Red velvet cake has bothered others in the house ever since we made the Saint Patcaken. The excessive use of food coloring has apparently haunted their visions as they drift to sleep. Every now and then, when someone sees me using a bit of coloring to make some icing look more festive, they'll say something like "At least you're not adding enough food coloring to make a red velvet cake!" I have seen them shudder when we pass the cake stand at the grocery store if red velvet is on display. (They don't think it's noticeable, and I choose not to say anything.)
"What would happen," I was asked one day, "if you made red velvet cake but with yellow?"
Red Velvet Cake|
1 oz red food coloring
4½ tsp cocoa powder
¼ cup shortening
1 beaten egg
¾ cup sugar
½ cup buttermilk, sour cream, or Guinness*
1 cup + 1 tbsp flour
½ tsp salt
½ tsp vanilla
½ tsp baking soda
1½ tsp vinegar
Heat oven to 350°. Grease a 9" round pan.
Cream shortening, salt, baking soda, cocoa powder, and sugar. Then add the beaten egg. When mixed, stir in the food coloring. Beat well. Add the flour alternately with the Guinness. Add vanilla and beat well again.
Stir in the vinegar. (Even if you used a mixer to make this, get out a spoon and stir in the vinegar by hand.)
Pour into the pan and bake 30-35 minutes.
*You may think that Guinness sounds out-of-place in this recipe, but it's really good.
Adapted from "'Recipe of the Week,' Mrs. Cagle's Red Velvet Cake," Denton [Texas] Record-Chronicle, June 16, 1960 (p. 12) via Food Timeline
Before we proceed, I want to note that I have simplified the recipe. First of all, I omitted the whole business of making a paste out of food coloring and cocoa powder. That step only served to give us more chances to accidentally splash food coloring all over the place. Second, I omitted the step of stirring the baking soda and vinegar together, then hastily stirring the fizzing foam into the cake batter.
Anyway, let's get to the shortening and sugar! It amuses me that a cake famous for its color starts off as white as copy paper.
And now, let's bring out our star ingredient: a whole bottle of yellow food coloring! This was surprisingly hard to find. Most stores have large bottles of red and green (and also black, which surprised me), but it seems like no one wants to purchase massive quantities of artificial yellow dye.
As you may have surmised, we are not just adding a drop or a spoonful of yellow dye to this cake. I didn't want to. You see, we already knew what would happen if we added a few drops of yellow to the cake batter: we'd get a yellow cake. We wanted to know if we dumped in an entire red velvet's worth of artificial yellow!
It turns out that if you use enough yellow food coloring, your baked creation turns orange. I don't know if it's possible to recreate this vivid and bright shade of orange with actual orange food coloring. I love the filmy yellow residue clinging to the sides of the bowl, making all of this look even worse.
You should know that when I tasted this orange stuff, I instantly recognized that unmistakable red velvet flavor. I always thought red velvet cakes get there flavor from the tiny allotment of cocoa powder. It turns out that artificial food coloring is a key component of that distinct red velvet cake flavor.
After I had the flour mixed in and the cake ready to get into the pans and bake, I noticed that the batter looked wrong. Well, it was going to look wrong anyway because no one wants a yellow velvet cake. But the texture looked wrong. It looked more like a cookie dough than cake batter.
Then I checked the recipe and realized I forgot the buttermilk. (Well, we're using sour cream instead since we already had it on hand.) I was just so stunned by the food coloring that I forgot to add the rest of the ingredients to the cake.
Look at those pure white swirls commingling with the traffic-cone orange of the cake!
You know what this color reminds me of? Well, you know those huge boxes of Crayola crayons? The ones that have like 100 crayons in them? Well, one of the colors you'll sometimes find in those extra-large boxes is called "macaroni and cheese." And it more or less looks like this.
And so, having gotten all the ingredients into the cake batter, we were ready to bake!
We were curious about what kind of cake we would get both with and without cocoa powder. However, none of us wanted to track down all that yellow food dye again just to repeat the experiment. And so, after we got about half the batter into the pan, we added cocoa to the rest. It turned our batter from a hilariously cheesy orange to what a lot of news articles called the world's ugliest color a while ago. You know this color is ugly because official trade publications called it "opaque couché," apparently hoping that slapping some French on top would make it look better.
Who knew chocolate could make something look worse? Never try to predict the unpredictable ways of artificial dyes.
The cake looked odd after baking. It browned on top, as cakes tend to do. But browning makes such natural golden colors, which clashed with the proudly artificial orange of the cake below.
I thought about putting yellow icing on top of that, but that was vetoed by others who wanted to see if the yellow would bleed through. After all, the cake had successfully dyed the paper we used to line the pan.
After dressing the cake, it looked so innocent. You'd never guess that it contained enough dye to festively tint at least fifty cakes if you're smart enough to avoid dumping out the whole bottle all at once.
The cake tasted fine, of course. I think sour cream makes it a little better than buttermilk did, though I think Guinness is better than either of those. (I would have never believed that beer improves the cake before I tried it for myself.) But enough about flavor, we came here to see coloring used in proudly poor taste! Here are representative samples both with and without cocoa powder. (You couldn't taste the difference between the two.)
The cake tasted fine. If you ignore the whole bottle of food coloring, you have an ordinary and very nice cake. I don't know anyone who thinks red velvet cakes are bad, because they're not.
But the real star of any red velvet cake is the food coloring. I actually like that insane orange a lot. It makes the cake look kind of like Cheetos. And while the yellow dye didn't penetrate the icing, it left stains on the plate.
Reactions to the cake were... interesting. At first people kind of backed away from the cake. It reminded me of the response when a friend brought a lot of pudding to a party in an industrial-sized mayonnaise jar. No one could explain why, but they nevertheless didn't want it.
However, after a day or so, people made their first daring incisions into the cake. And they discovered that... it tastes perfectly fine. Kind of like how a lot of people have to recover from learning how sausages are made, everyone eventually got over the stunning and unnatural color.
I hope you enjoyed this adventure in food coloring as much as I did! And if you have any ideas for the prodigious amounts of blue dye that we had to buy because it was in the same box as the yellow, please share!