Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Devilishly Divine Red Velvet Cake

Red Velvet Cake is a southern recipe dating to 1902 and is usually frosted with butter roux icing or cream cheese buttercream icing. Ralph Brennan's New Orleans Seafood Cookbook has a Creole version of red velvet cake on page 308. Rather than a traditional flat-cake presentation, this sponge cake is rolled up into a spiral with a layer of white chocolate mousse inside and drizzled with a cafe-brulot inspired creme anglaise that is simply delicious to contemplate.

While most research shows that the dessert is most likely of southern origin, its been strongly associated with the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City due to urban legend. According to, the legend has it that a lady asked for the cake recipe from the hotel and was charged $100 for it. In revenge, she in turn handed out free copies of the recipe to her friends and acquaintances. But a search of restaurant archives produced no records whatsoever proving that the restaurant developed this cake.

This myth was probably reinforced by the media printing articles referring to it. At The Big Apple website by foodie Barry Popik, a full history of the cake along with reprints of articles featuring the cake is available. Many versions of the recipe dated from the 1950s are identified as Waldorf red cake. An article published in the Hillsboro, OH Press-Gazette in May 1959 had this to say about the cake:

This is a $300.00 recipe! Yes, that price was actually paid for it, and you are getting it free! It seems that two young ladies were served this cake when eating at a Chicago hotel one day, and since it was a bit unusual they asked if they might have the recipe. The hotel obliged, and asked them to write down their names and addresses. A short time later they received a bill for $300 and after going to court about it, the verdict was made that they were obligated to pay the bill.

At Wikipedia, it's said that earlier versions of this cake needed no additional color because the reaction of vinegar and buttermilk tends to naturally turn cocoa a reddish-brown color. Before the introduction of a more alkaline dutch-processed cocoa, this color would have been more intense and pronounced. During WWII, rationing of food stores was common and clever bakers would use boiled beats in order to enhance the red color when making this dessert.

While this cake reached the heights of popularity across the country in the 1950s, Ralph Brennan's New Orleans Seafood Cookbook presents this old Southern favorite with a contemporary twist making an elegant and tasty conclusion to any dinner party.

SOURCE: "History of Devil's Food Cake"
SOURCE: "Red Velvet Cake" 02/14/07
SOURCE: "Red Velvet Cake" 04/12/08
photo courtesy of Darwin Bell, used under this Creative Commons license

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