Food & Drink

How red velvet cake became an obsession

In the pantheon of food-related shark jumps, red velvet cake body mist may well be the greatest leap of all.

Red velvet cake, once a reasonably tender, softly flavored culinary gimmick, has become a commercial obsession, its cocoa undertones and cream-cheese tang re-created in chemical flavor laboratories and infused into all manner of places cake should not exist.

One can buy a red velvet scented candle, red velvet protein powder, red velvet air fresheners and red velvet vodka.

Even in the world of actual food, red velvet has taken over like so much kudzu.

In San Francisco, the American Cupcake bar and bakery offers chicken that has been soaked in red velvet cake batter, rolled in toasted red velvet cupcake crumbs and fried. The dish comes with garlic- and cream-cheese mashed potatoes and cocoa-infused slaw.

Dunkin’ Donuts sells red velvet lattes. Republic of Tea sells red velvet tea. There are red velvet waffles, Pop-Tarts, whoopie pies and, in a pileup of dessert trends, the red velvet molten cake sundae.

“Why this happened to red velvet is at the core of the culture’s spirit of democracy and innovation,” said the Canadian author David Sax, who writes about food trends and fads in his new book “The Tastemakers: Why We’re Crazy for Cupcakes but Fed Up With Fondue.”

“It’s just that pure, beautiful American capitalism, which is really uniquely suited to take any sort of advantage you can take and expand on it,” he said.

The red velvet cake, with its artificial coloring and benign cocoa sweetness, has always been about commercialization. But it has honest roots.

Cooks in the 1800s used almond flour, cocoa or cornstarch to soften the protein in flour and make finer-textured cakes that were then named velvet. All of this led to the mahogany cake, with its mix of buttermilk, vinegar, cocoa powder and coffee, and its cousin, the devil’s food cake.

How it all began

Chemists, bakers and historians still debate whether the dance between cocoa and acid gave devil’s food cakes a hint of red and thus its name, or whether the name came from brown sugar, which used to be referred to as red sugar.

By the 1930s, recipes for red devil’s food cake were showing up in West Coast and Midwest newspaper food columns as a Christmas cake. “Generally popular,” wrote Irma S. Rombauer in the 1943 edition of “The Joy of Cooking,” “but not with me, which is not to be taken as a criterion.”

But the garish modern red velvet cake, like so many food trends, likely started among the elite.

Erin Allsop, archivist at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York, places the cake’s debut at the Waldorf in the 1930s, though some Southern cake historians believe that story is more legend than fact.

Meanwhile, in Austin, Texas, John A. Adams was getting rich selling vanilla and food dyes. He and his wife, Betty, ate the cake at the Waldorf, said Sterling Crim, managing partner and chief marketing officer for the Adams Extract Co. Through company histories and interviews with former employees, Adams Extract traced the red velvet cake back to that trip to the Waldorf.

“That’s the cake that started us down this path,” he said.

After Congress passed the federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act in 1938, shoring up regulations for food coloring, Adams figured he could sell a lot more extracts and dyes, and a red cake would be just the way to do it. Sometime in the 1940s, the company tricked out a mahogany cake recipe with food coloring, printed it on cards and began plans to merchandise it alongside bottles of vanilla, red dye and artificial butter flavoring, which was popular when butter was rationed during World War II.

The cake was iced with a roux of milk and flour that was whipped into butter and sugar, creating a stark white, fluffy mixture called ermine or boiled-milk frosting.

Armed with dye and a supermarket recipe, home cooks fanned out in Texas kitchens and beyond. Red velvet cake recipes won at state fairs in the Midwest, where food companies used cooking contests to promote their products.

Southern? Not exactly

This is a good time to counter the notion that the red velvet cake is an original member of the classic Southern cake collection.

Nor is it historically a cake that sprang from the African-American table. But the cake is an important part of Juneteenth parties, where red food is served ostensibly to symbolize the blood shed during slavery and in the Civil War. The June 19 celebrationmarks the date in 1865 when slaves in Texas found out they had been freed.

The cake rolled with the times, its recipe getting simplified to accommodate a cup of oil instead of the creaming of butter or shortening and flour.

But it was never the most popular cake in the room. In 1972, James Beard sneered that the cake was bland and uninteresting. Cake and baking experts like Rose Levy Beranbaum did not mention red velvet in their books in the 1980s and early 1990s.

Now a ‘force of nature’

Then, driven in part by a cameo as an armadillo groom’s cake in “Steel Magnolias” in 1989, red velvet gained new life.

The cake became a top seller at the Magnolia Bakery in New York City’s West Village, which also turned it into cupcakes. As the nation swung into its post-9/11 comfort-food phase, both cupcakes and Southern food offered solace. Red velvet became a superstar, and the merchandising arms race was on.

In 2009, red velvet cake flavoring was part of 1.5 percent of all items on menus. By 2013, it was in 4.1 percent of items, according to David Sprinkle, research director of Packaged Facts, a publisher.

A key year was 2011, when “red velvet cake flavor emerged as a force of nature,” Sprinkle said. That’s when the body mist made its debut.

For those who just can’t bear one more red velvet product, relief is in sight. The number of new products with red velvet in the title is slowing slightly.

“There is a limit to the red-velvetization potentials in different categories,” said Marcia Mogelonsky, a director in the food and drink group at Mintel, a global marketing research company. “Red Velvet wine, for example, is an effort that may not lead to more product launches.”

Like a species that adapts to a new environment, red velvet endures. In the age of allergies, agriculture and artisan food, some chefs have taken on a renewed effort to rid the cake of its food coloring.

One is Pamela Moxley, the pastry chef at Miller Union in Atlanta, who has perfected a beet red velvet cake. She uses a lot of acid to keep the color bright and balance the taste of roasted beet.

In homage to beet and goat cheese salad, she tops the cake with a mixture of goat cheese and cream cheese, and serves it with tiny beet chips and tarragon ice cream.

This has traditionalists shaking their heads.

“The secret to red velvet is the flavor of the red food coloring,” said Ted Lee, half of the Charleston cooking duo the Lee Brothers. “It is part and parcel to the cake. It really is. Without the coloring, I think the concept is gone.”

The Adams Extract Co. is pushing back against the twisted permutations of red velvet, too. The company this year began marketing the original scratch-cake recipe in a vintage-style box with cocoa, flour and bottles of extract and dye.

“We’re purists,” Crim said. “What I don’t want to happen is for it to become white cake painted red slopped over with cream cheese.”