As far as showstopping desserts go, few do it better than a decadent slice of red velvet cake. While it might be easy to think that the scrumptious Southern staple is nothing more than a chocolate-based cake with a tangy frosting, it actually has its roots in a fascinating culinary history. The first time bakers encountered this crimson delight, they likely didn’t even consider it to be a true “cake.”
It’s important to note that while the recipe calls for cocoa powder, it is not a chocolate cake. The addition of the cocoa is necessary to give the cake its signature color, but it doesn’t contribute any of the flavor that you would find in a standard chocolate cake recipe. What really gives the cake its distinct color is a chemical reaction with vinegar and non-Dutch processed cocoa powder, which creates that rich roey hue so associated with the recipe.
Though it may seem strange, the use of vinegar in the cake is completely normal and necessary to achieve its color. Vinegar is an acid and works in the same way as baking soda to leaven the cake batter. It also helps the dye react with the ingredients, so that it won’t bleed or fade over time. While white vinegar is the traditional choice for this step, many bakers swear by lemon juice as well, and some recipes even call for other types of vinegar to achieve a similar effect.
During the Victorian era, when cake flour wasn’t yet widely available, many cakes were made with beets or beet juice to provide their colors. As items that are ideal for baking (such as sugar and butter) began to be rationed during World War II, bakers turned to other ways of getting their desired results. Chowhound notes that some bakers started using red food coloring to achieve a more vibrant look, and the cake eventually became known as a red velvet when it was published in recipes as early as 1943.
Although the cake struggled to gain prominence in popular cookbooks for several years, it took a cameo as an armadillo-shaped groom’s cake in the 1989 film Steel Magnolias to propel the beloved treat to national fame. After that, it was a matter of time before the cake found its way into restaurants, cupcake shops and home kitchens across America.
Today, the most common way to enjoy a red velvet cake is to pair it with a rich and creamy cream cheese frosting. The tangy, white frosting complements the red velvet’s natural sweetness perfectly and provides a lovely contrast to the fluffy layers of the cake.
Try this delicious recipe for an old-fashioned, 2-layer red velvet cake with creamy cream cheese frosting. It’s sure to become your family’s new favorite!