The dessert’s rise from a depression-era sweet to a Southern holiday staple.
Southerners love velvet. It’s one of those fabrics our weather so rarely allows us to wear, and yet it seeps into the most iconic of Southern figures. Our Elvis paintings just wouldn’t have the same panache on canvas. Can you even imagine if Scarlett O’Hara had reached for the cotton portières to make her dress? And we’d rather not think about a colored cake unless it’s in the luscious hues of deepest red velvet.
The history of red velvet cake is as muddled as its blend of cocoa, food coloring, and distilled white vinegar. Some say it was created at New York City’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel in the 1930s. According to legend, when a patron asked for the recipe, it was sent along with a bill for $350. She angrily shared it with her socialite friends, ensuring the recipe’s (free) proliferation.
However, the genesis of the red velvet cake we enjoy today is a far less salacious but certainly more industrious story. Like most companies during the Great Depression, Texas-based Adams Extract was struggling financially. To help with slumping sales, they decided to swap out more traditional tinting ingredients for copious amounts of food coloring. The result was a flamboyantly red showstopper; far more saturated than the original, which was colored with just beet juice or cocoa. The brilliantly hued cake was a hit with households across the country and was advertised with the bygone-era tagline, “the cake of a wife time.”
Nowadays, it seems red velvet is done just about six ways to Sunday, including red velvet fudge, red velvet milkshakes, and red velvet brownies. And let us not forget the red velvet pièce de résistance, the armadillo-shaped groom’s cake in Steel Magnolias. If anything were to solidify your standing as a Southern icon, it would be a mention in that movie.
Red velvet cake was not named for its resemblance to the plush crimson fabric, but instead for the cake’s smooth and rich texture. In fact, if you were to omit the food coloring entirely, the taste and texture would remain exactly the same. But where’s the fun in that? Red velvet cake is first feasted on with the eyes. The festive Christmas colors of crimson and white make it a staple for many Southern holiday tables. And while the color might draw you in to cut that first piece, the flavor is what makes you go back for seconds. With a mild chocolate taste and melt-in-your-mouth consistency, it’s no wonder we try to find as many ways as possible to bake up red velvet. Here are four of our most favorite takes on traditional red velvet cake.
Red Velvet Cake: the timeless classic from which we gather our inspiration.
Red Velvet Sandwich Cookies: a whimsical take on the traditional cake.
Red Velvet Scones: a festive holiday breakfast.
Peppermint Red Velvet Cookies: these cookies perfectly combine two of our favorite holiday flavors.