Its mysterious origins notwithstanding, Neely Barnwell Dykshorn confirms, there’s no question that the red velvet cake is quintessentially Southern.
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Racy yet regal with just a hint of redneck, red velvet cake is wrapped in pedigree but remains queen of the comfort food. Its origins stretch back to the 1920s, when it’s said to have been invented at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, created for a red velvet-themed wedding. Another story at the Waldorf, less poetic, says the hotel charged a patron who requested the recipe $100 for it (like the Neiman Marcus cookie incident you heard about c. 1982). Probably neither is true.
Today, red velvet cake still turns up as far north as the West Village, where New Yorkers wait in line for Magnolia Bakery’s pastel-iced, homey cupcake version. So, if the Waldorf Astoria launched it and modern-day Manhattan is still in hot pursuit, then what—besides a blockbuster cameo as an armadillo-shaped groom’s cake in the film, Steel Magnolias—makes the red velvet cake seem so Southern?
“They were cakes people made for each other,” says Ted Lee, co-author of The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook: Stories and Recipes for Southerners and Would-Be Southerners, published by W.W. Norton in 2006. “Probably a doctored Duncan Hines—I wonder if it even had cocoa.”
After Amherst and Harvard brought the brothers north from Charleston, they settled in New York City. Since 1994, the Lees have gained renown as purveyors of Dixie foodstuffs, mostly their homemade boiled peanuts cooked on their Lower East Side fire escape and sold through a 16-page catalogue they stitched together on a Singer sewing machine. Their recipes have appeared in The New York Times, Martha Stewart Living, and Travel and Leisure.
Their book features a red velvet cake in the cover photo and their recipe for that orange zest-tinged, cream cheese-iced version inside. “We had one from a bakery in Harlem that had orange extract—it was like ‘chocolate-plus,’” says Ted. Their favorite bakery red velvet comes from Kudzu Bakery in Georgetown, S.C., and launched an attempt to replicate its mayonnaise-spiked formula. “I thought it’s what gave it moisture, but I tried making a red velvet cake with mayonnaise and it was appalling,” he says.
The cake in the Lee brothers’ book is something of an anomaly. Red velvet recipes don’t turn up in Rose Levy Beranbaum’s The Cake Bible or even The Joy of Cooking; they were more in the domain of shared recipe cards and church cookbooks. A classic example is found in Richmond’s own Grace & Holy Trinity’s Cooking With Grace. That recipe embraces a full two ounces of red food coloring (Sauer’s being the brand of choice below the Mason-Dixon line) and eschews cream cheese frosting in favor of a Crisco buttercream, and it’s tough to argue with the unabashed Southernness of that.
Chef Greg Johnson of downtown Richmond’s Chez Foushee, where red velvet cake rotates on and off the menu, traces the cake the farthest back and the farthest south. Johnson’s research led to the Acadians, the staunch Catholics who left France for Canada. In the early 17th century, after the British kicked them out of Nova Scotia, they settled in Louisiana, around the Mississippi. “There, they made their own beet flour and were using it in baking for its sugar content,” says Johnson.
So the debate remains as to whether red velvet cake came from Bayou beet flour or the ballrooms of the Waldorf Astoria. “Whatever the origins are, I think it’s Southern now,” says Matt Lee. “It could have been invented in Bangladesh, but we’ve adopted it.”
Grace’s Red Velvet Cake
Used by permission from Cooking With Grace, Grace & Holy Trinity Church, 2005
1/2 cup Crisco
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 tablespoon cocoa
2 ounces red food coloring
2 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup buttermilk
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 tablespoon vinegar
Cream Crisco and sugar. Add eggs and beat thoroughly. Add cocoa and food coloring and beat until well mixed. In separate bowl, add salt to flour. Add flour mixture alternating with buttermilk to the Crisco mixture. Add vanilla and mix well. Stir soda into vinegar and add immediately to above mixture. Fold in carefully. Bake in two greased and floured 8-inch round pans at 350 degrees for 30 minutes. Test cakes for doneness.
1 cup whole milk
1/4 cup flour
pinch of salt
1/2 cup Crisco
1 stick butter
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
Cook milk, flour and salt to pudding stage—it must be thick. Cool until cold. Cream together Crisco, butter, sugar and vanilla. Beat until very smooth, about 5 minutes. Frost cake. Keep covered in refrigerator.
The Lees’ Red Velvet Cake
Used by permission from The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook: Stories and Recipes for Southerners and Would-Be Southerners, by Matt Lee and Ted Lee. W.W. Norton & Co., 2006
Makes one 2-layer, 9-inch cake, enough for 12 people
Time: 1 1/2 hours
For the cake:
2 3/4 cups plus 1 tablespoon sifted cake flour
2 1/2 cups sifted bleached all-purpose flour, plus more for flouring the pans
2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 cup natural cocoa powder such as Hershey’s
1 ounce red food coloring
1 1/2 tablespoons water
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened, plus more for greasing the pans
2 cups sugar
3 large eggs
11/2 teaspoons natural vanilla extract
1 tablespoon orange zest (from 1 to 2 oranges)
1 cup whole or low-fat buttermilk
For the icing:
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter
1 pound cream cheese (2 packages), softened
1 pound (4 cups) sifted confectioners’ sugar
2 tablespoons whole milk, if needed
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour two 9x2-inch cake pans or line their bottoms with greased, floured waxed paper.
2. Sift the flour, salt, baking powder and baking soda together twice. In a small mixing bowl, whisk the cocoa, red food coloring and water to a smooth paste, about 1 minute, and reserve.
3. In a large mixing bowl, beat 1 cup butter with an electric mixer until creamy, about 30 seconds. Add the sugar, 1/4 cup at a time, beating about 15 seconds after each addition and scraping down the sides of the bowl if necessary, until the mixture has lightened in color and become fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add eggs, 1 at a time, the vanilla, and orange zest, beating for 15 seconds after each addition. Add the red cocoa paste and mix until evenly incorporated.
4. Add the flour mixture to the butter and egg mixture in thirds, alternating with 2 additions of half the buttermilk. To avoid overworking the batter, gently mix with a wooden spoon or rubber spatula after each addition, until the ingredient is just incorporated. Once all ingredients are incorporated, beat the batter 10 to 12 strokes with your spoon or spatula if using cake flour, 2 to 3 strokes if using bleached all-purpose flour.
5. Divide the batter between the cake pans and spread the tops evenly with the wooden spoon or spatula. Bake until a cake tester or toothpick emerges clean, about 30 minutes. Remove from the oven and let the cakes cool in their pans on a rack for 10 minutes, then slide a thin paring knife around the edge of the pans and invert the cakes. Lift away the waxed paper, if using. Cool the cakes completely on a rack, with their tops facing up.
6. In a large bowl, beat 3/4 cup butter with the mixer until creamy, about 30 seconds. Add the cream cheese and beat until the mixture is fluffy, white and very smooth, about 1 minute. Add the confectioners’ sugar 1 cup at a time, beating for 30 seconds after each addition, until the mixture is creamy, fluffy and smooth. If the frosting is too stiff, beat the milk into it to loosen it.
7. Gently ice the cake layers generously. Spoon 1 cup of icing in the center of the first cake layer. Working an icing or rubber spatula in gentle swirling motions, spread the icing from the center toward the edges of the cake until it forms an even layer 1/3 to 1/2 inch thick (if you need to add more icing, add it to the center and work it out toward the sides).
8. Carefully set the second cake layer on top of the first and ice the second layer in the same manner, beginning with a dollop in the center and working it out to the sides. Then ice the sides of the cake. (If you prepared your pans well, the sides of the cake should have pulled away from the pan and baked to a firm, flat surface. But if the sides are crumbly, brush excess crumbs away and place a thin layer of icing on the cake to seal the crumbs in. Refrigerate for 30 minutes, then apply another, thicker layer on top of the first.)
9. Store the cake at room temperature, beneath a cake cover. If you don’t plan to eat it for 24 hours, put it on a plate, tent it with plastic wrap, and store it in the refrigerator for up to 3 days. Remember to remove the cake from the refrigerator 1 hour or more before serving to take the chill off. Serve with glasses of cold milk.