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.