Heritage Gest

Heritage, Exploits, Stories


November 2016

Anthocyanins or Red velvet cake and that armadillo

Having spent a couple of weeks of ill I got to spend a bit of time checking out SBS Food Network (Australia’s only free cooking channel), okay more than just a bit of time. I noticed a few things. 1) Bobby Flay is basically involved with just about every cooking show there is; 2) Tiffani Thiessen is all grown up and looking fine; 3) There seems to be a major obsession with Red Velvet Cake.

The current American obsession with Red Velvet Cake started with the movie Steel Magnolias. It was the Red Velvet (bleeding) armadillo cake that created an upsurge in popularity of this cake. Basically the way this is made is that you take chocolate cake and dump a whole load of red food colouring in it. Try not to feed it to anyone with food allergies or ADHD and away you go.

However back in the dim dark past of days of yore, when velvet cake was invented this was not the case. Velvet cake was a traditional type of cake that possibly dates back to the early 1800s. Velvet cakes included buttermilk and baking soda in the mix. The combination of the acidic buttermilk with the alkaline baking soda created a chemical reaction that provided a cake with a delicate and luxurious texture. Velvet cake was essentially a type of cake. There was Lemon Velvet cake, Red Velvet cake, Mahogany Velvet cake. Red Velvet was actually vanilla cake dyed red while Mahogany Velvet was a chocolate version of velvet cake.

So what about the red? Depends what cake you are asking about. Red Velvet cake was coloured with beet juice originally. Then from about the 1930s the red came from food-colouring. Same result, less beety flavour in your cake (always a plus). Mahogany Velvet cake was also reddish but that was due a chemical reaction. It gets a bit sciency now. Chocolate contains a compound called anthocyanin. Depending on the pH this water soluble pigment will make something appear red, purple or blue. So if you made a cake with acidic butter milk and cocoa powder boom, red. Or more accurately a reddish tinge.

About the time that velvet cakes were popular, chocolate manufacturers utilised the chemical properties of anthocyanins to give their chocolate a deeper brown colour by alkalising it. Due to this process, the reaction that gave velvet cakes their reddish colour no longer occurs. So if you stop by a cake shop and see Red Velvet cake or cupcake you are likely to find a chocolate cake coloured with red food colouring. You should now be able to question the baker and be insufferable and annoying by trying to find out if it really is a velvet cake. Is it made with buttermilk? Even if it is made with buttermilk if it is chocolate then shouldn’t it be a Mahogany Velvet cake. Do they have a vanilla cake that has been coloured red? If so, shouldn’t that be the Red Velvet cake?  Fun for hours. Or the next time you go to a party and there is Red Velvet cake amaze and astound people with your awesome knowledge of chemistry. Possibly throw in that the reaction of an acid and a base gives you a salt plus water then walk off looking smug and knowledgeable.

The process of alkalising cocoa (the Dutch Process or dutching – okay I don’t know of that is what they really call it but it is fun to verb words) was developed by Coenraad Johannes van Houten. The cocoa is washed with a solution of potassium carbonate. What this does is make cocoa powder browner, gives it a neutral pH and is said to provide a smoother more mellow flavour. Having tried natural cocoa from a health food store there is definitely something lacking in the natural. It was like the difference between raw and roasted peanuts. The roasted has a more complex flavour profile or is yummier.

So can I get a traditional velvet cake today? Yes; make it with buttermilk and baking soda. Can I get a ‘traditional’ Red Velvet cake? Yes and no. If all I am going to get is a bog standard chocolate cake with red food colouring I might pass. Having tasted natural cocoa I definitely think that it is not as good as the dutched stuff. Admittedly I haven’t tried it in a cake but given the choice I will go with the dutched stuff. So it is unlikely that short of making it myself there is going to be traditional Red Velvet cake for me; but I can live with that.

Coming up next on Heritage Gest….

Reading the land or Archaeologist do it all over the landscape.

Talk Soon.


Hills and hollows or You built the church where?

The inspiration from this post came from a trip to Orange a few weeks ago. I was looking at an interpretative panel that was on Summer Street talking about how the main street of Orange had been changed from Byng Street to Summer Street. That’s when I realised there were no churches on Summer Street; they were on the wrong street.

The relationship of churches and particularly the Church of England with the main streets of towns is a reflection of a whole range of social factors and government policy in the early colony.

But let’s leave Orange and head down towards the southern part of the state to Braidwood. Braidwood is a beautiful town situated between the coast and Canberra. The annual rodeo is heaps of fun and the town was used for filming the 1970 version of the Ned Kelly story with Mick Jagger. The main street running through town is Wallace Street. On Elrington Street, a block back from the main street at the northern end of town, is the former location of the first Church of England church built in 1850. This church was replaced with the current, much grander stone building commenced in 1881. Also on Elrington Street, it is built at the top of a hill, the highest point in Braidwood itself. If you drive through Braidwood you have to take a detour to find this gem of a church.

What I find really interesting is why these churches are where they are. The early colony of NSW was not just a Christian colony it was a Church of England colony. This bias is reflected in how the Church of England was treated. It received one-seventh of all land in each county as a means to ensure funding for Church of England religion and education; the Church and Schools Corporation established by Governor Darling in 1826. You can see this if you look at old parish maps. The Church of England received the majority of funding in the early colony and it was not until the passing of the Church Act in 1836 that a reasonable degree of equality of funding for the other denominations was guaranteed. In fact it was only after the passing of this Act that the Roman Catholic Church was able to ask the colonial government for the establishment of church reserves in each town and parish.

Now this is the bit that I love. The early colony of NSW reflected in its legislative and town planning an important ecclesiastical principle. In pretty much every religion it is important to make sure that churches or places of worship are dominant in the landscape. This could be somewhere that has some social significance (such as the reuse of Roman royal sites in Anglo-Saxon England); sites of significance to other cultures or religions (the Temple Mount or just about any early Christian site in Celtic Britain); or on the top of hills or prominent locations within towns (such as main streets).

So in both Orange and Braidwood the Church of England was given precedence by being given the prime land on main streets. This served two purposes. It reflected an underlying ecclesiastical principle, but more than that it made it clear to everyone that NSW was a Church of England colony.

However, history had other ideas. Transport and business concerns changed the main streets from that set by the government to one that suited the real world. The effect was that these churches, that were once symbols of one denominations dominance, are now relegated to, in the case of Braidwood, a minor backstreet. In fact the Catholic Church in Braidwood that was once at the bottom of a hill a block away from the main street, the worst location for a church, is now the most prominent in town. Where churches are located, their architecture and form is fascinating and can give us major insights into the development of the colony of NSW.

By the way the title for this post comes from a quote by Bishop Mesac Thomas, (Bishop of Goulburn 1863-1892) commenting on the locations of a large number of the early Church of England churches in the colony (established by William Broughton the first Church of England Bishop of Australia) noting that they were generally built in hollows rather than in the proper locations such as on hills.

Coming up next on Heritage Gest….

Anthocyanins or Red velvet cake and that armadillo.

Talk Soon.

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Heritage, Exploits, Stories

Heritage Gest

Heritage, Exploits, Stories