to prepare pans

3 tablespoons (22 grams) cocoa powder, divided

1 1/2 cups (300 grams) sugar

2 eggs

2 teaspoons (10 milliliters) vanilla

2 tablespoons (30 milliliters) red food coloring

1 teaspoon (6 grams) salt

1 teaspoon (5 grams) baking soda

2 1/2 cups (250 grams) flour, sifted

1 cup (236 milliliters) whole buttermilk

1 tablespoon (15 milliliters) vinegar

Ermine icing (see recipe), or other fluffy white icing

HEAT oven to 350 degrees. Prepare three 9-inch cake pans by buttering lightly and sprinkling with 1 tablespoon sifted cocoa powder, tapping pans to coat and discarding extra cocoa.

CREAM butter and sugar together. Add eggs one at a time and beat vigorously until each is incorporated. Mix in vanilla.

IN a separate bowl, make a paste of the remaining 2 tablespoons cocoa and the food coloring. Blend into butter mixture.

SIFT together remaining dry ingredients. Alternating in 2 batches each, add dry ingredients and buttermilk to the butter mixture. In the last batch of buttermilk, mix in the vinegar before adding to the batter. Mix until blended.

DIVIDE batter among 3 pans and bake for about 20 to 25 minutes. Cool on a rack completely. (Can also be made in 2 cake pans.)

TO assemble, remove 1 cake from its pan and peel away parchment. Place flat side down on a serving platter. Drop about 1 cup of icing onto cake and, using a flat spatula, spread evenly over top. Remove the second cake from its pan and remove parchment. Place flat side down on top of first layer. Use remaining frosting to cover top and sides of cake.

Yield: One 9-inch 3-layer cake.

Note: Measurements for dry ingredients are given by weight for greater accuracy. The equivalent measurements by volume are approximate.

Beet Red Velvet Cake

Adapted from Pamela Moxley, Miller Union, Atlanta

3 medium beets

3/4 cup (170 grams) (1 1/2 sticks) butter, plus more for greasing pan

3/4 cup (180 milliliters) buttermilk

Juice of 1 large lemon

2 teaspoons (10 milliliters) white vinegar

1 1/2 teaspoons (7 milliliters) vanilla extract

2 cups (200 grams) cake flour (sift before measuring)

3 tablespoons (24 grams) Dutch-processed cocoa powder

1 1/8 teaspoon (6 grams) baking powder

1 teaspoon (6 grams) salt

1/2 teaspoon (3 grams) baking soda

1 3/4 cup (350 grams) sugar

3 eggs

Cream cheese frosting (see recipe), or other fluffy white icing

HEAT oven to 350 degrees. Wash beets and wrap in aluminum foil. Bake until the tip of a knife slides easily into the largest beet, about 1 hour 15 minutes. Cool until beets can be handled, then peel. (This may be done up to a day ahead.)

BUTTER two 9-inch cake pans. Line the bottoms of the pans with parchment and then butter again.

IN a food processor, chop beets to pieces about the size of finely diced onions. Measure 1 cup and set aside (remaining beets can be reserved for another purpose). Return cup of beets to the food processor. Puree with buttermilk, lemon juice, vinegar and vanilla until smooth.

SIFT together flour, cocoa, baking powder, salt and baking soda. Set aside.

IN the bowl of a stand mixer, beat butter until soft. Slowly add sugar and beat until creamy. Beat in eggs one at a time, scraping down the sides of the bowl after each addition.

ALTERNATE adding flour mixture and beet mixture to butter mixture, beginning and ending with the dry ingredients, and beating for 10 seconds after each addition. Scrape down the bowl after each addition of the wet ingredients.

DIVIDE batter between prepared cake pans, smoothing the tops. Bake until a cake tester inserted in the cake comes out clean, about 20 minutes. Remove pans from oven and cool completely on a wire rack.

TO assemble, remove one cake from its pan and peel away parchment. Place flat side down on a serving platter. Drop about 1 cup of icing onto cake and, using a flat spatula, spread evenly over top. Remove the second cake from its pan and remove parchment. Place flat side down on top of first layer. Use remaining frosting to cover top and sides of cake.

Yield: One 9-inch 2-layer cake.

Note: Measurements for dry ingredients are given by weight for greater accuracy. The equivalent measurements by volume are approximate.

Ermine Icing

5 tablespoons (40 grams) flour

1 cup (235 milliliters) whole milk

1 teaspoon (5 milliliters) vanilla extract

Pinch of salt

1 cup (230 grams) (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened

1 cup (200 grams) sugar

OVER medium heat, whisk flour and milk in a small saucepan and heat to a simmer, stirring frequently until it becomes very thick and almost puddinglike.

REMOVE from heat, whisk in vanilla and salt. Pour into a bowl to allow it to cool completely. Put plastic wrap on the surface to keep a skin from forming.

USE a mixer to cream together butter and sugar until light and fluffy, scraping the sides of the bowl occasionally, about 5 minutes. With the mixer on medium, add the cooled flour mixture a little bit at a time. Continue to beat until the mixture becomes light and fluffy and resembles whipped cream.

Yield: Frosts one cake, with 2 or 3 layers.

Cream Cheese Frosting

1/2 cup (113 grams) unsalted butter (1 stick), at room temperature

1 pound (454 grams) cream cheese, at room temperature

1/2 teaspoon (3 grams) salt

1 1/2 teaspoons (7 milliliters) vanilla extract

6 cups (720 grams) powdered sugar

2 tablespoons (30 milliliters) milk or cream, if needed

CREAM butter and cream cheese in a stand mixer. Add salt and vanilla. Slowly start to add powdered sugar at low speed.

ONCE all the powdered sugar is incorporated, turn mixer to high and whip for at least 7 minutes or longer, scraping sides. If the icing seems too thick, mix in a tablespoon or 2 of the milk or cream.

Yield: Enough frosting for a 3-layer cake.

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