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On red alert

Old-fashioned Red Devil’s Food Cake, left, barely gets a tinge of red from the chemical reaction between acid and alkaline ingredients in a recipe from The Spokesman-Review’s Dorothy Dean’s Homemakers Service in 1936. Red Velvet Cake was popularized later in a leaflet from 1962 and called for 2 ounces of red food coloring to achieve the deep red color. (Lorie Hutson)
Old-fashioned Red Devil’s Food Cake, left, barely gets a tinge of red from the chemical reaction between acid and alkaline ingredients in a recipe from The Spokesman-Review’s Dorothy Dean’s Homemakers Service in 1936. Red Velvet Cake was popularized later in a leaflet from 1962 and called for 2 ounces of red food coloring to achieve the deep red color. (Lorie Hutson)

What began as a casual search for a dye-free red velvet cake ends with an incredible journey deep into the Dorothy Dean archives

A simple recipe request sparked a recent red velvet immersion course.

A grandmother called recently to ask for a red velvet recipe she could make for her grandson, who loves the cake but is allergic to red food dye. I had a vague recollection that red velvet cakes weren’t always made with food dye and offered to dig up a traditional recipe for her that instead relies on the chemical reaction between acid and alkaline ingredients to create the cake’s reddish hue.

She wasn’t certain that was what she wanted and opted instead to simply leave out the red food coloring from a red velvet cake recipe. But while I searched for a recipe for her, I stumbled across an intriguing reference to red velvet in an online article about the history of the cake. It said, “By the 1960s, recipes for red velvet cake were appearing across the nation in newspapers such as The Washington Post and Spokesman-Review with names such as ‘Red Carpet Cake.’ Red food coloring now featured as a prominent, and essential, ingredient along with such other basics as buttermilk, cocoa powder and vinegar.”

If The Spokesman-Review helped popularize red velvet cake, I was curious about that recipe and any predecessors. So I started digging.

In all, I found about a dozen references to red cakes in the Dorothy Dean’s Homemakers Service archives, a series of leaflets that were mailed to subscribing home cooks between 1935 and 1988. The oldest recipe was a Red Devil’s Food Cake that appeared in 1936. The first Red Velvet Cake recipe was published by the service in 1962 and called for an audacious amount of red food dye at the time – 2 ounces.

The recipes that appeared in between those two bookends include Red Regal Cake that does not include food coloring. It appears to be just a renamed red devil’s food cake that was topped with chocolate cream instead of white frosting.

But by 1960, the original red devil’s food cake includes a note instructing readers to stir a scant 1/2 teaspoon of red food coloring into the cake batter just before pouring into the pans. That cake – Feather Devil’s Food Cake – appears alongside a recipe for cream cheese frosting – a glimpse perhaps of the emergence of the red velvet cake that is so popular today.

I didn’t find a Dorothy Dean recipe for red velvet cakes calling for pureed beets, although they were popular in some parts of the country due to sugar rationing during the war years. Most of those recipes come with a warning that the beets lend a “vegetal” flavor to the cake.

With my curiosity piqued, I started baking cakes because I wanted to see whether traditional recipes for red velvet could come close to the hue that we’ve come to expect from today’s version of the cake. I followed the recipes from 1936 and 1962 to compare the results.

Author Harold McGee explained in his book “On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen” that the red color in traditional cakes occurs when a chemical reaction happens between alkaline (baking soda/powder) and acidic (cocoa, buttermilk, vinegar) ingredients. “Chemical leavenings have effects on both flavor and color… browning reactions are enhanced, chocolate turns reddish, and blueberries turn green.”

The results are not dramatic. The red devil’s food cake that first appeared in Dorothy Dean leaflets can only be generously described as reddish. Compared to the deep red of the Red Velvet Cake it looks positively chocolate brown. It could be that ingredients that were available in 1936 were different somehow from those widely used today.

The cake ingredients are not identical. The red devil’s food cake gets its more pronounced chocolate flavor from the baking chocolate. Red velvet cake relies on just a bit of cocoa powder – as little as a tablespoon in some recipes and up to four tablespoons in others.

My dinner guests naturally gravitated toward the red velvet cake of the 1960s. When we tried to tease out the reason why, we all agreed that it was the flavor of the cream cheese frosting rather than the taste of the cake itself. The cake that got the most compliments from tasters combined the Dorothy Dean red velvet cake with the cream cheese frosting recipe from the “Cook’s Country’s Best Lost Recipes.” The cake recipes are very similar as well.

Others have spent much more time researching the history of red velvet cakes and the folklore surrounding them. Author Jan Harold Brunvand devotes a whole chapter to red velvet cakes – in which he debunks a persistent myth that the cake was originally served at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City – in his 2000 book, “The Truth Never Stands in the Way of a Good Story.” His chapter called “What’s Red and White and Baked All Over” appears to be the source of the quote in the online article that send me digging through the newspaper’s archives.

Although that intriguing cake of 1962 was the clear winner of my informal taste tests, if I were making a cake for someone allergic to red food dye I would make a red devil’s food cake with cream cheese frosting. The recipes are below.

Just for fun, I’m including one more red velvet cake just to bring the story of the cake up to date. Smitten Kitchen blogger and cookbook author Deb Perelman confessed that she never really liked red velvet cake at all, until a reader suggested substituting red wine for the buttermilk in a chocolate cake recipe on her site. The resulting recipe, Red Velvet Wine Cake, is now her favorite birthday cake recipe for grown-ups. It appeared in “The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook” in 2012 and it is delicious, too.

Red Devil’s Food Cake

From Dorothy Dean’s Homemakers Service, The Spokesman-Review, 1936.

2 1/4 cups cake flour

3 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

6 tablespoons fat (see note)

1 1/2 cups sugar

3 eggs

3/4 cup sour milk (see note)

3/4 cup boiling water

3 squares baking chocolate

1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda

1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla

Sift the flour once, measure, add the baking powder and salt and sift together three times. Cream the fat, add the sugar gradually and cream together until light and fluffy. Add eggs, one at a time, beating each in vigorously. Add flour and sour milk alternately, a small amount at a time. Pour boiling water into the melted chocolate and mix quickly. Add soda to chocolate and stir until thick. Cool slightly before adding to the cake batter. Mix thoroughly. Add vanilla. Bake in two greased deep 8-inch layer cake pans in a moderate oven (350 degrees), 30 to 35 minutes.

Note: I used shortening for the fat in the cake. Also, I used buttermilk instead of sour milk in this recipe because I had it on hand.

Yield: 8-inch layer cake

Red Velvet Cake

From Dorothy Dean’s Homemakers Service, The Spokesman Review, 1962.

1/2 cup shortening

1 1/2 cups sugar

2 eggs

1 tablespoon cocoa

2 ounces red food coloring

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 cup buttermilk

2 1/2 cups sifted cake flour

1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda

1 1/2 teaspoons vinegar

Bakery Frosting (recipe follows)

Cream shortening and sugar. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each.

Make a paste of cocoa and food coloring; stir into creamed mixture. Mix salt and vanilla with buttermilk. Add to creamed mixture alternately with flour. Blend soda and vinegar; fold into mixture (do not beat). Turn batter into two prepared 9-inch cake pans. Bake at 350 degrees for about 30 minutes. Cool, then fill and frost with soft, creamy Bakery Frosting.

Yield: One 9-inch layer cake.

Bakery Frosting: Blend 5 tablespoons flour with 1 cup milk; cook to a very thick paste, stirring constantly. Let stand at room temperature until cool, then remove crust. Measure 1 cup butter, 1 cup sugar and 1 teaspoon vanilla into bowl; cream until very light and fluffy. Gradually add flour-milk paste; beat about 10 minutes until sugar is completely dissolved and mixture is the consistency of whipped cream.

Cream Cheese Frosting

From the editors of Cook’s Country, “Best Lost Recipes.”

16 tablespoons (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened

4 cups confectioners’ sugar

16 ounces cream cheese, cut into 8 pieces, softened

1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Pinch of salt

To make the frosting: With an electric mixer on medium-high speed, beat the butter and confectioners’ sugar until fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add the cream cheese, one piece at a time, and beat until incorporated. Beat in the vanilla and salt.

Spread about 2 cups frosting on one cake layer. Top with the second cake layer and spread the top and sides of the cake with the remaining frosting. Serve. The cake can be refrigerated for up to three days.

Yield: Enough frosting for a 9-inch layer cake.

Red Wine Velvet Cake with Whipped Mascarpone

From “The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook,” by Deb Perelman (Knopf, 2012). Perelman wrote in the cookbook that she discovered this recipe when a reader left a comment on an everyday chocolate cake in her archives. She was not a huge fan of red velvet cakes, saying “the chocolate is barely perceptible and the ‘red velvet’ is just red food dye, and a lot of it.”

She added that she liked the loud chocolate flavor and the natural red tint of this cake instead. It is now her favorite birthday cake for grown-ups because the wine does not fully bake out.

For the cake:

16 tablespoons (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus more for the pans

2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for the pans

2 cups firmly packed dark brown sugar

2/3 cup granulated sugar

4 large eggs, at room temperature

2 cups red wine, any kind you like

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1 1/2 cups Dutch cocoa powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon baking powder

3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

3/4 teaspoon table salt

For the filling:

16 ounces mascarpone cheese

2 1/3 cups confectioners’ sugar

Pinch of salt

1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract

To make the cake: Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Line the bottom of three 9-inch round cake pans with parchment and either butter and lightly flour the parchment and exposed sides of the pans, or spray the interior with a nonstick spray. In a large bowl, at the medium speed of an electric mixer, cream the butter until smooth. Add the sugars and beat until fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the eggs and beat well, then add the red wine and vanilla. Don’t worry if the batter looks a little uneven. Sift the flour, cocoa, baking soda, baking powder, cinnamon and salt together, right over your wet ingredients. Mix until three-quarters combined, then fold the rest together with a rubber spatula. Divide batter between prepared pans (about 2 1/2 cups batter per pan). Bake for 25 minutes, or until a cake tester inserted into the center of each layer comes out clean. The top of each cake should be shiny and smooth, like a puddle of chocolate. Cool in pan on a rack for about 10 minutes, then flip out of pan and cool the rest of the way on a cooling rack.

If your cakes have domed a bit and you want nice even layers in your stack, you can trim the tops. Use a long serrated knife, held horizontally, and use gentle back-and-forth motions with your hand on the top of the cake to even it out. Share the cake scraps with whoever is around; no one will mind helping you remove “debris.”

To make the filling: In a medium bowl, beat the mascarpone with the confectioners’ sugar, pinch of salt and vanilla extract at medium speed until the mixture is light and fluffy, about 1 to 2 minutes.

To assemble the cake: Place the first cake layer on a cake stand or plate, and spread with one-third of the filling. Repeat with remaining two layers. Chill with cake in the fridge until you’re ready to serve it.

Cooking note: This recipe makes a three-layer cake with three layers of filling. You won’t have enough to coat the sides – I liked the look of the cake stacked and open. You can double the frosting recipe to cover it, but I want to warn you that there is a bit of translucence to the whipped mascarpone and the cake is likely to peep through anyway.

Yield: 1 towering 3-layer 9-inch cake, serving 16 to 20.