A plaque remaining from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem.

Above, a 1934 plaque from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem. Discarded as trash in 2006. Now a Popeyes fast food restaurant on Google Maps.

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Entry from February 14, 2007
Red Velvet Cake

Red Velvet Cake (a cake with red layers) has been a mystery. Was it invented at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City? Was it invented in the South? Was it invented in Canada? Where, and when?

The cake shows up in newspaper recipes from at least 1959. In 1961, one Canadian newspaper advertised the “new” Red Velvet Cake available at Eaton’s.

Some have doubted that New York’s Waldorf-Astoria ever served the cake. The red cake was associated with the Waldorf in 1959. An urban myth (similar to the Neiman Marcus cookie recipe myth), started by at least 1959, states that the Waldorf had charged hundreds of dollars for the recipe, so a person (to get back at the hotel) distributed the recipe for free.

The famous annual Pillsbury Bake-Off cooking contests were held at the Waldorf in the 1950s, and it’s possible that the Red Velvet Cake was popularized at one of these contests. Waldorf-Astoria Cake recipes appeared in newspapers in the early 1950s, but this cake was different from the Red Velvet Cake.

The Red Velvet Cake has become a Valentine’s Day favorite. There is also a Blue Velvet Cake.

Wikipedia: Red Velvet Cake
A Red velvet cake is a type of rich and sweet chocolate cake (though it is often made without chocolate flavoring) which has a distinctive dark red or red-brown color. Common ingredients include buttermilk, butter, flour, cocoa powder, and often either beets, or red food coloring. It is most popular in the American South, though known in other regions. The most typical frosting for a red velvet cake is cream cheese icing.

James Beard’s 1972 reference, American Cookery describes three kinds of red velvet cake varying in the amounts of shortening and butter used. All of them use red food coloring for the color, but it is mentioned that the reaction of acidic vinegar and buttermilk tends to turn the cocoa a reddish brown color. Furthermore, before more alkaline “Dutch Processed” cocoa was widely available, the red color would have been more pronounced. This natural tinting may have been the source for the name “Red Velvet” as well as “Devil’s Food” and a long list of similar names for chocolate cakes.

The use of red dye to make “Red Velvet” cake was probably started after the introduction of the darker cocoa in order to reproduce the earlier color. It is also notable that while foods were rationed during World War II, some bakers used boiled beets to enhance the color of their cakes. Boiled grated beets or beet baby food are still found in some red velvet cake recipes. Red velvet cakes seemed to find a home in the U.S. South and reached peak popularity in the 1950s - just before a controversy arose about health effects of common food colorings.

The story of red velvet cake is, probably mistakenly, attached to the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City. An early version of the infamous “Neiman-Marcus cookie” legend has it that a woman asked for the recipe to the delicious red velvet cake she was served at the hotel restaurant, only to find that she had been billed $100 (or $250) for the recipe. Indignant, she spread it to all her friends as a chain letter. This genre of legend dates to at least the 1940s as a $25 fudge cake recipe given to a railroad passenger during the days of elegant rail travel.

In Canada, red velvet cake was a well-known signature dessert in the restaurants and bakeries of the Eaton’s department store chain in the 1940s and 1950s.3 Promoted as an “exclusive” Eaton’s recipe, with employees who knew the recipe sworn to silence, many Eaton’s patrons mistakenly believed the cake to be the invention of the department store matriarch, Lady Flora McCrea Eaton. Unbeknownst to Canadian shoppers, most of whom would have been unfamiliar with the cuisine of the American south, the recipe likely originated in the United States rather than in the Eaton’s kitchens.

A recent resurgence in the popularity of this cake is partly attributed to the 1989 film Steel Magnolias in which the groom’s cake (another southern tradition) is a red velvet cake made in the shape of an armadillo.

17 March 1951, Modesto (CA) Bee, “Prize Winning Recipes” by Katherine Kitchen, pg. 14A:
Mrs. Masten’s prize winning recipe for Waldorf-Astoria Chocolate Cake was sent to her by her mother.
(Same as below. This is NOT Red Velvet Cake—ed.)

22 January 1953, Fresno (CA) Bee, pg. 12B:
Waldorf Astoria Cake
4 tablespoons butter of margarine
3 eggs
2 1/4 cups sugar, cane or beet
3 squares unsweetened chocolate, melted
1 1/2 cups cake flour (sift before measuring)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups milk
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 cup finely chopped nut meats
Separate eggs; beat whites very stiff. Gradually add 1 1/4 cups of the sugar and beat until very thick. Beat yolks until thick or lemon color; set aside. Cream the butter or margarine; add remaining sugar gradually. Add beaten egg yolks and melted chocolate, then flour alternately with the milk, beating well after each addition. Fold egg whites thoroughly into this mixture. Sprinkle baking powder over the top of the batter; fold in thoroughly. (Or, baking powder may be sifted with dry ingredients; either method is satisfactory.) Sprinkle vanilla and chopped nut meats over the batter; fold in. Pour into 3 shallow 9 inch or 3 deep 8 inch layer cake pans. Bake at 350 degrees for 30 to 35 minutes. Frost with the following icing:

1 1/2 cups sifted powdered sugar, cane or beet
1/2 cup butter or margarine
2 squares unsweetened chocolate, melted
1 egg
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
Combine ingredients; beat together thoroughly until very light. Makes enough frosting for top and sides of cake.

22 May 1959, Hillsboro (Ohio) Press-Gazette, “Homemakers’ Corner” by Mary Gallagher, pg. 15, cols. 2-3:
Recipe of the Week
This is a $300.00 recipe! Yes, that price was actually paid for it, and you are getting it free! It seems that two young ladies were served this cake when eating at a Chicago hotel one day, and since it was a bit unusual they asked if they might have the recipe. The hotel obliged, and asked them to write down their names and addresses. A short time later they received a bill for $300 and after going to court about it, the verdict was made that they were obligated to pay the bill.

This recipe is contributed by Mrs. Homer Watts of Rainsboro:

Waldorf Red Cake
Beat until creamy 1/2 cup shortening, 1/1/2 cups sugar; add 2 eggs and 1 teaspoon vanilla; make paste with 2 tablespoons cocoa, 1/4 cup red food coloring (add to mixture); sift 2 1/4 cups flour, 1 teaspoon salt, alternatively add 1 cup buttermilk with flour and salt mixture to above; mix together 1 tablespoon vinegar, and 1 teaspoon soda, (add to mixture, just blending in. Be sure you do this fast, adding it immediately as it foams); bake in two 9 inch layer pans 25-30 minutes at 350 degrees. Cool split layers and frost.

Yes, that is really “1/4 cup red coloring,” but Mrs. Watts and I think that half that much red coloring will be enough, use water for the rest of the one fourth cup. When Mrs. Watts made this cake she used 2 bottles of the coloring which was only half of the amount called for in the recipe.

We are not sure that it is worth $300.000, but you can try it and see what you think. 

25 May 1959, Mansfield (Ohio) News-Journal, “Readers’ Recipe Exchange,” pg. 6, cols. 1-2:
Six readers answered the request of Mrs. Walter Jarvis for a cake recipe which includes two bottles of red food coloring in the ingredients. One reader said a friend had to pay $300 for the recipe, after having eaten the cake at the Waldorf in New York City and requesting the recipe. Another told the same story, but calls it a $200 recipe.

Our thanks to Mrs. David Gongwer, Ashland; Mrs. Loyd Chilcote, Mansfield; Mrs. E. F. Galion; Mrs. C. L. Bisel, Shelby; Mrs. Richard Sloan, Ashland, and Mrs. Robert Orewiler, Shelby. The recipes are almost identical and all but one call for 2 ounces of red food coloring, not two bottles. Check the label on the bottles so that you buy the correct amount, or purchase it at a drug store as Mrs. Fortney suggests.

1/2 cup Crisco
1 1/2 c. sugar
2 eggs
2 oz. red food coloring
1 tsp. vanilla
1 tsp. soda
2 Tbsp. cocoa
1 tsp. salt
1 c. buttermilk
2 1/4 c. cake flour
1 tsp. vinegar
Cream shortening, add sugar and eggs, food coloring and vanilla. Cream again. Sift flour, add rest of dry ingredients, sift again. Combine dry ingredients with sugar mixture while adding butermilk and vinegar. Pour into two greased and floured 9-inch pans and bake 30 minutes at 350 degrees.

5 Tbsp. flour
1 c. milk
1 c. sugar
1 c. butter
Mix flour and milk until smooth. Cook until thick, stirring constantly. Cool. Cream sugar, butter and vanilla. Add flour and milk mixture. Beat with electric mixer until fluffy.
When cake is thoroughly cool, split layers in half and heap frosting between each layer, also on top and sides.

Methods are slightly different in the six recipes. One reader advises using 8-inch rather than 9-inch pans, and one says it should be baked in three layers. One lists two bottles of food coloring in the ingredients and directs that each bottle also should be filled with water, making four bottles of liquid. Two suggest making a paste of the food coloring and cocoa before adding these ingredients.

18 September 1959, Zanesville (Ohio) Signal, pg. 6A, col. 2:
Waldorf-Astoria Cake
1/2 cup Crisco
1 1/2 cup sugar
2 eggs
2 oz. red cake coloring
2 tablespoons cocoa
Make paste and add to above.
1 cup buttermilk
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon vanilla
Mix and add to above at low speed 2 1/2 cups sifted cake flour, blend in carefully at low speed.
1 tablespoon vinegar
1 teaspoon soda
Add to above and pur into 2 cake pans and bake for 30 to 40 min., at 325 degrees.
When cool, remove from Pans and place in refrigerator at least 1 hr. to chill. Split layers and ice.

Mix 8 tablespoons flour with 1/2 teaspoon milk, add to 1 cup boiling milk. Cool and stir. Beat smooth with egg beater if necessary. Chill.
Beat on high speed until light and fluffy:
3/4 cup butter
1 1/2 cup sugar
1 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
Add flour and milk mixture. Beat until creamy.

Mrs. Galen Ferguson,
Rt. 2, Ohio

19 September 1959, Zanesville (Ohio) Signal, pg. 6, col. 2:
Waldorf Red Cake
1/2 cup shortening
1 1/2 cups sugar
2 eggs
2 ounces red food coloring
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 tablespoons cocoa
1 cup buttermilk
2 1/4 cups cake flour
1 tablespoon vinegar
1 teaspoon soda
1 teaspoon salt
Cream shortening, sugar and eggs. Make paste with cocoa and coloring. Add to mixture. Add salt and buttermilk in with flour and vanilla and make paste. Add to creamed mixture. Add vinegar and soda but do not beat hard, just blend. Bake 30 minutes at 350 degree temperature in two 9-inch pans. Let cake cool and ice.

5 tablespoons flour
1 cup sweet milk
1 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup butter
Cook flour and milk until thick, then cool. Cream sugar, vanilla and butter until fluffy. Add to flour mixture but don’t beat too long.
This is sufficient for a 2-layer 9-inch cake.

Mrs. Hershel Turner
West Sheridan Street
Somerset, Ohio

1 December 1959, Van Nuys (CA) News, pg. 9, col. 6:

23 March 1960, Seattle (WA) Times, pg. 39, col. 1 ad:
The sensational cake treat that is the pride of the Waldorf...and one of the most talked about cakes in the country. 2 layers with French butter cream icing. Reg. 1.09

16 June 1960, Denton (TX) Record-Chronicle, “Create Something For Father’s Day” by Ethel Woodby, sec. 2, pg. 1, col. 5:
It’s a Red Velvet Cake recipe. She says it was sent to her by her sister-in-law, Mrs. C. L. Garrett of Longview.

23 February 1961, Chicago Daily Herald, “Successful Homemaking” by Lois Seiler, pg. 24:
Legendary Red Mystery Cake
Created In Prominent Hotel

A recipe with a legend and a price tag—that’s the unusual Red Mystery Cake being featured today.

Rumor has it that a lady once requested the recipe for this unique cake from the chef of a prominent hotel. He proudly complied—then sent the lady a bill for $200 for his services.

Legally obligated to pay for this coveted trade secret, this woman, in turn, gave the recipe away to everyone she met, hoping that if enough people enjoyed it shewould get her money’s worth.

ONE OF the families which has enjoyed this recipe and its story tremendously is the Jack Martin family of Arlington Heights.

“The history of this cake is only one of its unusual characteristics,” said Mrs. Martin. “You may be surprised,” she continued, “but it contains four bottles of red food coloring and is almost maroon in color.”

“It is very moist too” she added, and it is extremely important that the cake not be overbaked. It is also important that butter and only butter be used as the shortening in both the cake and the frosting.”

ALTHOUGH this cake has a deep red texture, its flavor is very mild. A fluffy butter cream icing is used as the frosting on this delicious dessert. Mrs. Martin suggests that it be storied in a cake tin—never in the refrigerator.

“I have yet to find a person who doesn’t like this cake,” Mrs. Martin commented, “and it is always a colorful conversation piece. Because it is quite rich, it is an excellent bridge or late evening dessert.”
A home economics major from Illinois State Normal university, Mrs. Martin naturally enjoys cooking and baking and particularly likes to make special dishes.

“MY THREE youngsters keep me too busy to try many new recipes during the week, but I really like to make a special effort when I have guests,” she said. Her husband, Jack, teaches journalism and English at Arlington high school and works on special assignments for Paddock Publications. Mr. and Mrs. Martin live at 1337 N. Chicago ave. in Arlington Heights. Their three children are Lori, 4; Douglas, 3 and Beth, one.

Red Mystery Cake
1 cup butter
1 1/2 cups sugar
2 eggs
2 ounces red food coloring
2 tablespoons cocoa
2 1/2 cups sifted cake flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup buttermilk
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 tablespoon vinegar
1 teaspoon baking soda
Cream butter and sugar together thoroughly. Add eggs and beat well. Make a thin paste of the food coloring and cocoa. Add to creamed mixture.
Sift flour and salt together and add to batter alternately with buttermilk. Blend in vanilla.
Combine soda and vinegar and mix into batter immediately at low speed. Pour at once into two greased and waxed paper lined 9-inch layer cake tins.
Bake in a 350 degree oven for 25 minutes. Let cool and then remove from pans. Fill and frost with the following icing:

Butter Cream Frosting
5 tablespoons flour
1 cup milk
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup cold butter
1 teaspoon vanilla
Blend flour and milk together. Cook mixture in a double boiler or in a saucepan over low heat until very thick, stirring constantly. Cool thoroughly.
Cream butter and sugar until fluffy and add vanilla. Add cooled flour and milk mixture. Beat together until fluffy and spread between layers and on the top and sides of the cake.
Do not store in the refrigerator; store in a cake tin.

21 June 1961, Winnipeg Free Press, pg. 52 ad:
The Grill Room has baked another cake! A cake so tempting you’ll want to try it right away. In appearance, it looks like an ordinary layer cake, smothered in rich butter icing—but cut into it and there’s a surprise! It’s red...a rich, melting festive red that will look luscious served with vanilla ice cream. EATON’S new Red Velvet Cake keeps fresh and tasty for days. Try it on your family now --serve it often! Special, each...79c

30 July 1961, Lima (Ohio) News, “Nancy Carter’s Kitchen Know-How,” pg. B7, col. 5:
Red Velvet
Cake Is A
Our mail the past few months has contained daily requests for the new Red Velvet Cake. So we have set to work collecting all the variations and have at last perfected a sensational cake. This cake promises to be as popular as the famous German chocolate cake because it is so beautiful and so easy to make.

The cake is just what the name implies. It has a deep rich red color just like red velvet. The icing is creamy white and when the cake is sliced it is unlike any cake you’ve ever made. When you serve it, it is certain to be a conversation piece.

Whole the cake is excellent served alone, we think its color and flavor go well with some of the wonderfully good fresh summer fruits. In your friendly supermarket you’ll find peaches, apricots, pineapples, bananas, blueberries, melons for making into balls, and many other fruits. Why not serve Red Velvet Cake with fruit to top off a simple summer supper.
1 cup shortening
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
2 eggs
1/4 cup red food color (4-1/2 oz. bottles)
2 1/4 cups sifted all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons cocoa
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon soda
1 cup buttermilk
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 tablespoon vinegar
Cream shortening and sugar until very fluffy. Add whole eggs, one at a time. Beat 1 minute after each egg. Very carefully mix in food color. Sift together flour, cocoa, salt, soda. Mix buttermilk, vanilla, vinegar. To creamed ingredients, alternately add dry and liquid ingredients, beginning and ending with flour mixture. Beat on medium speed of mixer after each addition. Turn into 2 8-inch greased and floured round layer pans. Bake in moderate oven, 350 degrees, 35 to 40 minutes. Cool on racks 10 minutes. Remove from pans. When cold, ice as follows:

1 cup milk
5 tablespoons flour
1 cup butter
1 1/4 cups sifted confectioner’s sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
In glass jar, shake together milk and flour until smooth. Cook over medium heat until thickened and smooth, stirring constantly. Cool. Beat together softened butter, sugar and vanilla. Add first mixture. Beat until smooth and fluffy. Mixture looks like whipped cream. Fill and frost cake layers.

New York Times
So Naughty, So Nice
Published: February 14, 2007
IT’S a cake that can stop traffic.
Some bakers and food historians attribute the cake’s rise in popularity to its role in the 1989 film “Steel Magnolias,” where it appeared in the shape of an armadillo, with gray icing. The cake, if not the armadillo, had staying power.

More recently, the cake scored a public-relations coup of sorts when the singer Jessica Simpson served a towering hexagonal version at her wedding to Nick Lachey in 2002. It was made by Sam Godfrey, owner of the bakery Perfect Endings in Napa, Calif., who said he included a red velvet sample among the cakes he gave Ms. Simpson “because she’s from Texas.” He wasn’t prepared for her reaction. “When she chose it I was dumbstruck,” he said. “Then she talked about it all over television.”
Though the consensus is that red velvet, like many layer cakes, is from the South, it is certainly not in every cookbook about Southern food. No definitive information exists on exactly where it came from, how it should be made or why it is red. In fact, red velvet cake has produced almost as many theories and controversies as recipes.

One early story links it to New York. In their new “Waldorf-Astoria Cookbook” (Bulfinch Press, 2006), John Doherty and John Harrisson say that the cake, which they call a Southern dessert, became a signature at the hotel in the 1920s. (It is also the subject of an urban legend: a woman at the Waldorf was supposedly so taken with it that she asked for the recipe — for which she was charged $100 or more. In revenge, she passed it along to everyone she knew. The tale, like a similar one about a cookie recipe from Neiman Marcus, has been debunked.)

Austin American-Statesman
Color me retro: Red velvet cake is back in vogue
And the recipe won’t cost one red cent.
Wednesday, February 14, 2007
Red velvet cake is so retro, ruby-hued and rowdy. Not a crumb of subtleness about it. But on celebratory occasions such as Valentine’s, it shines, charming the young and bringing reminiscences to the seasoned.

The layer cake, filled and frosted with creamy white icing, is basically a devil’s food cake — a moist light cocoa cake — whose batter is doused with a bottle or two of food coloring to give that signature red hue

Its history is as deep as its color. Some sources say it originated in the South as far back as the early 1900s, and that beets lent the color. Many others say it originated at New York’s Waldorf Astoria hotel in the 1950s. But Joe Verde, the former chef at Oscar’s at the hotel, told the James Beard Foundation Web site that when he researched the cake’s history in the Waldorf archives a few years ago, he couldn’t find a single mention of it.

So much for that legend that the famous hotel once charged a customer $100 for the recipe. Obviously, that’s an early version of the Neiman Marcus urban myth about the $250 cookie recipe.

The red velvet cake’s popularity soared in the ‘60s, with no less than a dozen cooks (two from Texas) submitting it to a “Favorite Recipes of Home Economics Teachers Desserts Cookbook.” Amounts of red food coloring in them ranged from 1 teaspoon to 2 ounces.

In the ‘70s, however, the cake faded from the table for a while after a Russian study linked Red Dye No. 2 to cancer. Several subsequent studies showed no hazards, and when the Food and Drug Administration conducted its own tests, they were inconclusive. Ultimately, though, the FDA banned the dye because it could not pronounce it safe. Other reds took its place. And while some people sensitive to dyes might need to avoid them, others relish their vibrancy. 

Posted by Barry Popik
Texas (Lone Star State Dictionary) • Wednesday, February 14, 2007 • Permalink