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The Red Velvet Cake Debate

“Cream cheese frosting.  It has to have cream cheese frosting.  There has to be that tanginess.” 

When I mentioned to folks that I’d attended a Red Velvet Cake Debate last Friday, this was the first comment that almost all of them had.  Ah ha, but not so fast said I, frosting was also a subject that was brought up for discussion.  Organized by Nichelle Stephens of Cupcakes Take the Cake [photo above], the esteemed panelists for the Red Velvet Cake Debate were: Dara Gilmore of New York’s Sweetest, Shari Ledgister of LuxSugar, and Allison Robicelli of Robicelli’s Cupcakes.  The evening’s chatter was moderated, often quite passionately, by Nicole Taylor aka Food Culturist and host of the Hot Grease radio show on Heritage Radio Network.

Dara, Shari, Allison, and Nicole

First up, laying the groundwork for the banter back and forth, Nicole asked the panelists and took an audience survey of where everyone was on the Red Velvet Cake (RVC) spectrum: love it, hate it, or only like it if it is homemade.  Dara confessed to being a RVC eater.  Shari was an advocate for it, but doesn’t really eat it.  I knew going into the evening that Allison was definitely in the con category for this confection, but she did admit that she was in favor of a really good, homemade version, which everyone agreed is the quest for the holy grail of RVC that very few cakes seem to achieve.  The audience was a mix, and I’m firmly in the middle ground, neither a mega-huge fan or a hater.  I like it, but what I really like is super-delicious, tangy, moist, perfectly flavor-balanced RVC, otherwise, it is just disappointing and a waste of sugar and calories.

Red Velvet Cupcakes by New York’s Sweetest

Where did it Come From and Why? – A few theories on this were discussed, with no real conclusion.  I had always associated RVC with the South and its current popularity in the same basket as Krispy Kreme doughnuts, pork products and a general resurgence of Southern comfort/soul food that has been going on for a few years.  One story of the cake’s origins, however, puts it at the Waldorf=Astoria right here in New York.  Another version was explored recently at Gilt Taste.

As to the why part, several theories were also voiced with one explanation being that it was a cake seen during the holiday season, hence another reason for its color.  Dara mentioned that Valentine’s Day is one occasion where she would see them pop up.  Shari said that she associates it with Christmas, also pointing out that velvet dresses are part of that season as is the color red.

Red Velvet Cake Pops by Nomnivorous

The Color – This came out of the debate as the one component that basically everyone could agree upon: the cake needs to be red in order to be called Red Velvet Cake.  As Nicole put it, “One of the appeals is the color.  No one knows what the cake tastes like.”  She clarified, “People go into a bakery and ask for it based upon the color.”  Allison confirmed this from her own customer experience, as Robicelli’s doesn’t make RVC, pointing out that she could do a blind taste test with all of us and would bet that no one could pick out the RVC based solely on flavor.

Red Velvet Marshmallows by Nomnivorous

How does it get Red? – If you clicked on the articles linked to the first question on the cake’s origins, you can see that there are a few theories as to the original reason for the coloring of this cake.  Some say it was the cheaper cocoa available during wartime that had a reddish tinge, others relate it to beet sugar being used in the South in baked goods, still others say it is a chemical reaction in the baking process that creates it.  More modern versions of the recipe rely on the use of red food coloring to create its distinctive hue.  I’ve eaten versions of the cake that have ranged from state-fair-candy-apple-crimson to dark, almost brown shades.

Allison and her husband Matt steer clear of artificial colorings and flavors in their baked goods, she explained, so they don’t have a RVC in their product line.  She has experimented with alternatives to artificial food dyes, and the results don’t look or taste the way we’ve expected them to do.  Using beets makes, to her, a beet cake that still tastes like vegetables no matter what is done to it.  Oh, and beets turn brown when they are baked, she added, so the cake then doesn’t come out red.  There’s also natural red food dye, too, but some folks definitely seemed turned off by using that when they realized that it is made out of crushed bug shells.

Red Velvet Cupcakes by Billy’s Bakery

The Cake Itself As bakers, and in an audience that seemed to be full of them, too, this was another key point to be disputed.  Aside from establishing the baseline that the cake color should be red, what should the cake itself taste like?  Shari explained that the flavor comes from the tanginess of buttermilk and a bit of cocoa or else, it’s really just vanilla cake.  Dara concurred, saying that it is about the right milk of the buttermilk and cocoa together, with not too much of the latter.  To clarify, Allison said that it should be natural cocoa and not Dutch-processed, as they have different chemical compositions that affect the baking process.

On the question of using Butter vs. Oil in making the cake, the panel was split.  Dara is on the all-dairy team, while Shari said that it depends and sometimes she uses a mix of butter and oil.  For Allison, she is a fan of oil-based cakes finding them to have a more tender crumb.  She added that this also gives her more control in the mixing process, the last part of which they do by hand.

Then, the discussion opened up when the topic of Flour was raised, with Nicole moving from moderator to participant to offer her thoughts on this matter.  This is where regional differences played out.  Like a true Southern woman, she was firmly and clearly on the side of using White Lily.  Shari, who was raised in both the North and the South was on the side of Cake Flour and pointed out that that is what is called for in the original recipe, and White Lily is expensive to use (not to mention hard to find up here).  Dara recommends using cake flour as it is more tender and gives a cake more texture, whereas all-purpose flour is gives a tougher consistency.  Another fan of using White Lily flour is Allison, who gave a fascinating technical explanation of how the gluten in the different flours works and binds to the kind of fat being used (butter or oil) to create results.

Red Velvet Cupcakes with Cooked Frosting by Empirical Baker

The Outside of the Cake Next it was time to parse over frosting and what else might go on the exterior of RVC.  Nicole lead the charge for pecans (and sometimes walnuts, which I wasn’t too sure about).  Dara said that she uses cream cheese for the frosting, perhaps also along with some buttermilk for tartness.  The key is that the frosting isn’t too sweet, there needs to be a tangy note to it.  This was also echoed by Shari who said that the cake needs cream cheese frosting.  She said that she generally doesn’t use nuts, and only puts them on special orders.

Amanda, aka the Empirical Baker, made cupcakes [photo above] using a cooked flour frosting, from her grandmother’s recipe, which Allison pointed out is, according to some people, what should go on top of RVC.  The Robicellis use French buttercream frosting, which doesn’t contain any cream cheese, on their cupcake creations.  Both Dara and Shari said they use a butter and cream cheese combination and that one key to getting a great-tasting frosting is to keep whipping it in order to break down the sugar so that you don’t have that gritty, sweet texture to the final results.  Chocolate chips, shredded coconut and other extras were voted as definite no-nos.

Red Velvet Cupcakes by Polka Dot Cupcake Shop

So is Red Velvet Cake just a Fad? While the audience said “Yes,” the panel wasn’t so sure about that.  Nicole feels that it isn’t, part of which is because the color red symbolizes celebration.  For Allison’s part, she thinks that RVC won’t go away, but that the mania for it will fade somewhat over time.  Someone also suggested that it is more of a cult thing than a fad, which takes the argument back in the other direction.  This fascination with RVC has led to a flood of other Red Velvet products as indicated by an audience survey, including pancakes, waffles, whoopie pies, cannolis, ice cream, macarons, cheesecake, chicken, doughnuts, and flavored milk.  As I mentioned earlier, I sort of put RVC in the category of rediscovering regional foods, and Southern ones seem to be very popular in this wave.

It was a lively and animated back and forth about a sweet that seems to have taken hold of New York City without any signs of stopping, even without a definitive stance one way or another on most points raised for consideration, except the one about the color of the cake.  After the discussion, it was time to try the RVC treats that had been put out for us to eat.  That was probably the best way to confirm our findings and our feelings about it, no matter which side of the topic you had picked.  As one person I talked to later on said, “I bet it was much more interesting than the Republican Party debate.”

Buon appetito!