The origins of the red velvet cake are shrouded in mystery. That's the only reliable thing I learned when I tried to figure out who thought it was good idea to bake a cake that is a color not found in nature and why. There's one story that's clearly false, but which explains why this cake is sometimes called the Waldorf Astoria cake. This urban legend has a woman asking for the recipe of the fabulous cake she'd just eaten at the Waldorf Astoria restaurant. When she found she'd been billed some exorbitant amount for the recipe, she decided to get even by broadcasting the recipe to everyone she knew. (The same story was going around about some chocolate chip cookies a while back. It never really made any sense).
A more plausible origin comes from the fact that cocoa used to be a lighter, rosier color. With the advent of darker, Dutch-processed cocoa, chocolate cakes took on a different hue, and people started adding red food coloring to try to replicate the original color. This story explains why the current red velvet cake almost always contains cocoa. Some recipes have enough cocoa to make it a real chocolate cake. Rose's recipe contains only a teaspoon of cocoa--just a "suspicion," as she says.
Rose also gives a variation using a quarter of a cup of cocoa. My mother used to make something she called red devil's food cake, which is apparently a distant relative of red velvet cake, but it was a definite chocolate cake, which the velvet version is usually not.
Dumping an entire bottle of red food coloring into a bowl of egg whites and vanilla was disconcerting, to put it mildly. Remember the Red Dye No. 2 scare? You probably don't, children, because you're all so young. But I do. Red Dye No. 2 caused cancer in lab rats, and everyone got really scared. Then it was banned in 1976. Everyone felt very virtuous until they noticed that food was suddenly starting to look very weird because we were so accustomed to having red dye in everything. That made me wonder what we use now. It is, according to Wikipedia, Red Dye No. 40 And just in case you think you're home free now that evil Red Dye No. 2 has been de-listed, you can find many articles on the internet about the evils of Red Dye No. 40. (If you click on this link, you'll find an article that begins, "The food in your refrigerator could make your child, or you, psychotic.")
I didn't see any signs that this cake made me, or anyone else who ate it, psychotic, at least no more than usual, but if you're worried about this kind of thing, you could substitute beet juice. (The recipe's directions tell you how to do this, but it's a lot more trouble than going to the grocery store and buying a bottle of red dye).
Rose's red velvet cake is unique, I believe, in that it does not use vinegar and baking soda. Instead, it uses just buttermilk and baking powder; Rose says using only baking powder "employ[s] the ful acidity of the buttermilk, making vinegar unnecessary." Because I've never had another red velvet cake, I can't compare this version to ones made with vinegar and baking soda, but I can say that it has a nice tang as it is, so I think vinegar might take it over the tanginess line.
Rose's recipe uses a mixture of oil and butter, for both flavor and moistness, while most traditional recipes call for shortening.
It is very, VERY red, both in its unbaked state, and as baked.
The frosting is Rose's riff on a simple cream cheese icing--the trick is that it has white chocolate instead of powdered sugar, which sweetens it as well as giving it some subtle depth of flavor.
Cream cheese frostings are often used for this kind of cake, but the very most traditional frosting seems to be something called "cooked flour" frosting, the first step of which is to cook flour and milk together until thickened. Okay, maybe this is good, but I've rarely read a recipe that has made me not want to try it as much as this one does.
My tasting panel consisted of our friends Greg and Barbara, in Minnesota from D.C.
I thought maybe that since D.C. is sort of southern, they'd know about red velvet cake, but they didn't. They were stupefied when they saw the color, and even more stupefieid when I told them about the bottle of food coloring. We had already spent a good part of the evening talking about The Omnivore's Dilemma, by Michael Pollan, which we'd all read. I think Pollan probably doesn't whole-heartedly endorse using massive amounts of food coloring. But Greg and Barbara were good sports and took their tasting panel duties very seriously. There was no conversation during the first thoughtful bite. Then Greg said, "I wish it weren't so--RED." We actually ended up closing our eyes while we ate the cake, because we all felt that the color was somehow misleading our taste buds. And the more we ate it, the more we ended up liking it. Both Greg and Barbara asked for seconds, and really warmed to it. I'm usually the most critical taster because I always want perfection. I think I overbaked it by perhaps two minutes. At 25 minutes, the tester came out with no batter on it, but it was colored red. I baked it for another five minutes and by that time, it was starting to come away from the side. I believe it would have been a bit moister had I not been afraid of an underdone red cake. The texture is neither as light as, say, a chiffon cake nor as dense as a pound cake, but somewhere in between. I would make it again--but not with a bottle of food coloring.
Greg: "I wish it weren't so red, but I like it a lot. The frosting is especially good, not overly sweet and not overly thick."
Barbara: "There's just a faint taste of chocolate, but it's there. It improves a lot, the more I ate of it. I asked for seconds, and I didn't have any intention of doing that."
Jim: "It had a little tartness to it that I liked. It was a little dry compared to the coconut cake. [Jim is one who doesn't like coconut, but the coconut seduction cake has suddenly become his new gold standard.] It was a lot more red than I expected."