Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Recipe 911 with Chef Bill: Red Velvet cake history

Red Velvet cakes and cupcakes seem to be popping up everywhere. Can you tell me where Red Velvet comes from and something about their history?

I love food questions where the answers seem to draw heavily from the realms of myth and fairy tale, rather than just factual accounts laden with historical data (Blah!). The history of Red Velvet cake is as fabulous and dynamic as the stunning red color and tangy sweet flavor that has made this our number one selling cupcake over the past three years.

The Red Velvet cake’s origins range throughout North America. The cake has been hugely popularized in southern culture from the somewhat odd Armadillo shaped Groom’s cakes (as seen in Steel Magnolia’s) to the subtle yet tangy mid-afternoon treat that seems to embody Southern folks understated and polite, yet vibrant and feisty personalities. Canadians, or humble neighbors to the north, calmly assert the recipe hails from Eaton’s Department stores, where in the 1940’s and 1950’s the cake was promoted as an exclusive Eaton’s recipe created by Lady Eaton herself. Unfortunately for the wealthy department store matriarch, red velvet cake recipes have been found dating back into the 19th Century, well before the fine lady was penning decadent cake recipes in her spare time.

My personal favorite story involving Red Velvet cake is the outlandish drama of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel’s mishap with a vengeful Midwest housewife. The story unfolds innocently enough, a lady from the Midwest visits the lights of the big city, stays at the fancy hotel (the Waldorf Astoria), visits the museums, and of course sees a Broadway show. While at the Waldorf Astoria she dines on their Red Velvet cake. Returning to the Midwest, the lady can’t get this amazing cake out of her thoughts, so she writes the chef for the recipe. The recipe arrives ten days later with a very large bill, $500. The lady phones the hotel complaining to no avail. The lady, not to be thwarted easily, visits her lawyer thinking success is surely near. But to her surprise, the lawyer tells her she legally must pay the bill, even though it was excessively steep in his opinion, because she requested the item in writing. Ouch! The lady was definitely fuming over the outcome, but would not relent. So, the lady decides to spite the Waldorf Astoria by circulating the recipe to everyone she knows, imploring them to forward the coveted high-priced Waldorf Astoria recipe to every last person they know, whether friend, enemy, or apparently even complete strangers. From this seed of frustration the Red Velvet cake spread throughout much of the country, popularizing the dessert into the nationally renowned treat we all know today. What a great story. It’s just so entertaining; I don’t even care if it’s true or merely fiction.

Today, you’ll find countless Red Velvet cake recipes, also known as Waldorf Astoria cake now, stating this is “the original” Waldorf Astoria recipe. As you might guess, the recipes are all different. :)