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What's So Good About Red Velvet Cake (Split from L.A. board]

This is a little off-topic, but could someone explain what is so good about red velvet cake? If it's the cream cheese frosting (which I love), isn't carrot cake more complex and satisfying? And if it's just the pretty color, well, who cares what color your cake is? I've only had it a couple times in my life (and in cupcake form), but I just didn't quite get it. I mean, it was fine, but IMHO there are just so many other spectacular desserts out there that I would rather have!

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    1. I've been wondering the same thing. Even after being informed by other diners that a version I was eating was an excellent one, I still didn't get what was so great about it. Very plain.

      1 Reply
      1. Except for the over dyed color it's boring.

        1. Have you tried making the red velvet cake that Cook's Illustrated (aka CI on this board) published a few months ago? I've had a lot of not so special red velvet cake until I made this one ... in addition to the cocoa flavor if you use a quality chocolate, it's the very delicate crumb that the vinegar creates. Actually, it kind of reminds me of Devil's Food in that way. But red. So ... yes, the color makes it special, too. Personally, I *love* the expressions when I cut through what looks like a carrot cake to reveal a blood red center. Novelty? Suuuuure.

          1. I know people who LOVE red velvet cake. All it is is a fairly boring cocoa cake with red food coloring. I don't get the appeal. But I live in the South, so I have to be careful where & to whom I say that! One of my best friends, a foodie, loves red velvet cake & says it's one of her favorites. I just don't get it.

            If people want a red cake, I'd rather take an excellent German Chocolate cake or my recipe file classic Crazyman Cake and just put red dye in it.

            Whenever I see red velvet cake now, I think of Steel Magnolias, when the crazy lady made the red velvet cake in the shape of an armadillo, and when she cut it open, it pretty much looked like the vast majority of armadillos we see - - cut open and bright red. She should have served it on a platter with highway divider lines on it!

            2 Replies
              1. re: luv2bake

                That is hilarious!
                I totally forgot about the armadillo cake in Steel Magnolias! The fact that it was bloody looking when they cut into it was disgusting.
                I didn't even know that was red velvet cake. I thought red velvet cake was a new trend.

              2. I was gonna post the same thing... Wondering if I tasted the "right flavoring..." The ones I've had have had chemically flavors I think, or maybe it was the cocoa powder in them... Maybe I'm off in assessing the "odd taste" as the red dye, but it just tasted funky, not like a red-dyed chocolate cake, but like a funky choco (not -late) flavor. And, I'm a LOVER of cream cheese frosting... I'll eat it straight with a spoon, and don't even need a vehicle (cake beneath it) to satisfy my tooth...

                1. To me, it's not as boring as vanilla, but not as much flavor commitment as carrot.

                  It's the perfect cake for me because I don't really enjoy vanilla covered in buttercream (too sweet), but I often want something that's just plain uncomplicated. Carrot cake is delicious, but it's a lot of different flavors going on at once. Red velvet is lightly chocolatey without being as heavy as a chocolate cake, and that to me is the perfect vehicle for cream cheese frosting.

                  I don't care that it's red, and when I make it I put in very little coloring or leave it out all together.

                  1. it's a retro come-back sort of thing. it will fade.

                    1 Reply
                    1. luv2bake is onto to the real allure. Like many regional specialties, red velvet cake is wrapped up in cultural and emotional trappings that transcend the basic thing itself. New England bread pudding is similar, or carrot and raisin salad, or lutefisk, or.... It's not the cake, it's the growing up with the cake the way your grandma made it for the big church suppers. It's the memory of those sweet early summer days, with the wild mix of flavor of the red velvet cake and home made lemonade. It's not about the cake per se.

                      My mama was from South Georgia and my dad was from Maine, and I grew up with many regional favorites that would be hard pressed to stand on their own. Do Marylanders really believe that Thanksgiving turkey really tastes better with sauerkraut? Well, that combo on rye does make a good sandwich. Is New England bread pudding really any good or is it just a convenient way of getting rid of stale bread, old eggs, and milk that's starting to go off? I always thought it to be gluey and overly sweet. Are sopapillas and honey an absolute must-have at any Mexican meal? Tastes a lot like a Krispy Kreme to me. And what about brown bread baked in a coffee can? Ok, that I like, but it's because we had baked beans and brown bread most Saturday nights when I was growing up, and the brown bread was a welcome relief to the flavor and texture of the beans.

                      So, if you don't "get it", that's fine. You probably like something that I wouldn't get, either. It's what makes chowhounding fun.

                      5 Replies
                      1. re: Loren3

                        Yeah ... but in the beginning wasn't anyone's grandmother smart enough to think ... this doesn't taste like much ... instead of passing down a tasteless recipe. It's not like anyone has to use up red food coloring that lasts forever. And it just isn't that attractive anyway.

                        I keep trying ... I figure I'm missing some elusive tasty version. However so far, at best, it is an excuse to eat cream cheese frosting.

                        The novelty of the red coloring got me interested initially.

                        1. re: rworange

                          Ditto the cream cheese frosting.

                          Just about any cake I can think of is probably better with a nice smear of cream cheese frosting.

                          1. re: ipsedixit

                            a spoon tastes better w/ cream cheese frosting... hell, my finger tastes better w/ cream cheese frosting

                            1. re: Emme

                              This thread has inspired me to make a peanut butter pie with cream cheese frosting ...

                          2. re: rworange

                            It is kind of funny when everyone's lips, teeth and tongue are stained a deep red.

                            Kind of makes you want to dress up like Count Dracula ;)

                        2. have to echo those who just don't get it. i love chocolate cake, but i've rather have a deeply chocolately (and chocolate colored) cake made with high quality chocolate, and i love cream cheese frosting but i'd rather have it on a carrot cake, or coconut, or pumpkin . . . plus i know that food colorings today are supposedly safe but the idea of dumping an entire bottle of red food coloring into my cake batter just makes me uncomfortable.

                          1. I understand the confusion completely. Most of the recipes floating around now aren't Red Velvet Cake. They are ersatz versions of a deeply dyed layer cake with a contemporary cream cheese frosting, nothing like the traditional Southern cake. I don't like them either and my kids wouldn't eat that if I made it. I'm still using Mama's recipe that she gave me more than 40 years ago and it's nothing like the ones I see today.

                            Most people in the US learned about RVC from the movie Steel Magnolia in about 1989, but the cake had been popular in the South since the 1940s and 50s. Cream cheese frostings weren't generally used in the US back then. The 1930s version of the Joy of Cooking and the editions of it published through the 40s, included only one recipe for cream cheese frosting that used one 3 oz block of it. It didn't come into wide use until the 60s and 70s when carrot cake became a favorite in the US and then the frosting spread into general use for other cakes as well. Since it's in such common use now, we seem to have forgotten how new it is on the scene.
                            The original frosting on the RVC is an odd old frosting that uses a cooked base of flour and milk beaten with butter and granulated sugar, sometimes called "gravy icing."

                            There is speculation that the cake may have developed from a beet cake and derived its original color from that vegetable. It would not have been as red as the color from food dye and that change might have been made when the cake was made by a commercial baker. The original cake was dense, not having the light crumb that the Cook's Illustrated version has, but more like spice cakes or carrot cakes.

                            It may well be that RVC is a purely regional specialty that is simply evocative of time and place. If it's not your time and place, the cake isn't going to mean any more to you than certain speciaties of other areas mean to my family. We don't "get" some of those either.
                            Frankly, I make it only about twice a year - once by request for my older daughter's birthday, every damned year - because it's difficult to do right. And I completely agree with most of you that the renditions you're eating aren't very good and are not worth the trouble.

                            8 Replies
                            1. re: MakingSense

                              In our family a red velvet cake is a tradition for birthdays. I remember that as children (in the mid 50's) it was always a huge treat and the only cake we wanted our Mom Mom to make for our birthdays and it's a tradition we continue for each other as adults. Granted, it isn't as easy to make as other scratch cakes, but to me it's well worth the effort. I love the point when I add the vinegar to the batter - ah, the smell becomes unmistakably that of a red velvet cake!!! My Mom Mom made hers with a butter cream frosting recipe that I use today, so I can't comment on cream cheese frosting. The butter cream frosting recipe I have seems to be a no-fail one. I always get a lovely rise on the layers. It's an impressive cake that I think has a very distinct flavor, and my family loves it. Besides, what kid wants carrot cake for their birthday?!

                              1. re: Axalady

                                Oh, Axalady and MakingSense, you're making me so jealous with your mom's and grandmom's recipes! Any chance either of you would be willing to share a real red velvet recipe on the home cooking board?

                                This first generation immigrant would like to make it a tradition for her sister's upcoming 21st birthday! What a way to come of age in America, don't you think?

                                1. re: Pei

                                  Pei, I think it's perfect coming of age in America for you, and your sister will love you for it. I just posted the recipes for you on the Home Cooking Board. I hope that the cake will turn out perfectly for you as it does for me. Let us know!

                                  Making Sense you said "The original frosting on the RVC is an odd old frosting that uses a cooked base of flour and milk beaten with butter and granulated sugar, sometimes called "gravy icing." - and that's the exact icing that I make and I can't imagine any other icing on a red velvet cake. It's the combination of the cake and the icing that is so good. Sounds like the recipes we have are the "real deal!"

                                    1. re: Axalady

                                      That was so generous of you sharing your family recipe. Here's the link for those interested.

                                      I rarely bake but I'm going to make this a project ... even though that wisking the frosting is giving me vapors ... I REALLY am an impatient cook.

                                      However, there are times I suck it up and follow things exactly, so I'm giving this a try. If I don't like this, then I'm going to write off Red Velvet cake. And to anyone trying this ... if you substitute, no complaints ... Crisco baby ... you gotta use Crisco.

                                      1. re: rworange

                                        rwo, Mama never owned a whisk so she cooked the milk and flour with a spoon. Didn't hurt the "gravy icing" a bit. I use a wooden spatula and it comes out fine even if I don't stir constantly since I'm a bit impatient like you.
                                        Good luck. You might still hate RVC but I hope you like this frosting. It holds up to summer heat and humidity even in the Deep South which is really saying something. Nice to have in your repertoire when you're just sure a buttercream will slide right off a cake in 95 degree heat.

                                        1. re: MakingSense

                                          do you know where i can find the classic RVC and the frosting recipes

                                          1. re: sifishelia

                                            Don't know if this would help, but the Miami Herald has published recipes in the past few years and you might try their archive.

                              2. My mother's recipe is so wonderful! I think I like it because of the light flavor of the chocolate (incidentally you MUST use a quality chocolate), I don't care for chocolate overload. It is less dense and more moist than a traditional chocolate cake. Finally, and I must admit that this sounds gross, her frosting is made by whipping sugar, milk and...Crisco. It is a really light and fluffy icing. I usually request RV for my birthday.
                                I have never had RV cake anywhere that tastes even remotely close to my mom's. I'll try to find and post the recipe...you will not be disappointed!

                                1. RED VELVET CAKE!
                                  Ideally, baked by a prim Southern belle.

                                  Wake up, chowhounds...how could anyone possibly miss all that blatant "X" rated visual symbolism?

                                  It's all very sexually arousing somehow. Cutting (with a long, pointy phallic symbol) a big triangle (delta of Venus) into that virginal white, fluffy exterior (like a bridal gown!) "exposing" all that shocking, secret, hidden, bright cherry-red sensuousness on the in-side.

                                  THEN...just like in real life, when you finally DO IT...consume IT, whatever that particular IT of your own private fantasy world demands of you...BIG LET DOWN. Of course, sadly, reality can never live up to your perfect fantasy.

                                  So, in boring old reality red velvet cake tastes BLAH. I've read the recipes for it. Flour, sugar, shortening, eggs...and not enough chocolate to really even make it taste very chocolatey.

                                  My guess is that red velvet cake was invented during the Great Depression when quality ingredients were too expensive for most folks. Hmm...maybe that's why it's suddenly popular again.

                                  But back to the nasty bits -
                                  Red velvet cake: in short, is there any other food that more perfectly epitomizes sexual tension and the conflict between its fantasy and reality?
                                  I think not.

                                  7 Replies
                                  1. re: niki rothman

                                    Brava, Niki! A great piece of writing!
                                    You forget though how relatively recent chocolate is as a major factor in American desserts. Even the ubiquitous Nestle Semi-Sweet Morsel wasn't available until 1939. Chocolate in general was an expensive import and through much of the US in the days before air-conditioning, it just melted on store and pantry shelves during hot summer months. American recipes using chocolate before then and for many years after generally used cocoa. It was much more common in European desserts.
                                    In the South, even to this day, particularly among older Southerners, they'll let you have the chocolate, but don't get between them and the lemon bars or anything with coconut or pecans.
                                    Most traditional American desserts rely on seasonal and local fruits and nuts added to common staples - milk, butter, lard, eggs, flour, sugar - and some other ingredients, depending on the section of the country, such as maple syrup or cane syrup. Cooks relied on skill and what was at hand rather than expensive ingredients. There's a big difference in today's cookbooks and those of 50 years ago or older.
                                    I can pass on most chocolate desserts. Cheap thrills. I'll spare you my thoughts on how that relates to sex in our current society.

                                    1. re: MakingSense

                                      I'm another one who "doesn't get" Red Velvet Cake (I'm from NY---I'm sure there are many who "don't get" knishes ;-)). But I do have a question about it. Does the red coloring add anything to the TASTE? And if I didn't have red coloring on hand, could I substitute BLUE food coloring and get the same taste? Purple Velvet Cake might be fun to make for a children's party!

                                      1. re: Anne

                                        There is one place in LA that serves Blue Velvet cake, and boy is it blue!

                                        So yes, you can make it whatever color you want. It doesn't change the taste at all.

                                        1. re: Anne

                                          There is no reason in the world why you can't have fun with this cake. Little girls particularly love purple. That cake could be such a hit that you might have to do it every year even if it wasn't the yummiest thing ever.
                                          My older daughter, now in her 30s, has to have RVC for her birthday every year, the same way, with silver dragées, that I have done it since she was tiny. It's a tradition.
                                          You may have to play with the color to get a good purple unless you buy purple food coloring at Williams-Sonoma, Wilton, King Arthur or another place that sells good coloring. It's hard to mix accurately. Go for it!

                                          1. re: Anne

                                            And I'm gonna sound like a total and complete dolt, but if I omit the coloring, should I taste a noticeable difference... I convinced myself that the food coloring was what made the cake taste "off" to me... Or, is it that I just don't like RVC or VC...

                                            1. re: Emme

                                              Emme, I noticed in a post above Pei says sometimes she puts very little coloring in or she leaves it out altogether. Perhaps the presence or absence of the food coloring makes no difference at all. I've never made a red velvet cake without the red. Success in baking requires following measurements and directions exactly. Pei, how do you make up for the 2 oz of liquid missing from the batter if you don't add food coloring? Do you add extra buttermilk? Or doesn't it make a difference?

                                              1. re: Axalady

                                                I've just left it out, but I think next time I'll put in buttermilk and see if it's better!

                                      2. Agree that the "retro" makes it all the better somehow, and the fact that it is red is fun, and last but not least, it is covered with cream cheese icing...It also tends to be a bit lighter in texture than chocolate cake...Think mostly that "retro" is in a the moment...

                                        1 Reply
                                        1. re: jinet12

                                          jinet12, if you've never had the icing I called MomMom's Butter Cream - that actually is gravy icing - on red velvet cake, please try it. Cream cheese icing isn't the way to go, at least on a red velvet cake. It's the combination of cake and gravy icing that makes the cake. I have posted the recipes on the Home Cooking Board. I would NEVER put any other icing on my red velvet cake.

                                        2. Unless someone truly craves an overload of potentially carcinogenic artificial coloring, I fail to see the appeal of Red Velvet Cake. The cake would taste the same if the food coloring was omitted, and the intense color makes it unappealing, IMHO.

                                          Having once tasted a small piece of this concoction, I agree with the posters who said that the taste of RVC is not that special. But, no matter what opinion one has of its taste, there is no question about two points:

                                          *The artificial coloring is does not affect the taste
                                          *Artificial coloring agents in food do not benefit one's health, and may well be harmful in large doses--such as in RVC.

                                          1 Reply
                                          1. re: Ted in Central NJ

                                            There are a number of brands of organic, natural colorings out there now.

                                          2. Wow, thanks for all the input! By the way, I wasn't trying to put down anyone's traditions or tastes - I was just looking for some info about something that I didn't understand. So again, thanks!

                                            2 Replies
                                            1. re: aching

                                              Ha! My sister and I were just having the same philosophical discussion after I suggested we serve Red Velvet Cake with our Christmas tea this year. She's the baker in the family though, so I guess she gets final say in our discussion. (But how many of you anti-RVC chowhounds drink bubble tea and eat asian desserts and other foods that make ample use of artifical flavoring and ingredients?)

                                              1. re: thinthukgirl

                                                thinthukgirl, I agree with you. How many people eat "potentially carcinogenic" artificial ingredients every day in foods without knowing it. Breathing in some areas of the world could be considered "potentially carcinogenic". I LOVE Red Velvet Cake and will be baking the third one of this year for a birthday celebration within the next week, risk or not! I doubt if that little bit of red food coloring hurts anyone. My family has been enjoying RVC since the late 30's early 40's and no one has died of complications related to red food coloring.

                                            2. FYI, cream cheese frosting is not traditional for a RVC as far as I know. My grandma's recipe uses a variation on what I think is a boiled icing. It's about nostalgia and a gooey, yummy confection. That's it... no real mystery. Now if you really want to try a cake with an odd appeal, try a coca cola cake...

                                              1. It's funny. Now that I read this post, I am asking myself, "why do I love RVC?" For me, it has nothing to do with retro, I never had this cake until I was much older (not a Korean tradition). I agree that it isn't a spectacular cake, but perhaps that is what i love about it. it is a classic cake, simple yet beautiful, perhaps just the kind of thing i would have liked as a family tradition had i grown up in the classic North American nuclear family, a common dream amongst first generation children of immigrant families. Sometimes, you want simplicity. Now i will say that I have the good fortune of getting these cakes from a really great baker (Cocoa Locale in MOntreal), and she uses beet juice as the main colouring agent.

                                                1. I think I must be one of those people who has never had a real red velvet cake. The only ones I had were barely red, because the red, even two bottles of food coloring could not overcome the dark color of the chocolate cake mix they were poured into. OK...now that the traditionalists have picked themselves up off the floor, I was surprised to learn that a real red velvet cake would actually be red. I always wondered why it was a chocolate cake rather than a white or yellow cake that the coloring was put in, but seeing the low amount of chocolate that the real thing has, it makes a lot more sense.

                                                    1. I've heard so much about red velvet, but was never really into it as I assumed it was just plain yellow cake with food coloring.

                                                      After seeing a brilliant picture of one, it was too tempting to ignore and I decided to make it. You eat with your eyes, I guess. On my first try, the cake was not as red as the pic (even though I followed the recipe) and the taste was a bit to faint. I know, red velvet should be slightly sour with a kiss of chocolate, but I wanted something better.

                                                      I finally found a great recipe and the right color shade and amount and made an insanely red RV cake with cream cheese frosting. Also, I increased the amount of cocoa powder and it was amazing. I'm not too big on cakes, but people who tried both batches of RV cake loved it.

                                                      Could the cake be tasty without the food color? Absolutely! But an RV cake, in my opinion, should be about the taste and theatrics!

                                                      Here's a pic of the cake I replicated. Mine was very similar.

                                                      As far as the taste of the food color, I think it depends on the brand of color. Mine did not have an aftertaste - I bet the supermarket brands are the culprit.