Omaha Steaks describe this as a cake that your “taste buds will love its detectable red velvet texture, it’s layers of rich chocolate flavor, filled and covered with scrumptious cream cheese frosting and accented with hand-topped frosted swirls of icing.” A red velvet cake was once all the rage in the early ‘60s. I not only enjoyed eating it, but actually making one from scratch. The work required was fun and baking one from scratch was as delightful and delovely as Chrysler’s DeSoto commercials at the time—mixes came out later. But just why Omaha Steaks had chosen to promote a cake has to remain a mystery.
Over the years, many have taken credit for inventing the Red Velvet Cake. By some sources it iss thought to have originated in Maryland in the early 20th century and about the same time a devil’s food cake was introduced. The key difference between the two is that devil’s food used chocolate and red velvet uses cocoa – which can be blamed on the Second World War. As some of you will remember, even foods were rationed. Bakeries were forced to use beetroot to enhance the colors of their cakes. A Texas company, Adams Extract, has been credited with bringing the red velvet cake to kitchens across America during the Great Depression, but it was New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel that hogged the credit for it. Of course, they are acclaimed for a lot of things – they had a great sense of marketing.
There are those who claim it first came into existence during Queen Victoria’s rule and in the 1800s. The cake had gained a huge popularity. People called them velvet cakes due to their soft texture and was a dessert largely reserved for the rich. The addition of cocoa was the key to breaking down the flour giving it a velvety texture. The red color originally came from the cocoa being chemically transformed by the flour. Then Red Dye No. 2 was recommended and worked wonderfully until it was ranked as the 8th worst invention of all time because it was believed to cause cancer among other things and was banned from U.S. store shelves.
Meanwhile, Eaton’s Canadian department store took the credit for the cake’s rising popularity in the 1940s and 1950s and claimed it an exclusive Eaton recipe created by Flora McCrea who married into the Eaton family. She even swore its employees to silence on the cake’s contents.
In 1972, James Beard, a pioneer in cooking shows for television, recounted that the cake was bland and uninteresting to him. Noted cake authority and baker Rose Levy Beranbaum, who is noted for inventing the reverse creaming method in making cakes, (whatever that means), didn’t note a single recipe in any of her cookbooks in the ‘80s and early ‘90s. However, those of us who saw the 1989 film Steel Magnolias might remember that the groom’s cake was baked in the shape of an armadillo and that it was a red velvet cake. This may have cemented the impression that a red velvet cake was born of Southern foodways. Red velvet cake rose in popularity again.
Today the Magnolia Bakery in Manhattan, a bakery opened in 1996 and known for its desserts, still serves it, and gives credit to its Southern roots—largely because of the movie. The cake recipe that follows is theirs and contains buttermilk, an ingredient that is an iconic Southern ingredient. By the 2000s one could not pop into a bakery anywhere and not see a red velvet offering. By 2013, about 4% of all restaurant menus had some sort of red velvet inspired dessert. In 2020 it remains one of the trendiest cakes around. Variations include cream cheese.
I first remember baking this cake beginning in the fall of 1963. Typically, we liked the idea of the three layers separated with a thick layer of frosting, but not the time it required to make. We simply bought not one, but two cans of ready-to spread fluffy whipped frosting or icing. These afforded plenty of icing with which to make luscious, turbulent peaks. I believed that Mrs. Lorence Feller’s recipe first appeared in the Fredericksburg Home Kitchen Cook Book in the 1967 9th edition. It is not in the 6th edition and I have never seen copies of the 7th or 8th. The recipe that follows is for making three layers.
3 1/3 cups flour (not self-rising)
¾ cup (1 ½ sticks) unsalted butter, softened
2 ¼ cups sugar
3 large eggs, at room temperature
6 tbsp red food coloring
3 tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder
1 ½ tsp vanilla extract
1 ½ tsp salt
1 ½ cups buttermilk
1 ½ tsp vinegar
1 ½ tsp baking soda
Preheat oven to 350º F
Grease and lightly flour three 9 x 2 round cake pans, then line bottoms with waxed paper
In a small bowl, sift the flour and set aside.
In a large bowl, cream the butter and sugar at a medium speed until very light and fluffy. (about 5 minutes)
Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition.
In a small bowl, whisk together the red food coloring, cocoa, and vanilla.
Add to batter and beat well.
In a measuring cup, stir and dissolve the salt into the buttermilk.
Add to batter in three parts, alternating with the flour.
With each addition, beat until the ingredients are incorporated.
In a small bowl, stir together the cider vinegar and baking soda.
Add to the batter and mix well.
With a rubber spatula, scrape down the batter in the bowl, making certain the ingredients are well blended and the batter is smooth.
Divide the batter among the prepared pans.
Bake for 30-40 minutes, or until a cake tester inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean.
Let the layers cool in their pans for 1 hour.
Then remove and completely cool on a wire rack.
Any white icing will do that can be formed into fluffy peaks. Just remember that you will have three layers of cake to which to apply icing. A generous amount creates distinct layers and adds to the attractiveness of the cake. One might have to set aside counting calories for a while. This cake will be one to remember when you return to your exercising.
By Mark Wieser