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Red state: Falling in love with dramatic, retro red velvet cakes

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Red Velvet brownie conversation hearts. Courtesy McCormick

By Kathy Stephenson

The Salt Lake Tribune

First published Feb 12 2013 08:17AM
Updated May 21, 2013 11:32PM

It’s no secret, we’ve got a big foodie crush on red velvet. Bakeries, restaurants and grocery stores seduce us with these deep-colored cakes, cookies and gelato, while food magazines and blogs lure us with recipes for brownies, crepes and fudge. (You’ll find one recipe below at left and several more at the end of this page.)

But this is a mysterious attraction.

Red velvet cake doesn’t appeal to chocoholics who say the light taste of cocoa — about two tablespoons per cake — doesn’t satisfy their cravings. And some purists dismiss red velvet because the only way to get that bright color is through a good pour of artificial coloring.

Even some cake connoisseurs say the vanilla flavor is boring, and red velvet is loved only for its shocking good looks, and as a vehicle for enjoying cream cheese frosting. Dramatic and artificial — perhaps it’s no wonder red velvet has been called the Lady Gaga of layer cakes.

"A chocolate cake that’s red? A lot of people think it’s gimmicky," admitted Megan Faulkner-Brown, owner of the local Sweet Tooth Fairy bakeshops, where thousands of red velvet cake bites will be sold for Valentine’s day.

"Some people love red velvet," she said. But others wonder what is it, exactly?

Smooth history •Velvet cakes date back to the late 1800s, when there was a tendency to give "nice and smooth names" to things, wrote Stella Parks in The Unknown History of Red Velvet Cake, a 2011 essay published on giltaste.com.

"Velvet had simply come to denote any cake with an especially fine crumb, while red referred to "red sugar" or, in modern parlance, "brown sugar,’ " according to the article. But when the Adams Extract Company — in a savvy bit of marketing — advertised that its food coloring would produce the "reddest Red Velvet cake ever seen" and gave cooks a free recipe with every purchase, red velvet "became a sensation."

Nostalgia is one reason for red velvet’s new-found popularity, said Vincent Esposito, the chef/owner of Spin Cafe in Heber City, who will serve customers red-velvet gelato on Feb. 14.

"People are sentimental," he said. "I find that with a lot of foods. Chicken Parmesan, veal scallopini, stuff that my Dad made in his restaurant when I was a kid."

It’s got the look • But let’s be honest, it’s the look of red velvet that really draws us to it. "Turning something bright red is fascinating and exciting and curious," Esposito said.

Laura Powell, of the local RealMomKitchen.com blog and cookbook, say red-velvet baked goods have "the wow" factor that home cooks are seeking.

"The color of the cake and the contrasting white frosting, that’s what draws people in," said Powell, who posted a different red-velvet treat recipe on her blog every day last week, including red-velvet fudge, red-velvet crepes and red-velvet cookies. She also has links for red-velvet cupcakes and red-velvet Rice Krispie treats.

"I love how holiday oriented it is," she said. "It works well for Valentines Day, July 4 and Christmas."

It also works as a novelty cake — for those who remember the armadillo-shaped groom’s cake in the 1980s film "Steel Magnolias."

Beyond red velvet’s shocking color, the cake is usually extremely moist, as many recipes call for using buttermilk and vinegar. Those two unexpected ingredients react with the baking soda to create the cake’s fine, tender crumb.

"I like the moisture content, it feels decadent," said Tami Steggell, the owner of Salt Lake City’s RubySnap bakery, which sells gourmet frozen cookie dough named for World War II pin-up girls. RubySnap’s red velvet cookie dough, called Scarlett, is the February flavor of the month.

Steggell said she initially offered Scarlett only for Valentine’s day, but it was in such demand that she carries the dough in December and July, too.

The flavor is alluring, for three reasons, she said. "It’s classic, simple and heartwarming."

kathys@sltrib.com

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