Never has an American cake caused such a stir as the red velvet. From the name to the ingredients to the place and time in which the first red velvet cake landed in America, historians and cooks have disagreed about its origin. It is from Texas. No, it’s from Indiana. It should have cream cheese frosting. No, only the cooked Ermine Frosting. What is known can be found in the pages of old cookbooks, newspapers, and magazines, and they reveal the cake dates back to the 1920s. Cora Scott shared a recipe for a “Velvet Cake” in the Fort Scott, Kansas, newspaper in June 1921, and it called for a tablespoon of red food coloring, but no cocoa. “Velvet” was a common adjective for cakes from the 1870s on, implying they contained cornstarch or rice flour to soften the hard wheat flour and thus had a fine texture. But the “red” color was originally that chemical reaction between an acid (cocoa, buttermilk) and a base (baking soda) that created a naturally reddish batter. Hershey’s shared a Demon Cake with such a color in 1934. Interestingly, a popular lipstick hue was “red velvet” in 1936. And chocolate cakes with a reddish tint had come to be known as red velvet cake by 1951. Throughout the 1950s, cakes baked with or without the red food coloring were called “Red Velvet” or “Waldorf Red Velvet.” One such cake won first prize at the Maryland State Fair in 1960. That year in Terre Haute, Indiana, columnist Beatrice Biggs writes that she is indebted to a local cook for sharing a Waldorf Red Velvet Cake, containing both cocoa and red food coloring. Down in Texas, red velvet cakes are everywhere, and Texas has always had a strong connection with the cake. From the Austin-based Adams Extract company that claims it provided homemakers with the first recipe to use with its red coloring, to the 1989 movie Steel Magnolias in which the groom’s cake is an armadillo-shaped red velvet, this cake has been as big as Texas. Patricia Adam of Navasota, Texas, remembers teaching in 1960 in Port Arthur, and sampling one of the first red velvet cakes. “It was baked by a lady who supposedly created the recipe,” Adam says, and “the cake was absolutely delicious.” But the heavy use of the red food coloring? Makes you wonder, what were they thinking? The late John Egerton summed it up best when he said, “To me there seems no culinary reason why someone would dump that much food coloring into a cake.” Unless they were trying to sell you food coloring, and extract companies like Adams have contributed much to the staying power of this recipe. Or you might rationalize that the red velvet is a Depression-era cake, and the red food coloring made up for the lack of cocoa. But reason is not an ingredient of the red velvet. It was popular in postwar times and has remained an American favorite, baked for Christmas, birthdays, the Fourth of July, and potlucks across the country.
Here is a recipe adapted from the Adams Extract company and the New York Times. It is frosted with the classic Ermine (cooked) Frosting. If you prefer, use Cream Cheese Frosting on your red velvet. The Adams method calls for vegetable shortening, but you can use butter, if desired.
A plausible story goes that the red velvet started in the 1930s at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York, a place awash in red velvet decor.
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