Ever since Steel Magnolias hit theaters, in 1989, the world seems to have taken notice of Red Velvet Cake. That movie was a great Mother/Daughter story and I thought this recipe would be a great way to honor all the mothers out there for Mother’s Day. Given my interest in history, I wanted to know how this recipe came to be. The women in my family tell a story of trying to keep things appealing and flavorful during the depression. During that time, cocoa powder was scarce and expensive. The rich, dark brown chocolate cakes that were at every celebration suddenly were more gray than brown and didn’t have the full chocolate flavor most people were used to.
Necessity is the mother of invention and many women set out to make this treasured recipe work. Natural fruit and vegetable food colorings were still a novelty on the market. Many bakers experimented with beet juice, teas and even tomato juice to get a color that would appeal to the eye without changing the flavor profile, too much. Soon enough that bright red color was what you saw when you first cut into a many-layered cake.
Recently, I was heard Giada De Laurentis explain a scientific version about alkaline, acid and alkali causing a chemical reaction. My head is spinning just writing it down. It is intriguing but way too much science for me. I’ll just go with needed a better color.
The other complication that was left by using less cocoa powder was the subtler chocolate flavor. You could definitely still taste the cocoa, it just wasn’t as pronounced. To give the cake a flavor punch, the women of the day used a cream cheese frosting. The contrast, of the white frosting and multiple red layers, offered great eye appeal and who can resist a well-made cream cheese frosting?
Eventually, artificial food colorings were introduced, commercially and Red Velvet Cake was off to the races in popularity. Many hotels, including the Waldorf Astoria, claimed their versions as “World Famous”. For my taste, our family recipe is the best!
Be sure to not over bake the cake. It will continue to cook, a little, after it is out of the oven. The toothpick tester may not be completely clean, if you use that method. Be sure to make it your own by adding your favorite decoration or garnish. You can use beautiful fresh berries or even some red cake crumbs on the outside of the cake. Enjoy and Happy Mother’s Day!