Red velvet is not a flavour. And that's the hill I'll die on.
Updated: Sep 30
I remember being in my twenties, which by the way, was ages ago, and driving with some friends to get some red velvet cupcakes from the Hummingbird Bakery in…. I’m going to take a guess and say Kensington. These were famous cupcakes, somehow they had become part of the zeitgeist. You must have red velvet cupcakes from Hummingbird. I remember we couldn’t find anywhere to park so we drove round and round in circles until finally one of my friends decided he would just jump out of the car, run in and get some while we drove around and then we would pick him up. The anticipation was building. Did I mention they were famous cupcakes? When he got back in the car we were absolutely not allowed to eat them straight away. We had to wait until we got home and could enjoy them to the fullest. Anticipation builds further. We get home and I look at my cupcake. It looks pretty. I eat my cupcake. It’s fine. I mean it’s bright red sponge that tastes of nothing, quite dry and comparatively delicious cream cheese frosting and the combination of delicious and dry kind of meld together to make it….fine. I felt let down. The promise of so much, the result so mediocre. This is absolutely not to slam Hummingbird Bakery. They are a good bakery. But it left me with a residual resentment towards red velvet cake from which I never quite recovered.
Fast forward ten years, and a bit, and I’m running a cake business. Red velvet is a commonly requested flavour. The main issue with this is that when people request a red velvet cake they are assuming it’s going to be accompanied by the deliciousness that is cream cheese frosting. Now in my borough home bakeries are not allowed to sell cream cheese frosting without oodles of extra paperwork, because cream cheese itself is considered a high risk ingredient. Because of Listeria. A very unpleasant type of food poisoning, not that any of them are delightful, that’s particularly dangerous to children, pregnant women and the elderly. Cream cheese can’t be left out of the fridge for more than four hours. Sponge cake doesn’t do that well in the fridge to begin with, if it's a red velvet sponge we are talking dryer than the desert.
I tried numerous recipes, all calling for a large amount of red food colouring. The legal limit of most food colouring in the UK is 0.3%. Which means for every kilo you eat only 3g can be food colouring. Every recipe I tried used more than this. I also noticed that the recipes contained maybe a tablespoon of cocoa powder, maybe a teaspoon of vanilla. Not really enough of anything to give them any actual flavour. And a lot of bicarbonate of soda and vinegar aimed at improving the rise. They were all dense, heavy, and unappealing. To me at least. And barely red. Red velvet cake and I were not getting on.
This prompted me to look into the history of red velvet cake with surprising results. It seems to have originated in the US between 1920-1950. The Waldorf Astoria claim to have invented it but it also appears in many Southern recipe books. Another contender is The Adams Extract Company who saw it as a great vehicle for its newly released food colouring. A recipe is also included in The Joy of cooking by Irma S Rombauer, though she herself notes that she is not impressed with it “Generally popular, but not with me.” She writes. I hear you Ms Rombauer, echoing through time. Throughout the 40s when rations were scarce people used Beetroot in their cakes. Not only to add moisture, but also colour. And if any version is going to grab my interest it will be this one. But I can’t quite bring myself to start boiling beets for cakes. We have also changed the way we process cocoa in the intervening years and it was the Dutch press that put the final nail in the red velvet coffin. Cocoa used to react with the acidic element to give off a reddish hue to the sponge, but since most cocoa is now Dutch pressed this no longer happens.
The actual incident that destroyed any chance of red velvet cake and I finding a way to work together came when I was making my sister’s engagement cake. She had requested red velvet for the middle tier. I must really, really love her because despite my previous misgivings I acquiesced. There is now an indelible stain on my worktop. An indelible red stain on my oak worktop. An indelible red stain on my hand crafted, much loved, longed for oak worktop. And that just killed it. Hope you liked your cake sis!
Anyway, I'm thinking of getting T-shirts made that say Red Velvet Is Not A Flavour! Or maybe a badge. Are you in?