The evolution of red velvet cake, an iconic American dessert

Oct 6, 2017

When pastry chef, food writer, and Serious Eats senior editor Stella Parks set out to write her new cookbook, BraveTart: Iconic American Desserts, the goal was to shine a spotlight on classic desserts that connect Americans through shared experience. Among the desserts that rose quickly to the top of that list - red velvet cake. However, her research showed that the red velvet cake we think of today - often drowned in red food coloring - is a far cry from the cake's early velvety, more pure chocolately beginnings. Parks talked with Francis Lam about the history of the famed dessert, and left us with her amazingly decadent recipe for Red (Wine) Velvet Cake. You should also try her recipe for Magic Key Lime Pie.

Francis Lam: I want to talk to you about the subtitle of your book, Iconic American Desserts. What makes a dessert iconic American?

Stella Parks: I wanted the book to be a collection of desserts that a majority of us could say played an important role in our childhood. For me, growing up in Kentucky, sweet potato pie was a tremendously important dessert that we always had around the holidays. I realized quickly that outside of the house, not a lot of people were eating sweet potato pie. That's not iconic; it's a very American dessert, but not iconic. Because there are plenty of Americans who were born and raised here – this is their country, this is the culture that they love – and they've never had that. I didn't want the book to be a collection of regional desserts or desserts that were important to some people but not others. I wanted it to be a celebration of the desserts that connect us, from coast to coast.

Stella Parks
(Photo: Sarah Jane Sanders)

FL: How did you decide what qualified?

SP: Maybe it's like that classic quote about porn, “You'll know it when you see it.” You have this instinct, right? Something like yellow cake; Betty Crocker and Duncan Hines have ensured that yellow cake is something that all Americans have had a chance to try and love. We all know what white cake is, and we all know what chocolate chip cookies are. On a certain level, some of it's instinctual. But then there's other ones that loom larger due to pop culture, something like Key lime pie. That was at least a starting point for determining what it was. Some of it was a crowd sourced on Twitter; when there would be a good response, a lot of feedback, or people talking about their memories about these desserts, I'd know that was a good one. If it was more like crickets chirping on social media, then I'd assume this is more of a regional thing or a niche dessert that isn't central enough to American cuisine to want to include.

FL: You mention chocolate chip cookies, which a lot of people make from the Tollhouse recipe on the back of the chocolate chip bag. You mentioned yellow cake and Duncan Hines. How much of our national dessert consciousness is formed by these items that were popularized by a company trying to hawk a product?

SP: That's a huge part of it. Perhaps the overriding theme of the whole book is how much coprorations, marketing, advertising, and back-of-the-box recipes influences what we bake. Someone who lives in Nebraska makes the same type of desserts as someone living in New Hampshire, because they're both getting the same Good Housekeeping magazine, which has the same advertisements from the same company. It proved to me a unifying factor. Maybe a more cynical person would look at that and think it was sad or an indictment of our culture. But, we have a large country, and it's remarkable that we can all identify with these desserts. In that way, I think that advertising and marketing proved to be a positive force, a unifying factor. We can all unite behind something as simple as a brownie.

FL: I want to ask you about red velvet cake. Before you, I always thought red velvet was just a nice way of saying a bland chocolate cake with tons of red food coloring. Tell us about the real history of red velvet cake.

SP: Red velvet cake started out from a larger tradition in the Victorian era, where there were velvet cakes. Really, this was just like a way to be fancy. It indicated that the cake had a soft and velvety crumb. In the 1800s, a coarser textured cake was more common for the day, so to have a cake that had a soft, velvety crumb was appealing. Simultaneously, there was a devil's cake or devil's food cake. This was an intensely chocolate cake, made with egg yolks rather than whole eggs, oftentimes with coffee in there. It was dark with bold flavor – dense and fudgy.

Sometime in the early 20th century – around 1911 – the two concepts collided and a recipe for a velvet cocoa cake was published. This was like a cross between a devil's food cake and a more classic concept of a velvet cake. It was made with cocoa powder in place of chocolate; that was the biggest distinction. As it drifted south, the recipe was often executed with buttermilk. The acidity of the buttermilk doubled down on the acidity of the cake overall. In that time period, most cocoa powder was not only natural, it was also raw. (In modern cocoa powder, the beans are roasted.) The combined effect of the acidic buttermilk and the acidic cocoa powder created a density in the texture of the cake, which amplified its velvetiness.

Simultaneously, the pH of the cake helped some of the color pigments in the raw cocoa powder shine through. That's why the trick doesn't really work today. You can't do it at home unless you get raw cocoa powder, because the type of cocoa you're picking up at the store is going to be a roasted product, not raw.

BraveTart
by Stella Parks

FL: The red didn't revert to the sort of garish food color red; it was like a ruddy brown?

SP: Absolutely. There was a food scientist in the 1930s who commented on it. She called it a red-brown hue. She was trying to be clear about the reaction that was happening, that the pH of this cake batter produces a sort of reddish-brown hue, but that's not a sensational story when newspapers were picking this up and talking about the cake. At the time, the idea of a red devil – which was an alternate name for the velvet cocoa cake – sounded great; it sounded red! In practice, it just distinguished the color of this light cocoa cake from the inky blackness of a devil's food cake. This was from a bit of the Depression era thinking: “Let's scale back here. Use cocoa powder instead of chocolate. Use some old sour milk from the back of the fridge.” Pulling from these thrifty ingredients made a less sensational cake. But, for newspapers to make a good story, they played up the red aspect and left off the brown aspect.

FL: Sooner or later, people wanted it red, because they kept hearing that it was going to be red.

SP: There was a recipe from the 1940s that had four ounces of red food coloring in there – which is insane. That’s a quarter of a cup of petrochemicals, which is scary and intense. But it made an outrageously colored cake. From there, red velvet took off because that's a very eye-catching thing.

FL: Now that you’ve done all the research, tell us about the recipe for your red (wine) velvet cake.

SP: With my recipe, I wanted to get back to the velvetiness that defined the original cake. I also wanted to get back to the raw cocoa powder, which is a cool thing that we can source now online. By using raw cocoa powder, the flavor comes out so much more; it's a more interesting flavor than a mild chocolate. I also used red wine to play up the fruitiness of the raw cocoa powder, and to also cash in on that chemical reaction that – once upon a time – made the reaction between raw cocoa powder and buttermilk so impressive. Red wine does something similar, while also playing up those fruity notes.