Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Velvet Revelation

I don't usually recommend preparing foods that require an entire fluid ounce of red dye to achieve their ideal expression, but there's got to be a first time for everything. The confluence of my younger son's 2nd birthday, a looming deadline for a Valentine's-Day themed column, and ownership of several pounds of cream cheese from Costco got me thinking--not always a good thing--and I thought my way right into Red Velvet Cake.

On the way, my friends, I paused to produce either a masterpiece or an abomination, depending on your point of view. Under pressure from 6-year-old Gus and my editor at Memphis Parent, I made a heart-shaped "Strawberry Cheesecake". This fluffy confection derived its structure from the colloidal action of Strawberry Jell-O and the lifting power of whipped cream. A bit of cream cheese provided tang to counterbalance the intense sweetness of the Jell-O powder, and--thank God--the recipe called for real strawberries so I didn't have to visit a therapist or confessional after serving it.

However, the Valentine Cake was just a diversion. Once I got it in my head to make Red Velvet Cake, I would not be denied. Forget that everyone else wanted a super fudgy-wudgy chocolate cake. I felt that my authenticity as a writer on foods Southern was at stake.  I'd never heard of Red Velvet before coming to live in Memphis. Down here, every restaurant seems to have a version. So it's a Southern thing, right?

Wrong. Or right. Or both? The dessert first became famous on the menu at New York's Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in the 1920s, but it's likely that its origins were Southern. The story of its spread into American cookery is confused by an urban myth involving the costly purchase of its recipe and its subsequent dispersal by an angry lady-who-lunched.

Though most contemporary recipes call for red dye (up to 2 oz. per cake!) or beets, the cake's deep blush is akin to the ruddy brown of a Devil's Food Cake.  Both get their hue from anthocyanin, a pigment in cocoa that reddens on reacting with the acid in buttermilk.  Red Velvet Cake may have been invented by economizing bakers or chefs disappointed by the pallid results produced by Dutch-process cocoa. Or maybe someone just loved the look of blood-red cake under cream cheese-white icing.

There's lots to love.  The flavor is chocolatesque, with just enough of cocoa's warmth to be comforting.  The version I made, from my beloved Lee Brothers, includes plenty of vanilla and some grated orange peel, yielding an elusive complexity that's simultaneously grown-up and coddling. (I was skeptical about the orange peel, fearing bitterness and oversophistication. I needn't have worried.)  Some recipes suggest buttercream or even white roux frosting for this cake, but I think you'd be crackers to use anything but cream cheese. Maybe that's not authentically Southern--the U.S.'s first cream cheese was produced in New York--but I don't care.

I had to sacrifice the glamor of a layer cake, with its sexy reveal of flesh-crimson upon the breach of pristine icing, since I was baking for a toddler's birthday.  Not that I feared the cake's sensuality (what kind of 2-year-old do you think I'm raising?).  But cupcakes are so much easier for kids to handle than giant slices of cake, and they result in a slightly lower level of post-dessert mania. (They're also just right with a cup of coffee.)

As a responsible parent and food writer, I should disclose at this point that artificial food coloring has been linked to hyperactive behavior in children. This is a treat, not a staple.  So maybe next time I'll make it with the beets.  Between the cheez-cake and the Red Velvet, I've now taken in several drams of red dye and I can hear my DNA reshuffling like a deck of cards.  No matter.  I'm open to the onward march of evolution. 


  1. My friend Heather makes a mean RVC, and she made it for me when she visited this summer. I, too, was mortified by the amount of food coloring required to produce a sufficiently deep red hue, but given that I eat it once every few years, at most, I'm not going to lose sleep over it.

    Plus, beets in cake? No thanks.

    And happy birthday to Solly!

  2. Yum, Liz. I mention your cheesecake adventure and pie for breakfast as part of my Valentine's Day entry on the Parent blog ~