Red velvet cake’s striking combination of ruby-red chocolate crumb and tangy white cream cheese icing has captured the allegiance of a whole new generation of devotees. Although it’s now associated closely with high-end cupcake shops, this storied cake got its start in the American South — and before that, arguably, in beet cakes from Russia.
Red velvet’s roots trace back to an apocryphal story of a southern gourmet’s trip to New York City in the 1920s. Legend has it that she visited the Waldorf Astoria Hotel and was able to pry the cake recipe from the head chef, who in turn sent her a large bill. Miffed, she took it back to her home in Georgia, where she popularized it among her many friends. Yet, when the current chef of the Waldorf’s restaurant checked the archives, no record could be found of a red velvet cake recipe, nor of the mysterious chef who may have created it. Despite its irresolute origins, this cake remains larger and more enduring than the sum of its stories.
Today, the red color usually comes courtesy of food coloring (many recipes call for a whole bottle!), but natural cocoa powder and a chemical reaction between vinegar, buttermilk and baking soda also contribute to the cake’s ruddy color. Before red food coloring was invented, and long before cupcakes commanded their own storefronts, cakes were made red by another means: beets.
Russians take pride in preserving the prizes of their summer harvests in jams, preserves and pickles. Preserves and sweetening agents were often included in foods when fruits were scarce, and the naturally sweet, colorful beet found its way into peasant cakes throughout Russia in the 1800s. To achieve the brilliant red hue, the beets were boiled or baked, then mashed into the cake batter.
Beet Red Velvet Cake
Beets may seem like an usual addition to chocolate cake, but they keep the the crumb wonderfully moist. Even more surprising? They’re undetectable. The flavor of this cake is unmistakably chocolate.
- Preheat oven to 350F. Prepare 2 cake pans by lining them with parchment paper.
- Combine flour, cocoa powder, salt and set aside.
- Cream butter and sugar together until it becomes light and fluffy. Add eggs one at a time. Add the pureed beets and vanilla to the batter.
- In a separate medium bowl, blend the sour cream and buttermilk together. Then, starting with the four mixture, alternate flour mixture and the buttermilk-sour cream mixture in thirds until both are mixed into the batter. Add the melted chocolate. Finally, place the baking soda in a separate small bowl and add the vinegar to it. (It will foam up.) Fold the soda and vinegar mixture into the cake batter.
- Pour the batter into prepared pans and bake for about 35 minutes, until cake is firm to the touch and a toothpick inserted in the middle of the cake comes out with just a few crumbs. Allow the cakes to cool to room temperature, then unmold. Ice them with white chocolate cream cheese icing (see recipe, below).
White Chocolate Cream Cheese Icing
- Unwrap the packages of cream cheese and place them in the bowl of an electric mixer. Allow them to come to room temperature, then use the paddle attachment and mix the cream cheese on low until it is completely soft and smooth.
- Stop the mixer and add all the other ingredients, then mix on medium until the icing is smooth. Adjust to taste. Allow the icing to chill for about ½ hour before applying it to the cake.
*To puree fresh beets, cut off their stems and boil them for 15 minutes. Let them cool enough to handle, then peel off their skins with a vegetable peeler and purée them in a food processor, blender or by hand with a potato masher.
Susie Norris is a chocolatier, TV producer and author of the book “Chocolate Bliss.”
Photo: Red velvet cake. Credit: Rob Belknap