Love will soon be in the air, and that means you’re sure to find recipes for some variation of red velvet in this season’s food magazines—not to mention any holiday cookbook you have on hand.
The fascination with the moist, decadent, seasonally appropriate-colored cake (for Valentine’s Day or Christmas) topped with cream cheese has spun off into cupcakes, cookies, waffles, even fried chicken.
But who or what do we have to thank for the iconic dessert that started it all? Perhaps the free-wheeling flappers of the 1920s? Canadians? Turns out, no one can really say for sure, though there is proof that red velvet was around long before it made its dubious appearance as an armadillo-shaped groom’s cake on the movie Steel Magnolias.
Several food columnists point to one can-you-believe-it story about the cake’s origins that sounds a lot like what’s behind a famous cookie recipe that’s been circulating in cyberspace.
The story goes that in the 1920s a patron who dined at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York was so smitten with the red velvet cake she ate there that she requested the recipe from the chef. Her request was granted to the tune of $350, which she paid. But to even the score, so to speak, she passed out copies of the recipe to as many others as she could.
This led to red velvet cake also being known as Waldorf-Astoria cake, $100 or $200 cake—none of which I’d ever heard before. Like others, I assumed it was among the many regional delicacies the South holds dear.
Other theories about the origin of the name come from what is believed to be a chemical reaction between the baking soda and chocolate. But that one doesn’t hold up either.
Because the large amounts of red food coloring are what give the cake its color, red velvet cake can be nearly any hue you choose. Blogger and Southern Living editor Christy Jordan includes a recipe for green velvet cake in her Southern Plate cookbook. And I’ve even seen an orange velvet cake on television (and later put that idea to use for a groom’s cake).
But if you’d rather stick to the traditional and seasonally-appropriate color, there’s more than enough ideas for cakes—and otherwise—to keep you in the red.