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A Harte Appetite: Red Velvet Cake

flickr user Dan Costin (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode)
red velvet cake

The non-violent overthrow of Czechoslovakia's communist government in 1999 was called the Velvet Revolution; growing up in St. Louis, the preferred ice cream of my youth was called Velvet Freeze; and the late crooner Mel Torme was called the Velvet Fog (or to those who weren't fans, the Velvet Frog.)

But to me the most deserving object of the designation "velvet" is red velvet cake -- a rich relative of devil's food cake only with a distinctive red color and frosted with white icing for contrast.

Red velvet cake was all the rage years ago, but its popularity has faded since the 1970s amid safety concerns about the red food coloring in use back then to tint the cake.

Perhaps it's time to bring red velvet cake back. Today's red food coloring is perfectly safe and after all, the cake is a uniquely American invention.

We'll probably never know who the first person was to create a red velvet cake. The recipe is what culinary professionals call a "grass roots" recipe, meaning it's the sort found frequently in community cookbooks rather than in cookbooks written by experts. It can be difficult to pin it down to a particular source.

Nonetheless, there was a story making the rounds years ago that tied the cake to the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. Presumably it was a specialty there and when a diner, who couldn't get enough of it, asked for the recipe -- she was promptly given it. Soon after, she received in the mail a bill for $100.

Outraged at the charge (seeing red, you might say), she circulated as many copies of the recipe as she could in an attempt to get even. And thus the cake -- sometimes called Waldorf-Astoria Cake or One Hundred Dollar Cake -- spread far and wide.

Frankly, the story sounds to me like one of those urban legends so we'll probably never know just who created the red velvet cake but I for one am tickled pink that someone did.

+++++Red Velvet Brownies+++++

I didn't think you could improve on red velvet cake, until I developed this recipe for red velvet brownies. Try it and see if you don't agree.


3 and 1/2 sticks butter
2 bottles (1 oz. each) red food coloring
1 egg
1/2 cup water
1 box (18 oz.) German chocolate cake mix
1 and 1/2 cups chopped walnuts
3 tablespoons flour
1 cup milk
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla

Directions: Melt 1 and 1/2 sticks butter. Combine with food coloring, egg, and water. Add cake mix and stir until smooth. Fold in nuts. Bake in greased 9-by-13-inch pan at 325 degrees for 30 minutes. Do not over bake. Let cool.

Cook flour and milk over medium heat until thickened. Cool completely. Cream remaining 2 sticks butter and sugar until white and fluffy. Add flour mixture by the tablespoonful, then vanilla, and beat for 10 minutes. Frost brownies.

Tom Harte is a retired faculty member from Southeast Missouri State University where he was an award-winning teacher, a nationally recognized debate coach, and chair of the department of Speech Communication and Theatre.
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