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Red Velvet Cake History: Fun Baking and Cookie Trivia

Plenty of trivia swirls around red velvet cake history.

And we’re not just talking cake. Today, red velvet’s popularity extends to red velvet cookies, cupcakes, lattes, sundaes, waffles, candles …

It’s a cake flavor that has launched a whole culinary and lifestyle movement!

But if you do a search for “red velvet cake history” or even “red velvet cookie recipes,” you get a pile of conflicting information.

What Exactly Is Red Velvet Cake?

It’s a layer cake. It’s chocolate. It’s made in various hues of (what else?) red, depending on the recipe. It’s frosted white.

Today red velvet has morphed into more than just a type of cake, but rather a subtle chocolate flavor or fragrance that’s colored bright red and highlighted with bright white.

Red Velvet Cake History: What’s the True Story?

Red Velvet Cake History with The Cookie Elf

Honestly, no one really knows the truth. But here is what we do know.

If you were a cook in the 1800s and you wanted to make a finely-textured cake, you used a few tricks. One was to grind the cake flour extra finely. Another was to add almond flour, cocoa, or cornstarch to the usual cake flour. Either way, the batter and resulting cake were softer and fluffier than the usual cake. That’s why during that era, most any tender, most, finely-textured cake with delicate crumbs was referred to “velvet cake.” 

To add on to the intrigue, what we now call brown sugar today was, at the time, commonly known as red sugar. 

So it’s not a stretch to put the two together and believe that a finely-crumbed cake made with brown sugar was the first “red velvet cake.”

But that wasn’t the case. Instead these light and fluffy 19th century cakes were called “mahogany cakes.” 

What Made Velvet Cake Turn Into Red Velvet?

A series of culinary events helped red velvet cake history and theory move along, starting with …

A chemical reaction. Near the beginning of the 20th century, cooks noticed that the acid in buttermilk, vinegar, or baking soda combined with natural cocoa powder to produce a very slight reddish hue.  Some cite this combination in recipes as the true beginning of red velvet cake. Today’s more common Dutch process cocoa powder yields a stronger, darker chocolate flavor in cake batter and a deep brown hue. It’s been neutralized to reduce its acidity. You can still achieve red tint if you use natural cocoa powder in your recipe.

Of course, the easiest way to color your red velvet cake batter or cookie dough is with ….

Food coloring. Food product companies struggled during the Depression and sought ways to build sales. The Adams Extract Company in Gonzales, TX began marketing its food coloring and flavorings with recipes and photos of Red Velvet Cake. Is it any wonder that Red Velvet traces its roots to the South?  Unless you also consider …

Beets. World War II sugar rationing led Americans to use sugar beets for flavoring and coloring in cooking –hence red velvet cake recipes with beets were not uncommon during that time.

Another Version of Red Velvet's Origins

One account traces back to Jan Brunvand’s The Vanishing Hitchhiker, the book credited with launching the American urban legend fascination. In the 1920s, a woman had dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City. She was so enamored with her dessert – Red Velvet Cake – that upon her return home to California, she wrote to the chef and asked for the recipe. He sent it to her in return mail, along with a bill for $300.

That story spawned Red Velvet’s many other names, including Waldorf-Astoria Cake, $300 Cake, Red Waldorf cake, Red Carpet Cake, Red Mystery Cake, Flame Cake, Red Regal Cake, Red Feather Cake, Feather Devil’s Food Cake, Red Devil’s Food Cake …. “ 

What Kind of Frosting?

White. But flavor? It depends. Two kinds of frosting are most popular for red velvet.

Butter Roux Frosting. Also called Ermine Frosting or Boiled Milk Icing, this traditional red velvet topping is creamy and light, made by cooking milk and flour together, then adding sugar and butter. It’s yummy, but a lot more work than …

Cream Cheese Frosting. Made from scratch or prepared, cream cheese frosting’s popularity grew in the mid-twentieth century.

More Red Velvet Trivia

Red Velvet Cake grew further in popularity after its cameo appearance as an armadillo-shaped groom’s cake (with gray frosting) in the 1989 feature film, Steel Magnolias.

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