Aug 17, 2009

Rose Red Velvet Cake

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."


Rose Levy Beranbaum said...

i always end up laughing at some point of your postings and usually, as i did this time, when it came to jim--your comments on his! (that the coconut seduction has suddenly become his new gold standard.) so i didn't mislead by naming it seduction!

this cheered me up considerably since this was the day my dad was supposed to return home to upstate ny and weather not only cancelled his flight but the airlines had no room on later flights (what else is new) so he's now scheduled for tomorrow but we're expecting the same uncertain weather conditions so we may have to end up putting him on a train out of n.y. in a way it's great to have him here and be in hope for another day (i mean hope nj) but it also meant cancelling a dr's appointment, unpacking all his stuff, unpacking all the food and wine chests....thanks for the delightful distraction.

jini said...

you know i was once a psych nurse which would surely make me a good person to check out the possible psychosis of any of your tasters. it is definitely very red, but it sounds like it was tasty if not seductive. :)

Melinda said...

I'm not so sure I am too enthused by a red cake. I try to avoid too many added colours to my home baked goods. (exception is coloured icing to decorate with) But I bet many children will want to have a red cake for their birthday and I am sure Rose's recipe would do the trick. It looked very pretty.
(apologizes for being so negative)

evil cake lady said...

...I've rarely read a recipe that has made me not want to try it as much as this one does.

Okay, that might be the funniest thing I've read from you!

You know I have been excitedly wondering which way Rose was going to go with the red velvet--chemicals or beets--and it looks like she gave us both options! Awesome!

It is a little unsettling how unnaturally red this cake is, but people seem to love it (at least Portland does). Thanks for all the research into the possible origins of this cake and the scariness of red food dye. It is amazing how much non-food goes into our packaged food!

Rose Levy Beranbaum said...

oh! i forgot to mention how adverse i was to the whole idea of the red food color but someone on the blog begged to have my version and now i love it! i also have to admit then when the first scare took place i promptly purchased as many bottles of the stuff that i could find! i don't usuallyu use food color at all let alone in such massive quantities but for coloring fondant it is great and the white chocolate roses that are such a brilliant red on the cover of the cake bible. (those used the powdered food color though.)

Patricia @ ButterYum said...

Very nice. This cake also pairs very well with Rose's Mousseline Buttercream. Curious... do all the cakes in the book make only one layer, or are you making them that way intentionally?

Marie said...

Yes, Jim has definitely been seduced by coconut, thanks to you. It sounds like your tranquil time in Hope has been less than tranquil this time--but nice for you and your dad that you get another day together.

I have a feeling that anyone who became psychotic after eating a slice of red velvet cake may have had a head start.

I forgot to mention that the recipe in Heavenly Cakes is meant for a heart-shaped pan and recommended as perfect for Valentine's Day. You're really not a negative person at all, so I think you're allowed an occasional foray into negativity. That was pretty mild.

I'm not sure that that sentence is grammatically correct, but I guess it got the point across. I read your blog on red velvet cake and remember how you were being encouraged to try beets as the coloring agent. I just roasted some beets and I could have saved all the juices, but I didn't.

Glad to hear that you have a lifetime supply of possibly carcinogenic food colors!

I was just thinking when I was making this cake that people are going to think there are no two-layer cakes in this book. There are many, and my choice of single layer cakes hasn't been deliberate, but I do love the option. Not only are they a more manageable size, but they're much easier to ice. (I think the recipes could easily be doubled to make a layer cake).

Yet Another Anna said...

Red Velvet Cake was one of the first cakes I ever tried to bake myself. This was back in '75, so may well have featured the older red dye. In any case, my cake fell. I served it anyhow. (project for school? Valentine's Day? something. Nobody laughed, so maybe it wasn't as terrible as I thought at the time.)

I don't remember where I got the recipe I used, but I think it was one of those vinegar/baking soda recipes, which might have explained some of my difficulties. (Baking alone in the kitchen at that age may well have also played a more prominent role. ;) )

Unlike most of the people posting so far, I love a red cake. :) Guess it's a southern thing. (Watch Steel Magnolias for the red velvet cake in the shape of an armadillo. Road kill cake? Must be a southern thing.)

Dad put some red food color in some leftover mashed potatoes once, though, and tried to feed them to our dog. I thought it was kind of mean of him, but she was smarter than that, and wouldn't touch them. To my dying day, I'll remember the 'what have you put in my food bowl, and what do you expect me to do about it?' expression on her face. Priceless.

Marie said...

Great story about the dog turning of her nose at the red mashed potatoes--I wonder what she'd have done with a red velvet cake.
When my older daughter Sarah was little, she begged me to make her some green eggs and ham (as in Dr. Seuss). I finally gave in. They looked horrible, but she was delighted. About 20 minutes later, she started to look as green as the eggs.
I remember the cake in Steel Magnolias. Apparently it's Oprah's favorite cake too. A friend of mine from Oklahoma says I should try 7-Up cake, another Southern specialty. She says it's much better than Red Velvet.

hector said...

THANK U MARIE!!! To review this cake so speedilly and great. I was awaiting this cake as it is WELL KNOWN and well requested by brides. I love the fact that Rose's version is as red as it can be, I think it might as well TELL the color since so much of it is used! People seem to know their colors first when learning to speak cake; chocolate, white cake, yellow cake, and red velvet. In fact, I was feeling emotionally down when a good friend asked me to make a "plain yellow cake" right after she read the review on my La Porcelaine! Spent all Sunday healing in rehab and came up with an "over the top yellow cake!" So she can eat her own words literally -)

So glad you clarify this cake is done on a heart shape pan. I just reorganized my mold collection and have near all of Wilton's heart shaped pans, including my Mom's first set dated 1971... A rare 2 layer pan set x 1.5" deep!

Way to go bakers... Don't forget to order your copy of Rose's bread DVD, instructions posted on the blog and on youtube. Aloha.

Rose Levy Beranbaum said...

hector, plain yellow is like "plain vanilla"--an oximoron!

Rose Levy Beranbaum said...

p.s. the roses on the cover of the cake bible were made by me about 22 years ago. they have been residing in the dental cabinet my dad made for my mother 65 years ago and get the bright morning sun YET they are as brilliant red as the day i made them. scary/impressive!

Anonymous said...

Do you know I'd never heard of Red Velvet Cake until I started clicking on to US websites? I can't say I'm tempted by it, I'm sorry I don't like the look of it and fear I wouldn't like the taste either. But I may be wrong, I would have to try it I suppose.

I'm sounding more negative than Melinda, I think, sorry!!

Marie said...

I've never seen a red velvet cake used as a wedding cake--it would definitely make a dramatic photograph as the bride cut the first piece. (And a disaster if the bride shoved the cake in the groom's face!)
I like the idea of baking a yellow cake as therapy. Maybe you should write a book on that.

It is a little frightening to think of those brilliant red roses surviving us all.

Yes, you Brits are so negative! Just because a cake is packed with artificial color, you have some objections. So persnickety. No wonder you can't get cake flour over there.

Rose Levy Beranbaum said...

i was laughing out loud before i even realized it was you marie! you are TOOO much!!!

i think a red wedding cake would be perfect in china where the bride wears red--right hector?

hector said...

yes, red silk! white is associated with the death!

by the way, just got a new car, a humble toyota yaris, love it, good on gas, on my pocket and big enough to transport several 12" layer cakes! and the color is ABSOLUTELY RED!

doughadear said...

You have been busy! I've been away for the last week in sunny Florida to get away from the miserable summer we've been having in Toronto and was happy to see three new entries. This is indeed a very red cake but trust it is as good as you say it is. It would be very appropiate for Valentine's Day.

Goody said...

Gosh, that red cake is just begging to be shaped and baked into some sort of effigy-you know, so when it is cut open...oh boy, I can't WAIT until Halloween.

I still can't get over the colour-that is really amazing.


hector said...

i have been trying for 3 days how to download a photo i took with my blackberry, in despair! had a picture of all my heart pans. stay tunned.

hector said...

here it is!!!!

Marie said...

Have you had a cool, rainy summer? Ours has been cool, but we're still in a drought. Every morning it's overcast, threatening to rain, but it usually clears up by midday.
I'll admit I've never had the urge to go to Florida in July, so you must have been longing for sun!

It sounds like Halloweens are exciting around your house! Usually a red velvet cake isn't a cause for screaming, but as an effigy, it might be.

Very impressive! I really like the one on the right.

Amélie said...

I just LOVE red velvet cakes! I recently made one with the "cooked flour" frosting you refer to, and it wasn't as hard as I thought ( It was really excellent, though! It wasn't this red, but I don't know if that's because it had less food coloring or more cocoa.
I'm going to bookmark this one for later reference. :)

hector said...

pushing some advertising here, please visit this link for another of Rose's upcoming book, recipe review. i made my second wedding cake from this book. enjoy, it is CHOCOLATE!

Marie said...

Your cake has lots of frosting! You liked the "cooked flour"? I admire people who do gluten-free baking--it just seems like such a chore to me to come up with all the substitutes.

I looked at your cake earlier today. It is magnificent! And I like your own, uniquely Hawaiian touches.

Amélie said...

I loved the cooked flour frosting, I think mainly because of its "floofy" consistency and because it is really not as sweet as most other frostings. (If this had been a buttercream frosting, for example, it would have been WAY too much.)

I do bake gluten-free on occasion, as I know several people who are gluten-intolerant, but I must admit I haven't bothered tinkering with this recipe to make it gluten-free yet. I might get around to it eventually!

hector said...

thx Marie. now a few months later, way behind you, just started the planning process for red velvet! i stomped upon local beets, so now, i am beated! will be interesting to compare the taste of this take.

Dan Scheitel said...

I'm a student at Le Cordon Bleu, and for one of our assignments we were allowed to pick any cake, I modified some of your recipie, I doubled the cake portion of it so that I could bake it in an 8x3 pan and get a nice rise out of it. I'm tempted to try and make this cake on my own, but instead of pouring raw unwhipped egg whites into my batter, perhaps I shall make a meringue to fold in for additional leavning--I'll let you know how that turns out.
The frosting I needed to cover all sides of the cake So i doubled the initial recipie and added 10x sugar and a splash of milk to thin the frosting. It worked otu beautifully.
This is an excellent recipie and I throughly do enjoy the cake.
I did not however use a full ounce of red food colouring, since I use gel paste colours they are a touch stronger than run of the mill grocery store colouring--I purchased the book and I absolutely adore it.

Marie said...

Thanks for letting us know about your variations. I love the idea of baking a cake as a school assignment! So much more fun than a history paper.

Fantasticakes -Cécile Crabot said...

Hi Rose,
I've just received your book, it is amazing!! I love it so much, I have it with me in my bag for 2 weeks!! Wonderfull recipes, full of informations about the chemistry of baking and so on!!
I would like to try your Red Velvet, but as for so many recipes, I need buttermilk. Here in Italy it doesn't exist but I found 2 products very similar I think(a fresh cream cheese with "lactic starters", and a some kind of yogurt to drink with several kinds of lactobacillus. To find the best solution I need to know how much fat has usually buttermilk, could you help me? Thanks a lot for your help!!
I found really interesting your informations about ingredients and their quality, it reminds me a book of a french chemist (I'm french)who explains how works cooking and baking, maybe you know it : Hervé This "Secret de la casserole" (Secrets of the pan).
A big thanks you for all your wonderfull receipes!!

Cécile Crabot

Marie said...

I don't think yogurt is a perfect substitution for buttermilk because it's so much less liquid. The easiest substitution for buttermilk is to put a small amount of vinegar or lemon juice in milk, and let it sit for about 5 minutes.
If your recipe calls for 245 grams of buttermilk, you'd use about 230 grams of milk and 15 grams of lemon juice.
Good luck!
P.S. If you want to write directly to Rose, you can go to and ask a question of her, or go to the forum and get help from one of the many wonderful bakers there.