What Is Red Velvet?

A colorful cake with a colorful history

Photo Sasabune Omakase Modified: Flickr/erin/CC 4.0

There are several somewhat conflicting stories about the origins of red velvet cake. Most people think of it as originally being a Southern recipe, linking it to the famous armadillo-shaped cake in the flim Steel Magnolias. Another story links it to the famous Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City, where a woman, so enamored by the cake, requested the recipe from the chef and received it in the mail, along with a rather hefty bill. This charming, but debunked tale, has given red velvet one of its other nicknames, "$100 cake." In 1902, a recipe was printed for devil's food cake in Mrs. Rorer's New Cook Book, possibly the first link to the modern red velvet cake.

Two things tend to stand out to differentiate red velvet cake from other confections. The first is, of course, its eponymous color. So why is red velvet cake so red? Most of the time, it's just due to red food coloring. Some chefs even use red beet juice to be more health conscious. Prolific food writer James Beard noted in his book, American Cookery, that there is a chemical reaction between two of the main ingredients in red velvet cake — cocoa and buttermilk — that gives the cake a deep crimson hue. Not exactly the "red" we think of for red velvet cake, but it's an interesting bit of culinary science that may have led to the name.

The other integral part of a classic red velvet cake is the frosting. Red velvet is most often topped with a frosting made from cream cheese, which provides a tangy contrast to the soft sweetness of the cake. Several recipes include traditional buttercream frosting instead. Whichever is used, it's sure to be used with gusto; most red velvet cakes are adorned with a frosting layer that's an inch thick!

Making your own red velvet cake is no more difficult than any other chocolate cake. You can even use the distinctive color to create some spooky treats.

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Desserts are meant to leave you with a content and happy feeling at the end of a meal, with their sweet flavors and elegant designs. Red velvet cake does all this, while making you feel a little daring. With such bright colors and strong flavors, it looks like something from out of this world. It continues to grow in popularity for celebrations, and remains the cake most likely to catch your eye... and possibly dye your tongue.