The very first time I heard about red velvet cake was from my friend, Pat Stuart, who became a penpal way back when the internet was just catching on and my sister Becky and I belonged to PRODIGY. I think this had to be in the 1980s because Pat Stuart and her husband Stan lived out by the Los Angeles Fair grounds in Pomona. After a year or two of exchanging correspondence via Prodigy, we agreed to meet when Bob and I were making our annual trips to the fairgrounds where I would enter jellies, jams, chutneys, preserves—anything I could make using a boiling water bath to seal the jars, being gun shy about using a pressure cooker.
The best way I can describe Prodigy as it was back then – it was like a bulletin board where everyone who subscribed to Prodigy could enter comments for other Prodigy subscribers based on your favorite topics. Ours was food, cooking and exchanging recipes. At some point in time, Pat asked if we knew about Red Velvet cake; she had a recipe from a cousin who lived in the South. The story they had heard about Red Velvet cake was that it originated at New York City’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel in the 1930s.
Back in the 1980s, I began entering the Los Angeles County Fair; first you submitted entry forms describing the items you planned to enter into the Home Arts Division, accompanied by the entry fees. Then Bob, my significant other, would make the trip to Pomona to submit my entries—two of each canned food item; one for tasting, one for displaying. Then he would make a second trip to pick up my tasting jars (which otherwise would have been discarded). THEN we planned a weekend at the fair in Pomona and once the new Sheraton Fairplex hotel opened right on the fair grounds, I made reservations for us to spend the weekend there. It was delightful – hotel guests had their own special entrance, bypassing all of the long lines.
We agreed to meet Pat and Stan at the hotel and have dinner at the hotel restaurant. It was friendship at first sight.
Bob would make a fourth trip to Pomona after the fair was over, to pick up my entries, ribbons, if I had won any, and prize money. I was still working at the time so he made the trips to and from Pomona on his own.
(*In 2008, we moved to the high desert, the Antelope Valley, and since it’s so much farther to go to the Los Angeles fairgrounds, that ended our experience entering the Home Arts Division—and, in 2011, Bob passed away from cancer of the esophagus.
Getting back to Red Velvet cake – a few years ago two of the leading cake mix manufacturers came out with their own version of red velvet cake mix. And for the past few years, I have been making red velvet cookies out of red velvet cake mix.
Imagine my surprise, last year (2014) the Food Network Magazine featured a short article about red velvet cake. They noted that red velvet cake is one of America’s most searched for dessert.
According to the Food Network, the origin of red velvet cake remains a mystery and that even food historians can’t agree on the story. That said, the Food Network mentions that in the 1800s, light textured velvet cakes were popular (and I did find a reference to a chocolate velvet cake in one of my food reference books). I checked through half a dozen other food reference books in my collection without finding red velvet cake or any other velvet cake reference.
The Food Network states that the Waldorf Astoria hotel introduced red velvet cake in the 1930s—that would have been during the Depression. The Food Network repeated the oft-repeated claim of a customer requesting the recipe and being billed $100.00 for it.
(In more recent years, this food urban legend has been attributed to a Neiman Marcus restaurant and by now the recipe was for a chocolate chip cookie) Whatever! Neiman Marcus Department Stores denies it ever happened.
And when the red velvet cake recipe first came to my attention, it called for an entire bottle of red food coloring. Never mind that a bottle of food coloring is only about one ounce – in my lifetime there was a red dye #2 scare (the red dye being said to cause cancer). That was probably in the 1970s but I have been leery of red food coloring ever since—never mind pouring an entire one ounce bottle into a cake mix.
And, according to the Food Network magazine article, there is an extract/spice company which dates back to the 1880s and they claim that red velvet became a term when the company added red dye to their classic velvet cake during the depression.
Since General Mills and Duncan Hines food manufacturers came out with their own red velvet cake mix, I haven’t made a red velvet cake from scratch since. And I have been making cookies from cake mixes for about a decade.
In a blog post of mine from May, 2011, about Urban Legends, I wrote:
“…While clipping recipes from a stack of old newspapers (my project every two years while the Olympics were on TV), I happened to come across an article by food writer Jan Malone who wrote, “In what has to be a classic example of ‘if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em’ Neiman Marcus has put a chocolate chip cookie recipe on its website. “For years,” writes Malone, “Neiman Marcus has battled an urban legend that will not die. A ‘friend’ of the initial e-mail writer has lunch at the store’s Neiman Marcus in Dallas, eats a wonderful cookie, asks for the recipe, is told it will cost ‘two-fifty’; she thinks its two dollars and fifty cents but it’s really two hundred and fifty dollars She is so incensed when she gets her credit card bill and the store won’t refund her money, that she gets even by sending the recipe to every e-mail address she knows.
Sometimes this tale of the greedy corporation,” Malone continues, “victimizing the small consumer who gets revenge…has a different villain. In fact, the same story circulated in the 1930s about a red velvet cake from the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York”. THAT recipe “cost” $100.00 but hey, times were tough, it was the depression and all.
Malone says she has written about the cookie myth several times and one time encountered a guy who was offering a reward if the ‘friend of the email sender’ could produce a credit card receipt for the $250 purchase but so far there have been no takers. Still, writes Malone, people refuse to believe that the story is a hoax even though Neiman Marcus says it never served cookies in its restaurants until recently and that it always shares its recipes free of charge”.
NOW—as an update—I wrote my original story about urban myths for the newsletter the Cookbook Collectors Exchange in 1998. While going through my notes, I wondered if the cookie story was still making the rounds –so I Googled it. AND the answer is – YES, the cookie myth is still in circulation – but NOW if you type in “chocolate chip cookie myth” on Google – one of the sites that pops up is from – none other than Neiman Marcus with the recipe AND their offer – copy it, print it, pass it along to your friends and relatives.
It’s a terrific recipe – and it’s FREE. So how did this story ever get started? According to Los Angeles Times writer Daniel Puzo, “…a Neiman Marcus spokesperson in Dallas, said that the tall tale has been circulating ever since she went to work for Neiman Marcus in 1986. The first newspaper story she saw on the bogus cookie recipe appeared in 1988…” and now you know the rest of the story.
TO MAKE THE WALDORF ASTORIA RED VELVET CAKE:
• 1/2 cup shortening
• 1 1/2 cups sugar
• 2 eggs
• 2 ounces red food coloring
• 2 tablespoons cocoa (heaping)
• 1 cup buttermilk
• 2 1/4 cups cake flour
• 1 teaspoon salt
• 1 teaspoon vanilla
• 1 teaspoon baking soda
• 1 teaspoon vinegar
• 3 tablespoons flour
• 1 cup milk
• 1 cup sugar
• 1 teaspoon vanilla
• 1 cup butter (must be butter)
Prep Time: 15 mins
Total Time: 45 mins
1. Cream shortening, sugar and eggs.
2. Make a paste of food coloring and cocoa.
3. Add to creamed mixture.
4. Add buttermilk alternating with flour and salt.
5. Add vanilla.
6. Add soda to vinegar, and blend into the batter.
7. Pour into 3 or 4 greased and floured 8″ cake pans.
8. Bake at 350°F for 24-30 minutes.
9. Split layers fill and frost with the following frosting.
10. Frosting: Add milk to flour slowly, avoiding lumps.
11. Cook flour and milk until very thick, stirring constantly.
12. Cool completely.
13. Cream sugar, butter and vanilla until fluffy.
14. Add to cooked mixture.
15. Beat, high speed, until very fluffy.
16 Looks and tastes like whipped cream.
ANOTHER RED VELVET CAKE (this one is made with canned red beets and only a teaspoonful of red food coloring:
3 ounces unsweetened chocolate, chopped
2 cups granulated sugar
4 large eggs
1 1/2 cups vegetable oil
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 1/4 teaspoons baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 pounds canned beets, drained and pureed
1 teaspoon red food coloring
Cream Cheese/Mascarpone Frosting
2 cups heavy cream
12 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
12 ounces mascarpone cheese
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups powdered sugar, sifted
Pre-heat oven to 350 F
Butter three 9″ round cake pans and line them with parchment paper or waxed paper. (I’ve used square pans and Pam for Baking as well and they worked fine.) To prepare cake:
Melt Chocolate in a metal bowl set over a saucepan of boiling water or in the top of a double boiler (or melt in microwave for 20 – 25 seconds). Meanwhile. place the sugar, eggs, oil and vanilla in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment and mix on low speed for two minutes. In a mixing bowl, sift together the flour, baking soda and salt. Add the dry ingredients to the egg mixture and continue to mix on low speed, scraping down the sides of the bowl with a spatula so everything is well incorporated.
Add the melted chocolate to this mixture and continue to mix on low speed. Add the pureed beets and food coloring. Continue to mix on low speed until everything is thoroughly combined. Evenly divide the batter between the three prepared pans and bake in the middle of the oven for 20 – 25 minutes or until center of cake springs back when touched, or when an inserted toothpick comes out clean.
Remove the pans from the oven and transfer to a cooling rack. Let cool for ten minutes in the pans, then turn the layers out onto the rack and let cool completely.
To prepare Cream Cheese/Mascarpone Icing:
Pour cream into a small bowl and whip to soft peaks. Set aside in the refrigerator. Place the cream cheese in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment and mix on low speed until it is soft and smooth. Add the mascarpone and continue to mix on low speed until the cheeses are well combined. Add the vanilla and powdered sugar and mix until everything is just combined. Turn off the mixer and fold in the whipped cream by hand with a spatula. Keep refrigerated until ready to assemble.
Using a serrated knife, trim the top of each layer of each layer of cake so that it is flat. Place the first layer on a cake plate or serving platter and top with some of the icing. Repeat until all of the layers are covered with icing, then ice the top and sides of the cake. Store cake in refrigerator until ready to serve.
Sliced canned beets are easier to work with in this recipe than whole beets.
Note – This cake works well as a wedding cake but use a cream cheese/buttercream as the icing noted here will not harden.
(*after typing the above this morning, I went to the kitchen and made a batch of the lemon/rice krispie cookies with a box of lemon flavored reduced content cake mix using one egg instead of two and adding juice and zest from one lemon.(instead of any evaporated milk) The cookies turned out just fine!
First, let me share with you A BASIC CAKE MIX COOKIE RECIPE—
1 box, (18.25 oz) any flavor cake mix (I prefer the Betty Crocker cake mixes but any kind will work)
1 stick (1/2 cup) butter or solid stick margarine (such as Imperial), melted and cooled
2 TBSP milk (I like using evaporated milk for this but if you are making lemon cookies, I prefer using a little lemon juice and the zest from one lemon
2 eggs (or if the box of cake mix has been reduced to 15 or 16 ounces, use just one egg)
Mix together all ingredients. Divide the dough into several balls and pack it into zip lock bags. Chill overnight or as long as you need—the dough will keep for at least a month. Now you are ready to roll the dough out for cutout cookies, or shape into balls. You can roll the balls into finely chopped nuts or glaze them after they’ve baked.
Next, is Chocolate Fudge Cookies – you can use any kind of chocolate cake mix with this recipe and you can change it around a bit by using white chocolate chips instead of semi sweet chocolate chips.
To make Chocolate Fudge Cookies you will need:
1 PACKAGE (18.25 OZ) chocolate cake mix or devil’s food cake mix
½ cup vegetable oil or melted and cooled butter (1 stick = ½ cup)
1 cup semi sweet chocolate chips.
In a medium size bowl, stir together the cake mix, eggs, and oil until well blended. Then mix in the chocolate chips. Shape the dough into walnut-size balls; place the cookie dough 2” apart on the cookie sheet. Bake 8-10 minutes in a preheated 350 degree oven. Let the cookies cool on baking sheet for a few minutes before transferring to wire racks to cool completely.
To make the cookies look more Christmassy, make up a thin glaze out of powdered sugar and a little water – drizzle over the cookies on the wire racks.
KEARA’S FAVORITE CRISP LITTLE LEMON COOKIES
To make Keara’s Favorite Crisp Little Lemon cookies you will need:
1 package lemon cake mix (18.25 oz)
1 cup dry rice krispies cereal
½ cup margarine or butter, melted and cooled (1 stick)
1 egg slightly beaten
1 tsp lemon extract or lemon juice
Mix all ingredients together in a large bowl; mix well. Shape into 1” balls and place 2” apart on ungreased baking sheets. Bake in preheated oven 350 degrees 9-12 minutes. Cool 1 minute then transfer to wire racks to cool.
If you make up a lemon glaze with powdered sugar and lemon juice, and drizzle it over the cookies, you will have a more festive cookie. I like to add a little lemon zest to the cookie batter, too. Finally, here is my red velvet cookie recipe:
RED VELVET CHRISTMAS COOKIES
1 box (18.25) Red Velvet cake mix
½ cup cooking oil
2 TBSP evaporated milk
1 12-oz bag white chocolate chips
Combine all ingredients and mix well. Drop by tablespoonful on baking sheets lined with parchment paper. Bake at 350 degrees for 8-10 minutes. A white glaze is nice with these. or dust them with sifted powdered sugar.
It may take a while to figure out how to make these recipes work with most (not all!) of the cake manufacturers reducing the size of the box and the amount of cake mix inside. I was most curious about angel food cake mix—the box is smaller but you still add the same amount of water and bake the cake in a tube pan. Angel food cake is my youngest son’s favorite cake so he doesn’t mind being my guinea pig figuring out how to deal with the changes in cake mixes.
After posting the above last night, I found a lengthy article about red velvet cakes in the Daily News, titled The Color of Rubies–by Florence Fabricant–I will write more about it in another post. Meantime, I also found the recipe for red velvet cookies that I made last Christmas, which were a big hit.
RED VELVET COOKIES
2 RED VELVET CAKE MIXES, 3 EGGS, 1 stick Imperial margarine, softened, 1/4 cup drained well chopped maraschino cherries, 1/2 cup chocolate chips, Powdered sugar for dusting
Preheat oven 350 degrees. mix all ingredients except powdered sugar. drop by teaspoonful onto cookie sheets lined with parchment paper. Allow room for spreading. Bake 8 to 10 minutes or until done. cool on wire racks and then dust with powered sugar sifted gently over the cookies. let cool completely.
*CATCHING FAIR FEVER, 2011 BLOG POST
–Sandra Lee Smith