Many layers of The Scarlet Pimpernel
By Monish Gujral
22nd June 2012 10:56 AM
Sitting by the window of the coffee shop at the famous Waldrof Astoria Hotel in New York, enjoying the beautiful summer morning and sipping the freshly-brewed Arabica coffee, I had this sudden urge to have something sweet. The steward assured me the Red Velvet cake, their speciality, is the one I should go for.
That was how I found out that the cake and its original recipe—among the most popular in the US—originates from their very own red velvet cake, and is a globally popular cake with a dark red colour. It is usually prepared as a layer cake topped with a creamy, vanilla icing, or mostly with cream cheese icing. The reddish-brown colour of the cake was originally derived from a reaction of cocoa powder with an acidic ingredient such as butter milk. However today, red food coloring is often added.
Red Velvet indeed has a red history behind it. While food was rationed during the World War II, New York’s bakers used boiled beetroot as a substitute colouring, to enhance the customer appeal of their cakes. Grated and boiled beetroot extract is used in Red Velvet cakes even today, though most bakers also use red colour. Today, the red colour is mainly achieved, though, by the reaction of the shortening and butter used, with the cocoa powder, which tends to reveal the red anthocyanin in cocoa.
A Texas-based firm was the first to bring the Red Velvet to kitchens across America during the Great Depression, by selling the red food colour and other flavour extracts with promotional tactics like free posters that included the recipe as tear-off card. The cake’s original recipe is also made with butter-cream icing, while a Southern variation is made with cream-cheese frosting. Beets are not used in the Southern version of the Red Velvet recipe.
In Canada the cake was a well-known dessert in restaurants and bakeries of Eaton’s chain departmental store in the 1940s and ’50s. Promoted as an exclusive Eaton’s recipe, with employees who knew it sworn to silence, many mistakenly believed the cake to be the invention of the store’s matriarch. A resurgence in popularity of this cake is partly attributed to the 1989 film Steel Magnolias, in which the groom’s cake (a Southern tradition) is a Red Velvet in the shape of an armadillo. However, in recent years, Red Velvet has become increasingly popular and can usually be found in most cupcake stores across the US.
The writer is a well-known restaurateur and author of many cookbooks. Follow him at www.monishgujral.com
How to make Red Velvet Cake
● ½ cup butter
● 1 cup sugar
● 2 eggs
● 1 tsp. vanilla
● 1 tsp. salt
● 4 tbsp. cocoa
● 2 tsp. red food colouring
● 2 tbsp. water
● 2½ cups sifted cake flour
● 1½ tsp. baking powder
● 1 cup buttermilk or sour milk (this is made by stirring 1 tbsp vinegar in regular milk and letting it stand for
● 2 tsp. baking soda
● 1 tbsp. vinegar
1. Cream the butter, then cream the sugar until very light.
2. Beat in the eggs, one at a time, then add cinnamon*, vanilla and salt.
3. Mix the cocoa, red colouring and water, and add to the creamed mixture.
4. Sift the flour with the baking powder and add small quantities to the creamed mixture alternately with the milk. Blend well. If using an electric mixer, turn to lowest speed when adding flour and buttermilk.
5. Dissolve baking soda in vinegar and fold into the batter carefully.
6. Pour the batter in two 9” greased and floured cake pans (or, if you like, grease the pans and then place greased paper). Do not flour pans heavily.
7. Bake in a preheated 350ºF oven for 25-30 minutes, or until the cake springs back when pressed lightly in the center.
8. Let cool on a rack for several minutes, then loosen and turn out onto the rack to cool further.
9. When cool, frost with white, fluffy frosting.
*If you want to spice up the cake you may add a teaspoon of cinnamon powder.
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