Jackie of Baltimore wants the recipe for a red velvet cake: "Two years ago at Christmas, I had the chance to taste this cake but I can't find a recipe anywhere." — Baltimore Sun recipe finder, 1990
Hang in there, Jackie.
If you managed to wait 20 years or so, thousands and thousands of red velvet recipes are now yours for the clicking. But why bake? You can now to grab a red velvet cake in the bakery of your favorite supermarket. And while you're there, you can load up your cart with Ben & Jerry's Red Velvet Cake Ice Cream and red velvet tea from Republic of Tea.
Red velvet is thriving on restaurant menus, on and off the dessert page. B&O Brasserie scored a big hit last year with red velvet doughnuts with cream cheese frosting, and the Gypsy Queen food truck has customers lining up for its red velvet waffles.
"It's one of the most popular flavors out there," said Drew Vanlandingham, a Baltimore-based wedding planner. "Red velvet is something that's right in between the plain birthday-style wedding cake and the sweet chocolate cake. People want it because it's rich and creamy and delicious, and they like the coloring."
The velvet crush hit Parkville in 2007. Michael "Al" Meckel, the co-owner of Fenwick Bakery, had never heard of red velvet until five years ago, when his customers started asking for it.
"I gave it a shot" Meckel said, "but I'm colorblind, and I was coming up with fuchsia velvet cakes. I had to have someone else on the staff look at it."
The exact origins of the red velvet cake elude food scholars, and misinformation about the cake is widespread. The cake may be fondly remembered from the Eaton department store chain in Canada in the 1950s and 1960s, but there's hearty debate about whether Eaton gets credit for its invention. A long-standing tale associating it with the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York has been exposed as an urban legend.
Nor is there a standard recipe. Is the frosting cream cheese or butter cream? And just how red should red velvet cake be? Some say the redder the better, that food coloring was what turned the cake into a craze. Others prefer a more natural look, but even they say some food coloring is essential.
Red velvet thrived during the mid-20th century, but by the early 1970s, time-intensive cakes were shuffling to the back of the recipe box. And the red velvet cake really faded from view when the Food and Drug Administration banned the additive Red Dye #2 in 1972, and consumers abandoned red dyes in general.
If the red velvet cake's history is sticky, so is the reason for its resurgence, which has struck in waves. Three are three widely observed red-velvet days on the calendar, beginning with its memorable appearance in the 1989 movie "Steel Magnolias." In 2002, a younger generation saw Jessica Simpson choose a red velvet cake for her reality-show wedding to Nick Lachey. And just when it may have needed a boost, a red velvet cake was featured in October 2010 on Oprah Winfrey's "O" list.
Today, red velvet has broken loose from the dessert course. Duck into a wine shop, and there it is: Red Velvet wine from Cupcake vineyards. Here comes old Rover, but what's that in his mouth? It's a red velvet "pupcake" from Shorty's Gourmet Treats.
But if it's cake you want, a moist red velvet cake with deep cocoa flavor and rich white frosting, forget the grocery aisle; you want the wedding aisle. The wedding industry is covered in red velvet.
"All the bakers are bringing red velvet cake to sample," said Karen Buck of resource guide Wedding411. She works works more than 50 big bridal shows a year and said, "If 10 bakers are there, eight are going to sample the red velvet. They know it's popular."
At SugarBakers Cakes in Catonsville, red velvet is now No. 2 in popularity among wedding cakes, topped only by the bakery's signature amaretto butter cream.
"Brides pick it all the time," said Ashley Moone, the lead consultant and cake decorator for SugarBakers. "A bride at a tasting once told me, 'Now that's dessert.' They love the idea that you can have good wedding cake."
The intense chocolately flavor of SugarBakers' red velvet cake comes from the chocolate fudge the bakery adds to the cream cheese and butter cream frosting. SugarBakers' version is also less the fire-engine red color seen on many modern cakes and more a deep brownish-red. Moone said she uses just enough red coloring to boost the cake's naturally ruddy color.
The one place where you definitely won't find red velvet cake these days is at Whole Foods Market, which shuns the use of artificial coloring additives
"We have some bakers working on it, trying to get it right," said Andy Friedman, a merchandiser associate with the store's Mid-Atlantic regional office, who acknowledged that customers are expecting a red velvet cake to have a bright red color. So far, attempts to create a pleasing red appearance with natural ingredients have been a wash, Friedman said. "We use beet powder, but the best we can get is a mauve velvet cake."
But why stop at red? If it's red dye that makes red velvet cake red, why stop there? "We do many a red velvet cake," said Mary Alice Yeskey, director of marketing for Charm City Cakes. "We've also done a blue velvet cake as well. It was very Memphis-cool. When it comes down to it, "Yeskey said, "if a client wanted green or purple or orange velvet, we can do that, too."