Red velvet cake is an equal parts vivacious and mysterious confection with Southern pedigree. Or is it Victorian? No, no, of course something as enigmatic as red velvet cake could only be born in New York City. Well, nevermind all that for now—we can all at least agree that the signature of red velvet cake, its redness, undeniably comes from deeply saturated red food coloring. No, hold on, I thought it was the result of a chemical reaction with the cocoa powder? I’m sorry, are you saying that red velvet cake is chocolate? Wait, you say your recipe calls for beets? Okay, but at least the icing is without controversy. Second to the redness, the cream cheese frosting is doubtless the other element that gives red velvet cake its air of je-ne-sais-quoi. Except, of course, when it’s made with ermine icing instead.
Plainly, some things need clearing up. Before we get into the history, what even is red velvet cake? The currently accepted “modern traditional” version, according to David Dial, baker, editor of Spiced blog, and a born-and-bred Southerner, is as follows: “I hate to use the word ‘velvety,’ but that’s what it is. It’s a soft cake. Fluffy, depending on the recipe, with just a hint of chocolate. It’s one of those things; you don’t realize it’s chocolate until someone tells you. Of course there’s the bright red color which now comes from food coloring, but aside from the cake itself, the really distinguishing feature is the cream cheese frosting, with a slight tang. These seem to go really well together.”
This is what we have presently come to know as red velvet cake, but like many other enigmatic foods (and beverages), the precise origins of its glorious existence remain elusive, as several times and places have claimed at least partial credit for producing it, with the different elements coming together as separate puzzle pieces. “It just kind of appeared, like in a movie,” says Dial, who also credits the appearance of red velvet cake, in the form of an armadillo-shaped Groom’s cake, in “Steel Magnolias” (1989) with its growing popularity north of the Mason-Dixon line. Its lasting popularity in the South is undeniable: “As a kid in the 80s and 90s in Charleston, red velvet cake was everywhere,” says Dial. “My mom made it all the time. If there was a party, there was red velvet cake.”
What we do know for sure is that red velvet cake has steadily risen in popularity in the United States from about the 1950s forward, with particular fervency in the American South, eventually earning its place in the canon of classic American desserts, and becoming the unofficial pastry of the reddest of holidays, Valentine’s Day. While no tidy conclusions exist, here we delineate many of the major players in its storied life, element by element.
“Velvet” was a term used in Victorian England to describe cakes with a fine crumb and a soft texture, distinct from other confections such as pound cakes and sponge cakes. It is believed that a sister to red velvet cake—devil’s food cake—was born in this time and place, and was made in a similar style using deeply saturated chocolate to produce not only its signature dark color, but a name that stuck. The result of using cocoa powder in a similar recipe produced what then became called “mahogany cake.”
Red cakes were becoming popular around the time of World War II for a variety of reasons: First, because of the rationing of supplies, beet juice or even pureed beets were often added to cakes for both color and moisture. Second, during the same time the availability of Dutched or Dutch-process cocoa was limited. (Dutching is a process that deepens the color and takes some of the bitter edge off of natural cocoa.) Non-Dutched cocoa was lighter in color, and reacted with certain acidic ingredients in cakes, such as buttermilk, to produce a slightly red color. The buttermilk element would seem to make a case for Southern pedigree, but Dial believes that is not necessarily indicative of origin, but of popularity: “Buttermilk is such a Southern ingredient. It got added [later], and it’s awesome.” Finally, the advent of artificial food coloring for home use came about from a Texas-based company called Adams Extract.
Some genius was the progenitor of pairing a bold red cake with a bright white icing, but sadly, the world may never actually know who that was. A roux-based, or “boiled milk,” ermine icing was often called for in early printed recipes for red velvet cake, eventually replaced with the less labor-intensive cream cheese frosting, which upheld the classic color contrast and also added a desirable tang.
The early instances of the term “red velvet cake” in print are numerous: In the 1940s and 1950s, The Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City, “The Joy of Cooking” by Irma S. Rombauer, the aforementioned Adams Extract company, and Canada’s Eaton’s Department Store all included red velvet cakes as recipes or menu items, with no easy conclusions drawn about who named it first, since the thing was obviously happening before it was printed.
While red velvet cake’s past may be mysterious, its future is not, as it remains a staple for bakeries and bakers in both the South and the North. Since it has traditionally had a stronger footing in the South, Dial, as a displaced Southerner who now calls upstate New York home, recognizes that it still has the ability to dazzle: “When I make it for friends up here it always gets some attention. It’s just an attractive cake. When you cut into it, it’s such a fun, ‘oh!’”