Red velvet cake and cupcakes, along with waffles, candles and more, seem to be everywhere. There’s blue velvet too (secret: it’s blue dye.)
Why is red velvet so popular - and what is in it? Is it actually better than chocolate cake, or do we just like the bright red color? Is anything?
Let’s dive into the ruby red abyss.
Where did it start?
“Cooks in the 1800s used almond flour, cocoa or cornstarch to soften the protein in flour and make finer-textured cakes that were then, with a Victorian flair, named velvet.” - Kim Severson for The New York Times
How did it get popular?
-‘Red devil’s food cake’ appeared in newspaper recipes for Christmas cakes in the 1930s.
-Erin Allsop, the archivist at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York, places the debut of the cake at the Waldorf in the 1930s. Some Southern cake historians believe that story is more legend than fact.
-After eating the cake at the Waldorf, John A. Adams of Adams Extract Company in Texas ate the cake at the Waldorf. Congress passed the federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act in 1938, and Adams decided promoting a red cake was the perfect way to sell more vanilla extracts and dyes. They printed recipe cards that were placed in supermarkets alongside extracts, dyes and artificial butter flavoring. Soon cooks around Texas were creating red velvet cakes, then the love spread to the Midwest. It appeared on African-American tables in the 1950s as a Christmas cake, but is currently used for Juneteenth celebrations, which traditionally include red foods and celebrates the day Texas slaves found out they were freed.
Why cream cheese frosting?
Archivists at Kraft Foods, which owns the Philadelphia Cream Cheese brand, say their first record of cream cheese frosting is in a corporate recipe cookbook in the late 1940s.
Red Velvet Truffle Pops, ©Amanda Gentile
Why the recent red velvet love?
A cameo in 1989’s Steel Magnolias - and more help from Magnolia Bakery’s opening in the West Village in 1996. When Cake Man Raven opened in Brooklyn in 2000, his red velvet cake became a cult phenomenon, enjoyed by Mary J. Blige, Oprah and more. Post 9/11 comfort food aided in healing from the nation’s woes at an unpredictable, traumatic time.
Chefs like Pamela Moxley at Miller Union in Atlanta - and others like Amanda Cohen at Dirty Candy in NYC - are using beets to dye cakes instead of fake food coloring. Acid keeps it bright and tames the taste of the beets. For purists, this is sacrilege - the red flavor is a crucial part of the taste of the dish.
Hungry? Try Executive Pastry Chef Anna Kosa's recipe for Red Velvet Cake. Look out for our red velvet cake as an occasional feature on the menu at Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola.
Information from “Red Velvet Cake: From Gimmick to American Classic,” 2014, by Kim Severson for The New York Times.