The Colourful History Of Red Velvet Cake
Image Credit: PEXELS

RUBY red and moist, with a pillowy crown of cream cheese frosting — the red velvet cake is the cutesy crowning jewel of confectionaries from all over the world. Essentially a chocolate cake, red velvet’s popularity arguably rests on its striking colour. Yet, modern iterations of this vibrant red dessert are a far cry from the reddish brown sponge cakes of the early 20th century.

While most culinary historians agree that red velvet cake originated in the US in the 1910, its genesis is mired in urban myths and legends. Conflicting accounts lay claim to this global favourite, but it is likely that different versions of the cake cropped up across the country. While the recipes differed, the end result was the same — a maroon cake with a decadent, velvety texture. 

Author and pastry chef Stella Parks suspects red velvet cakes may have existed even in the mid-1800s. In her cookbook Bravetart: Iconic American Desserts (2017), she notes the sugar widely used in households was unrefined brown sugar, which may have lent velvet cakes their characteristic ruddy hue.

But what exactly are velvet cakes? And how were they different from other types of cakes?

Velvet cake owes its nomenclature to its airy, light texture, achieved through the addition of yeast. In the Victorian era, cakes, breads and biscuits were names used interchangeably, with sweeter breads made with nuts and dry fruits often dubbed cakes. It didn’t help that they all used yeast to leaven the dough. 

Made with almond flour, cocoa and cornstarch, the mixture rendered a smooth texture to the cake that would coat your mouth as effortlessly as velvet. Imagine a modern-day version of a chocolate cake, and you have your velvet cake. 

However, yeast was an inconsistent leavening agent that could potentially sour the dough beyond repair. Further, obtaining yeast itself was a labour intensive process — requiring a mother dough, a previously made dough and whatnot. 

In 1956, the introduction of baking powder to the kitchens in 1956 revolutionised cake baking as we know it. This highly dependable ingredient, that combines baking soda and an acidic agent, produces an effervescence that fluffs up the batter, producing soft, porous, melt-in-mouth cakes. 

Other than velvet cake, there was another confectionery that was sweeping the nation with its rich, decadent taste: the fudgy devil's food cake. The earliest documented recipe of the dish, dating back to 1924, uses buttermilk to moisten its batter.  A version of this cake switched out the chocolate bars with raw cocoa powder. Since raw cocoa powder contains the compound red anthocyanin, it reacts with the acidic buttermilk to impart a reddish brown colour to the cake. 

During World War I, as countries grappled with acute shortage of supplies and rising prices, cooks had to be resourceful. Pureed beets, known for their high sugar content, became a substitute for refined sugar in cakes and desserts. The addition of beets not only provided sweetness but also contributed to the cake's colour and texture, reducing the need for eggs and white flour. Additionally, sugar beets could be grown in home gardens, making them more accessible. This concoction, expectedly, birthed red-coloured baked goods. Further, cooks resorted to cocoa powder instead of its costlier alternative chocolate. It is rather ironic that a dish born out of scarcity and rationing has now attained gourmet dessert stature.

It is safe to assume the widespread availability of non toxic food dyes was instrumental in the 1940s red velvet boom. While the original versions relied on food chemistry to achieve its distinctive red tint, with the American government’s establishment of guidelines regarding mass production and sale of food dye, Adams Extract Co., a company manufacturing food flavourings and additives, took the baton of supplying red food colouring to every household. To market their product to a wide consumer base, they sold their dye along with a recipe of red velvet cake that incorporates the same. 

Elsewhere, around the same time, New York’s Waldorf-Astoria restaurant also became associated with the legend of red velvet cake. The story goes that a customer, fascinated with the novelty of a cherry red hued cake with swivels of foamy cream cheese filling, asked for the recipe. The request was fulfilled; but the patron was handed out an exorbitant bill as charge for the same. Furious, she published it in the local newspaper. Although food historians have now dismissed it as urban myth, the rumour effectively stirred a collective interest into the dish. 

Red velvet cakes may have also had its roots in the Afro-American culinary culture. A mainstay in Juneteenth celebrations, red velvet cakes are a part of a larger spread consisting of all red coloured food. According to culinary historian Adrian Miller, the West African cultures of Yoruba and Kongo associate the colour red with spiritual power and transformation. Hence, Juneteenth celebrations, that honour the emancipation of African American slaves, are marked by consuming red coloured foods — from red wine and punch, to barbecue and red velvet cake. 

The earliest documented evidence of velvet cake from the African American dining tables is in 1948, in Freda DeKnight’s cookbook a date with Dish: Classic African American Recipes. This recipe conspicuously includes both raw cocoa, buttermilk and red vegetable colouring, which indicates that red cakes may have been a part of their culture much before food dyes even entered the consumer market. Though manufactured in bulk, food colouring was still considered a luxury item, and thus, traditional methods of staining cakes remained prevalent. 

As remarkable as the meteoric rise of red dyed cakes was, the latter half of the 20th century witnessed a gradual decline in interest in artificial substances. Red velvet was no longer aspirational, it was just another chocolate sponge cake. For several decades, it remained dormant, until the 1989 film Steel Magnolias, which gave its silver frosted red velvet armadillo cake just enough visibility to propel it back into the global consciousness. Only a few years later, Magnolia bakery was serving bite sized red velvet cupcakes to its customers. 

Red velvet’s reentry into the culinary map has been loud and proud. While naysayers may argue that red velvet’s appeal lies solely in its 'fun and frolicking' appearance, curiously, red velvet is now a sought-after flavour combination — be it in biscuits or chocolate bars.