It’s been a while since I’ve been to Beeville, TX. Not far from Normanna, Orangedale and Skidmore, it’s the Bee County seat, built around a typical Texas town square with an enormous Renaissance Revival courthouse at the center. It’s not like there’s a plaque or anything, but ask around, and you may find old timers who know the town’s connection to America’s long-lingering flavor obsession: Red Velvet. Yep. When chemist John A. Adams pulled up stakes in Michigan to move his family in 1905, this was where he landed, launching the eponymous food-coloring and additives firm in Austin that truly put the “Red” in Red Velvet Cake.
Adams didn’t envision a day when Red Velvet would wiggle its way into everything from latte’s and doughnuts, to vodka and candles, but wow, what testament to pure marketing moxie! Faced with a Depression-era slump in business at Adams Extract Company, Adams dreamed up the idea of adding two, full, half-ounce bottles of red food coloring, plus another bottle of butter extract, to what was then the typical “mahogany” or “devils food” chocolate cake recipe. He marketed the hell out of it, putting pretty pictures of the really-red cake on store displays of his extracts, with the somehow-winning tagline, “The Cake of a Wife Time.” Because the combo offered a cheap substitute to butter & possibly lured by the luxury-look of that rich red, people bought it.
Being a recipe-revival junkie, I spoke to my friend Addie Broyles, a writer for the Austin American Statesman, to find out more. Turns out Addie did a great story on Adams Extract when the company celebrated its 125th anniversary, including the “original” Adams family recipe. But here’s the thing: That word “original”…. It tempted the recipe developer in me to go just a little further.
Here’s what I learned: Doing a story on red velvet cakes for the New York Times, writer Kim Severson tracked down the archivist for the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in NYC, who was able to document that the hotel originated its version of red velvet cake in the ‘30s. Severson also got Sterling Crim, (managing partner and chief marketing officer for the Adams Extract Company) on record saying that the Adams dye-and-extract doctored version of red velvet started with their exposure to the Waldorf cake.
The Waldorf red velvet, like other “Red Devils Food,” “Devils Food” and “Mahogany” cakes in my oldest baking books, were all chocolate cakes that took on various shades of reddish hue due to naturally occurring reactions between key ingredients in the cakes. All of these cakes included acid—usually buttermilk or soured milk, and baking soda, which when combined bubble up and lighten the texture of the cake. Also, prior to the Depression, cocoa powders on the market hadn’t had the red-hued, acid-containing anthocyanins processed out of them—a process now known as “Dutch processed.”
Sooooo….before cocoas were Dutch processed, chocolate cakes made with buttermilk/soured milk, baking soda and natural cocoa powder took on a truly a lovely “mahogany” or “devil”-ish hue, and, had a very moist, tender, velvet crumb. The method used for many of these cakes—also the method I use for my beloved chocolate fudge cake—was to cream the fat, sugar and eggs, whisk the cocoa powder with hot liquid, add the baking soda (which bubbles up nicely) and then the flour.
My version of red velvet cake is built on these old-fashioned, tried and true steps. I have consciously chosen NOT to include food coloring. Bottled red food coloring may be deemed safe for human consumption, but the fact that it is either synthetic (made from petroleum distillates or coal tar sludge (!) or made from crushed female cochineal bugs (labeled as carmine, cochineal extract or natural red 4) made the idea of introducing any of this to a cake really unappealing. I did use natural, un-Dutched cocoa powder which you can find at The Spice House in Chicago, or natural food stores. And, to enhance the red just a bit, I include a small quantity of deep-red, greatly reduced beet juice in my recipe. Also, this recipe does not include vinegar because un-Dutched cocoa is more acidic than Dutch-processed, and enough acid is enough acid. For the frosting, I am featuring a recipe for a very simple “boiled icing” which lends a satin-sheeny bright white finish to the cake. You will need to make two batches of this frosting to completely fill and frost the cake.
While I didn’t get this to you in time for Valentine’s Day, 2018, this cake will do very nicely for Presidents Day, when we can tribute our past favorites (Lincoln! Obama!). In fact (one more bit of histo-trivia:) President Eisenhower’s favorite “Ike Cake” was actually a chocolate velvet.
- 2 sticks butter at room temperature
- 1 cup light brown sugar
- 1 cup pure cane white sugar
- 3 large beet
- 4 cups water
- ½ cup natural cocoa powder
- 1 ½ tsp baking soda
- ¾ tsp salt
- 1 cup buttermilk at room temperature
- 1 ⅓ cups cake flour
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
Simple Satin Boiled Frosting (Double this frost and fill this cake)
- 3 ¾ tbsp Wondra flour
- ¾ cup cream
- ¾ cup unsalted butter at room temperature (1 1/2 sticks)
- ¾ cup granulated pure-cane sugar
- pinch of salt
- 3 tsp vanilla extract
1. Place oven rack to center position. Preheat oven to 350. Prepare two, 9-inch baking pans by greasing them and lining them with parchment paper circles. Grease the tops of the parchment circles as well. (Note: If you like, you can make the paper liners by tracing and cutting circles from brown paper bags.)
2. In the bowl of a stand mixer, beat sugars and eggs for 3 to 5 minutes until fluffy and creamy. Add the softened butter. Continue beating until smooth and fluffy.
3. Place the cubed beets in heavy gauge pot. Cover with the 4 cups water. Heat to boiling; boil for 20 minutes until beets are tender. Remove beets from the boiling liquid; return the liquid in the pot to the stovetop. Continue cooking the beet water until it has reduced to ½ cup of concentrated beet liquid.
4. In a generously-sized bowl (use one that is at least a four-cup size) , combine 1/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons of the reduced beet liquid to the cocoa powder. Mix to a smooth paste. Stir in the buttermilk. Add the baking soda and salt—this will foam and bubble up, increasing the volume by about half. Pour this mixture into the butter/sugar/egg mixture. Beat until smooth. Add the flours, mixing at medium low speed until smooth, scraping the sides of the bowl to ensure there are no streaks. Pour the batter into the two prepared pans. Place pans in the oven and bake at 350 for 30 to 35 minutes until cake springs back when touched at the center. Remove cakes from oven; let rest in pans for five minutes. Turn out onto racks. Cool cakes completely while you prepare frosting.
5. To make frosting: (NOTE: you will need to make two portions of this frosting recipe to completely fill and frost one cake) Combine the 3 and ¾ tablespoons of the Wondra flour with ¾ cup cream. Whisk over medium low heat until the mixture thickens. Continue whisking over heat until the mixture balls up into a mass around the whisk; remove from heat. The mass will have the texture of soft playdough or mashed potatoes. Place this in a bowl to cool in the refrigerator. Meanwhile, in the bowl of a stand mixer with a whisk attachment, whip the butter and sugar on high speed for 10 minutes until the sugar crystals have vanished into the butter and the mixture is very light and soft. Add the vanilla and salt. Whisk another minute. Add the cooled dough; continue to whip another five minutes until you have a smooth, billowy frosting. Repeat this procedure to make another portion of the frosting.
6. To assemble: Cut the dome from one of the cake layers and save to eat as a snack. Place the now-level layer on a serving plate. Cover with portion of frosting. Remove second cake layer from pan and cut horizontally into two layers. Place one layer over the already frosted layer; add the remaining top layer (domed) and cover all with the remaining frosting. Slice and enjoy!
Monica Kass Rogers:
Monica is a food-business and lifestyles feature writer & photographer with a penchant for reviving vintage recipes. Building on the “Lost Recipes Found” column she originally launched for the Chicago Tribune, Monica now rediscovers vintage in her blog of the same name Lost Recipes Found and continues to write about and photograph contemporary food nationally for restaurants, hotels and magazines.