The term “red velvet” gets tossed around a lot these days. It is – arguably – the hottest cake flavor out there if you watch food focused TV programming where all the presenters go ga-ga over a slice of the cake. But for every time I hear the praises of red velvet cake sung, I also hear someone complain about a bland cake, a cake with too much food coloring and a cake that just gives you an excuse to eat cream cheese frosting because it is better than the cake itself. So what is red velvet?
Red velvet cake usually surfaces as a buttermilk cake with a lot of red food coloring in it to give it its distinctive color. The exact origins of the cake are unknown, and there are plenty of theories out there that try to explain how the cake got to be red. The original red velvet cake is said to have had a reddish hue that was caused by the reaction between natural cocoa powder and an acidic ingredient, like buttermilk. You can observe a slight reddish tint in chocolate cupcakes made with these two ingredients. Even a small amount of cocoa powder will tint the cake more brown than red, however, so even if this classic recipe began in this way, it really is the red food coloring that makes it what it is today. Since the color is so distinctive, it is easy to translate the cake into other recipes, like whoopie pies and pancakes, in addition to cupcakes and cakes.
Most red velvet cakes, in a nod to the traditional origin story of the cake, contain buttermilk and a very small amount of cocoa powder. These ingredients give the cake a subtle, yet distinctive and delicious flavor that is not quite chocolate and not quite plain vanilla. The cake is usually topped off with a generous amount of cream cheese frosting, which adds even more flavor to the cake and gives it a high contrast red and white finish.