-The Red Velvet Trend Wagon-
Red Velvet has grown into an insatiable trend. It is everywhere! Cake, cookies, ice cream, yogurt, candy; Red Velvet shows up in every crazy shape it can possibly grasp on to. It has an inspiring amount of followers for reasons I just cannot put together.
I apologize ahead of time to lovers of what I see as a baking oddity. That shade of red is just not natural and can only be the product of artificial coloring in a way that makes me always chose the spice cake when available...and I’m not that fond of spice cake.
That is correct: up until now I have not enjoyed the trend that is this brightly colored sponge.
Since I do not turn down birthday requests of the dessert variety, I decided a trip to the local bakery was in order. After all, I should taste what I’m about to get into…
-I Thought This Was A Chocolate Cake?-
Star Spangled Batter is the kind of cupcake shop you want to walk into, with a semi-open floor plan despite being small. Kim has decorated it in a way to feel like the dining half of someone’s kitchen, except with a counter and display case instead of a table and china hutch. It makes for a comforting space.
At home, the Red Velvet cupcake sat on my kitchen counter wondering why a butter knife was nearby. One slice down the middle and Red’s wonders were exposed to my evaluating eye. The cake gave a little shimmy as it settled on its side under the weight of the cream cheese frosting. Tiny air pockets in the frosting declared it would be light despite being cream cheese based. A slight crust at the outer edge provided an almost indiscernible crunch to add a liveliness to what I confirmed was an airy, melt in your mouth cream cheese frosting.
I eyed the vibrant cake suspiciously as Red indeed lived up to his name. The dense crumb was immediately recognizable as moist, springy butter cake. Butter cake, pound cake, call it what you will: this is the confection that lives on a pedestal in my mind. While the crumb did live up to my textural fantasies, the flavor was as artificial as anticipated. The ratio of frosting to cake had to be high to counteract the bitter synthetic flavor of the cake. Not my cup of tea, sorry.
How could I bring myself to make a cake that I didn’t like? Why was this so popular? Who created this monstrosity of a recipe?
My concerns about Red’s less than pleasing features led me on a two week trip of research, reading, and pondering. The results were extensive and I’ve tried to simplify the answer here.
-It Can't Always Have Been Fake Color-
There are commonalities among the origin stories that lead me to believe, in short, that originally ‘velvet’ was a type of cake just as sponge, pound, and Angel food are types of cake. Velvet actually seems to be the birth-mother of Devil’s food. The Waldorf Astoria was well known for their velvet cake in the 30’s.
In theory, a food extract and coloring company out of Texas picked up the recipe, giving it the addition of dye; some stories say this cake was chosen due to the owner’s wife being a fan of velvet cake after having it at the Waldorf. The idea here was to promote sales of vanilla extract and red food coloring with a simple cake recipe. For a more elaborate explanation from what I can tell is the most accurate history, read the article I found in the New York Times.
Additional tales that swirl around Red’s history regard how he originally got his color. There are theories that it was originally from beet root juice or the combination of vinegar and cocoa powder. After extensive reading, I realized that science would be involved in finding this answer.
The thing with cocoa is its acidity. Natural cocoa has an acidity rating of 5.5. Yeah because that tells me anything. The pH scale is 0 to 14, 0 being complete acid and 7 being neutral. The slight acidity to the cocoa is what gives it the tinge of bitterness that makes us add sugar - consider your coffee which comes from the same cocoa bean as this lovely powder.
Within our delicate cocoa bean are natural pigments called anthocyanins. These little guys act as a pH indicator: blue in the presence of a base and red in the presence of an acid. Cocoa having natural acidity generates a slightly red hue in the powder.
White vinegar has a pH of 2.4; buttermilk is in the 4’s depending on how it is mixed. The additional acid sets the anthocyanin pigments a glow like fireflies throughout the cake. Have no fear, though, our little friends are not just pigments but antioxidants, too. They can be found hanging around berries, sweet potatoes, oranges, mangos, and cabbage among many other food stuffs.
Now, keep in mind that I said natural cocoa. This is important anymore because we also have Dutch cocoa. No, this is not cocoa from my ancestors’ land of Holland. Dutching cocoa is a process of adding a base element to neutralize the acidic cocoa; this also makes it sweeter. I was excited to discover that I had been purchasing natural cocoa powder all along.
Now, a brief word on beet juice: beets get their color from a different pigment called betanin. Betanin works in a similar fashion to anthocyanins. It is important to note, however, that beet juice ranges in pH ratings from 4 to 9. So if you ended up with a more alkaline beet juice, you will not have the same result.
So, our reason for Red’s natural complexion is a scientific reaction between acids and pigment flares.
-The Result: A Chaotic Cake to Make Us All Happy-
I had two recipes to toy with before deciding how to fulfill the birthday request. First, from my great grandmother’s hand-me-down Ladies Home Journal circa 1960: Red Devil’s Food using butter, sans artificial coloring. The second is from Food Network Magazine’s 50 Cupcake Recipes that I got in 2015: Red Velvet Cupcake using oil, containing extensive dye.
I had decided, for the effect of controls, I was going to make the FNM recipe without the dye. I wanted to see the results of each recipe solely based on their differences; both recipes contained cocoa powder, buttermilk and vinegar but what was the result of oil versus butter? Also, the Red Devil’s Food contained a much higher quantity of cocoa powder. I wondered if the color change would be less noticeable due to less cocoa powder. That was, if a color change occurred.
Test 1: Great Grandma’s Red Devil’s Food Cake. This recipe resulted in a delightful cake: moist, dense crumb and a spongy top. The cocoa flavor came through like a gentle breeze, not quite chocolate but still there to pique your interest. As I cut into it, the crumb gave way and each half shifted aside to reveal… yes, it was red. The soft brown edge gave way to a rich red-brown center that was the color from almost all brunettes’ dreams. Looks like my anthocyanins did their job. Bravo, guys.
Test 2: Food Network Red Velvet. I think I knew about halfway through its time in the oven that this cake would not be my Chosen One. The Red Devil’s Food had filled the house with a gentle cocoa aroma as if I had over-heated hot cocoa in the microwave. These little guys only gave off a vague warm baked-good fragrance, reminiscent of a bread but somehow non-descript. As for the final product: the cocoa breeze was absent and the sponginess was to be found throughout the cake, not just on the surface. The cut halves did not want to part ways with each other; they knew a fatal bite was to come and they did not want to be eaten. One bite, and the feeling was mutual.
The second cake was bland and I could feel the texture of the oil in my mouth, on my fingertips. In confusion, I turned to numbers and discovered that the oil cake had 7% less liquid to dry ingredients as well as half the cocoa powder of the butter cake. I suspect that a major player was the difference in viscosity between butter and oil. Butter can spread its reach further, it wants to roam. Oil seems to always pull back to itself, part of why I have never supported oil in cake.
After this grand adventure that spanned a month and brought much insight into Red’s world, I made a birthday cake of Red Devil’s Food, whipped cream slightly flavored with lemon, and topped with a chocolate bark containing Pop Rocks. We added gummy bears for some fun and topped the entire thing with a generous sprinkle of Pop Rocks to make sure there was plenty of noise to enjoy.
What a journey! Happy thirteenth, KC!
All [creativity] is not lost...
Corissa has been an artist her entire life and attended the Art Institute for design after completing a Bachelor’s in Accounting from National American University. She validates the contradicting combination with “I love my art but I don’t have to starve for it.”
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