Above, a red velvet cocktail and red velvet cake with beets from The Salt Exchange in Portland; below, a traditional red velvet cake. You can get the red color in the cake two ways. Cocoa contains a natural pigment called anthocyanin that is brought out by the addition of acids like buttermilk or vinegar, which are key ingredients in traditional red velvet cake recipes.
By Meredith Goad
Remember when salt caramel was something new?
Once only in the culinary repertoire of pastry chefs, now the flavor is used in candies, brownies, ice cream and in unexpected products like hot cocoa and vodka. And they are sold everywhere, from the finest restaurant to big box stores.
The same thing appears to be happening with red velvet.
Red velvet cake, a perfect choice for Valentine's Day, is a classic Southern dessert once only brought out for holidays and other special occasions. The staff at the Waldorf Astoria in New York claim to have invented it, and their recipe is all over the Internet, but that story is suspect. Wherever it originated, it's the South that lays cultural claim to the dessert.
Known for its moistness, traditional red velvet is a classic layer cake, consisting of chocolate-y cake that's got a distinct red tint to it covered in cream cheese frosting. Depending on the cocoa and the amount of coloring, the cake may look like a dark devil's food cake with just a touch of red, or the cake may be more of a brownish-red color. Some people enjoy making it a bright red -- so bright that it's almost fluorescent and you can't tell there's any cocoa in the cake at all.
You can get the red color in the cake two ways. Cocoa contains a natural pigment called anthocyanin that is brought out by the addition of acids like buttermilk or vinegar, which are key ingredients in traditional red velvet cake recipes. Don't ever use Dutch process cocoa if you want to go the natural route.
"Most cocoa powders, unless they're natural, have some sort of alkali in them to keep them in the powdered state so they don't clump," says Adam White, executive chef at The Salt Exchange in Portland, who will be serving red velvet cake on Valentine's Day. "So it's really important not to use a Dutch cocoa, or anything that has an additive in there because it will definitely deteriorate the pigment."
Over the years, as Dutch process cocoa took over the shelves, bakers enhanced the redness of their cakes with red food coloring. (Marketing by food extract companies didn't hurt, either.) Most old recipes call for at least a 1-ounce bottle or two of food coloring, and I have seen some recipes that call for two 2-ounce bottles, which seems crazy.
If the idea of using food coloring turns you off, there's an old story that says bakers used beets during World War II rationing to color their red velvet cakes. That's what White uses in his red velvet cake, which he will be serving Thursday in the shape of a heart with some raspberry cream and a heart-shaped chocolate mousse.
"Beets have been used for dying food and clothes throughout the centuries," White said. "There's great antioxidants in beets as well, so it can't hurt."
Using beets can also be tricky, though, and mess with the chemistry of the cake.
"The beets are very sensitive to water, and an abundance of water will obviously dilute the pigment," White said. "Too much alkaline -- baking soda or baking powder -- will also dilute the pigment. And heat. Acids are really good, so we added a little bit more lemon juice just to hold that pigment in place, and a little bit of vinegar."
Using pureed beets is like adding applesauce to a cake -- they keep it very moist.
White used a little almond extract in his cream cheese frosting to cut the sharpness of the cream cheese. "Very subtle," he said, "but also very good."
IT'S EVERYWHERE, IN EVERYTHING
Today we seem to be experiencing red velvet creep. There are red velvet cupcakes, whoopie pies and ice cream out there, but also red velvet coffee and red velvet vodka. Desiree and Zing make red velvet-flavored vodkas, and Nuvo has come out with a sparkling red velvet cake liqueur made with vodka, but none of these, as far as I can tell, are being sold in Maine.
The Republic of Tea makes a Red Velvet Chocolate Tea that tastes like devil's food cake and gets its red tint from beets, and Rooibos, a South Africa tea also known as red bush.
Pastry shops around town, including The Cookie Jar in Cape Elizabeth and Tony's Donuts in Portland and South Portland, are selling red velvet doughnuts. Donna Piscopo, owner of The Cookie Jar, says she also makes red velvet cupcakes, birthday cakes and wedding cakes.
Piscopo recently surveyed some of her customers who were buying her red velvet honey-glazed doughnuts; most of them were male -- and many of them said they thought of red velvet as an old-fashioned flavor that brought them back to their childhoods.
"I believe the red velvet is popular because most people think of it as a comfort food," Piscopo said.
So comfort yourself, or the one you love, this Valentine's Day with a slice of cake, or cup of tea, that's the color of your heart and a taste of childhood.
Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Red velvet doughnuts have joined more traditional varieties on the menu at Tony's Donuts in Portland and South Portland.
Red Velvet Chocolate Tea from the Republic of Tea.