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Seeing Red Over the Origins of Red Velvet Cake

After heading down countless dead-end alleys and hitting walls in her search for the history of red velvet cake, frustrated reader Cathy Nolan turned to us.

While no one know exactly when and where Red Velvet Cake originated, a story (and a recipe) began circulating around the United States in the 1920s about a cake that supposedly was served at the restaurant in New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. Here’s an account of this urban legend as it appeared in Jan Brunvand’s book, The Vanishing Hitchhiker (W.W. Norton, 1989):

Our friend, Dean Blair, got on a bus in San Jose one morning and shortly after, a lady got on the bus and started passing out these 3 x 5 cards with the recipe for “Red Velvet Cake.” She said she had recently been in New York and had dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria and had this cake. After she returned to San Jose, she wrote to the hotel asking for the name of the chef who had originated the cake, and if she could have the recipe.

Subsequently she received the recipe in the mail along with a bill for something like $350 from the chef. She took the matter to her attorney, and he advised her that she would have to pay it because she had not inquired beforehand if there would be a charge for the service, and if so, how much it would be. Consequently, she apparently thought this would be a good way to get even with the chef.

Because of this story, and similar variations, Red Velvet Cake is also known as Waldorf-Astoria Cake, $100 Cake, $200 Cake, etc.

There’s also a scientific myth associated with Red Velvet Cake. It has sometimes been asserted that the cake’s red color comes from a chemical reaction between the baking soda and the chocolate in the recipe. This is the result of a simple misunderstanding of the chemistry involved. While cocoa powder contains anthocyanins (red vegetable pigments) they are only red in the presence of acids –they turn blue-green in the presence of bases. When cocoa is mixed with the baking soda, a base, the combination should turn the cake an unappetizing brownish-gray. It doesn’t, of course, because the anthocyanins are present in very small quantities, and any color shift is masked by the more prominent brown of the chocolate. The red color of the cake comes from a much simpler source: large amounts red food coloring.

The supposed red color resulting from the baking soda/cocoa combination also appears in connection with Devil’s Food Cake. I wonder if Red Velvet Cake was created because Devil’s Food Cake doesn’t look nearly as red as its name would suggest. This is akin to some folks adding green food coloring to Key Lime Pie because it doesn’t appear “limey” enough.

References
Beard, James and Thollander, Earl. James Beard’s American Cookery. New York, Budget Book, 1996.

Brunvand, Jan Harold. The Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban Legends and Their Meanings. New York: W.W. Norton, 1989.

McGee, Harold. On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. New York: Scribner, 1997, (rev. 12004).

Article © 2002–2009 Gary Allen. All rights reserved.
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