My Citizens, few desserts are as beloved as the classic red velvet cake – and despite what many of you may believe, it is NOT a southern recipe at all! Rather, it hails from my hometown of New York City, created at the legendary Waldorf-Astoria Hotel!
Red Velvet cake is traditionally a red, red-brown, or “mahogany” colored layer cake, layered with white cream cheese icing or Ermine frosting (sometimes called “cooked roux” frosting). It has a distinctive fluffy texture owing to the gas-producing reaction of alkaline buttermilk with acidic vinegar and/or acidic non-alkalized cocoa. The cake is commonly served on Christmas or Valentine’s Day. Common modern red velvet cake is made with red dye, however the red color was originally due to non-Dutched anthocyanin-rich cocoa.
Common ingredients include: buttermilk, butter, cocoa, vinegar, and flour for the cake; beetroot or red food coloring for the color.
James Beard’s reference, American Cookery (1972), describes three red velvet cakes varying in the amounts of shortening, butter, and vegetable oil. All used red food coloring. The reaction of acidic vinegar and buttermilk tends to better reveal the red anthocyanin in cocoa and keeps the cake moist, light, and fluffy. This natural tinting may have been the source for the name “red velvet”, as well as “Devil’s food” and similar names for chocolate cakes. Contemporarily, chocolate has often undergone Dutch processing, which prevents the color change of the anthocyanins. A reconstruction of the original red velvet cake involves reducing or eliminating the vinegar and colorants, and using a non-Dutched cocoa to provide the needed acidity and color.
When foods were rationed during World War II, bakers used boiled beet juices to enhance the color of their cakes. Beets are found in some red velvet cake recipes, where they also serve to retain moisture. Adams Extract, a Texas company, is credited with bringing the red velvet cake to kitchens across America during the Great Depression era, by being one of the first to sell red food coloring and other flavor extracts with the use of point-of-sale posters and tear-off recipe cards.
The cake and its original recipe are well known in the United States from New York City’s famous Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, which has dubbed the confection Waldorf-Astoria cake. However, it is widely considered a Southern recipe. Traditionally, red velvet cake is iced with a French-style butter roux icing (also called ermine icing), which is very light and fluffy, but time-consuming to prepare. Cream cheese frosting and buttercream frosting are variations which have increased in popularity.
In Canada, the cake was a well-known dessert in the restaurants and bakeries of the Eaton’s department store chain in the 1940s and 1950s. Promoted as an exclusive Eaton’s recipe, with employees who knew the recipe sworn to silence, many mistakenly believed the cake was the invention of the department store matriarch, Lady Eaton.
In recent years, red velvet cake and red velvet cupcakes have become increasingly popular in the US and many European countries. A resurgence in the popularity of this cake is attributed by some to the film Steel Magnolias (1989), which included a red velvet groom’s cake made in the shape of an armadillo. Magnolia Bakery in Manhattan, has served it since its opening in 1996, as did restaurants known for their Southern cooking like Amy Ruth’s in Harlem, which opened in 1998. In 2000, Cake Man Raven opened one of the first bakeries devoted to the cake in Brooklyn.
This is the authentic and luscious Red Velvet Cake right from the Waldorf-Astoria Cookbook, and provided by the hotel’s executive chef, John Doherty (who is, by the way, the youngest chef ever to head the hotel’s three restaurants and exquisite room service, long known as the Waldorf-Astoria’s crown jewels). I hope you enjoy it as much as I do, my Citizens!
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