My great-grandmother was the original hipster: she was making red velvet cake before it was cool.
Though, in all sincerity, it does seem that red velvet cake has suddenly become A Thing. I’d never heard of it before, then suddenly the kids at ACAD are making it, the recipe is showing up in hip Friday newspaper supplements, and my parents claim to have found red velvet cupcakes at a high-end cupcake joint recently (…which about brings me to the limits of my pop-cultural awareness. Still. It seems to be cropping up a lot lately.)
No kidding people want to make red velvet cake: it’s a really beautiful colour, and it has a fancy (and frankly delicious-sounding) name; it’s an old-fashioned recipe, and there’s a real joy in this kind of interactive nostalgia.
My aunt made red velvet cake from this recipe and brought it to a family gathering, and it turns out that my uncle has my Great-Grandma’s original recipe in his possession: typewritten with handwritten comments in pencil. I have reproduced it below.
Apparently there is an urban legend that red velvet cake originated at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York, hence the name, but I suspect it has more to do with how posh you sound when you offer ‘Waldorf Astoria Red Velvet Cake’ to your family/friends/lover(s)/neighbours/co-workers. Undoubtedly, my Great-Grandma J was an impressive woman with or without the ‘Waldorf Astoria’.
‘Waldorf Astoria Red Velvet Cake’
1/2 cup crisco
1 1/2 cups white sugar
red food colouring [my great-grandmother has crossed this out in the original, and hand-written,] Cochenial* [sic] from Drug Store (too strong, use less)
2 tablespoons cocoa
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup buttermilk
2 1/2 cups sifted cake flour
1 tablespoons white vinegar
1 teaspoon baking soda
Cream crisco and sugar until fluffy, add eggs one at a time and beat one minute. Put cocoa and red food colouring in a cup and make a paste and add to above. Add salt. Put vanilla in buttermilk and add slowly to mixture alternating milk and flour. Put vinegar in a cup and add soda, add to mixture. Bake in 2 – 9″ pans at 350 oven, 30 to 40 mins.
1 cup milk
5 tbsp. flour
Mix flour and milk to make a smooth paste; cook until thick. Cool.
1 cup butter
1 cup icing sugar (apparently my aunt used granulated sugar and that worked well)
1 tsp. vanilla
Beat with mixer. Add flour mix gradually till all blended.
*This is a misspelling of “cochineal”, a dye made from crushed bugs of the same name. As far as strange ingredients go, this one takes the cake (haha). (I’ll be writing more about this soon.)
I do not have a photograph of what this cake ought to look like when it’s finished, which, I think, is part of the fun — no glossy, intimidating photographs to frighten me away from giving it a go. Instead, I’ll leave you with a photo of my Great-Grandmother J and my aunts.