Sunday, February 14, 2016

Maryellen's Red Devil's Food Cake

An experiment in baking science!

Somewhere down the line, I became a little obsessed with red velvet cake. I'm not sure why, but something about a bright red cake that still tastes nice and chocolatey is just a whole lot of fun. It's been something I've been wanting to make for the blog for a long, long time, and since this is something that's kind of become associated with Valentine's Day, February seemed like the perfect time to make it.

Except I didn't wind up making red velvet cake.

The history of red cakes is kind of complicated. For a long time, I thought that red velvet cakes could trace their history back to World War II because people used beets to help compensate for sugar rationing. I'm pretty sure this is a "fact" I've been quoted a couple times before starting this blog. Then, I was told these actually started getting popular in the 50's, and that the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York is the home of the original, first red velvet cake.

The truth is, all of this is kind of true. People have been making cakes with beets in them since well before World War II, and some red velvet cake recipes do include beets to enhance the moisture and flavor of the cake, as well as the color. Red food dye has been in existence since the 1930's, and the Waldorf Astoria is famous for red velvet cakes. There's just no evidence that they'd been making them back in the 1930's! From published recipes, The Food Timeline has dated the red velvet cake we know and love today to 1960. Since that's not exactly a Maryellen recipe (although it will be perfect for Melody!), I turned somewhere a little different for today's treat.

Devil's food cakes are essentially the ancestors of what we think of as just regular chocolate cake today. Chocolate cake used to mean any (usually yellow or white) cake that was frosted or iced with chocolate flavored goodness, and devil's food cake indicated that the cake itself was chocolate flavored. This became popular when cocoa powder and chocolate became easier for the average person to get their hands on. Some of these cakes are called red devil's food cake because the cakes had sort of a rusty brown color rather than a rich, deep chocolate. This isn't because of food coloring or adding more cocoa powder to the mixture: there's a chemical reaction going on between the baking soda or powder in these recipes and the cocoa, helped along if there's buttermilk or vinegar in the recipe, too. Red devil's food cakes start popping up in cook books in the 30's, and are still a staple of 50's publications, so it's totally fair to imagine Kay Larkin throwing one of these together for a special treat.

Now, anyone can add food dye to a cake, but I thought it was kind of neat to wind up with a reddish cake without dying it. When I found a 1956 recipe for a red devil's food cake on the Food Timeline (which you can access here!) that didn't call for food dye, I decided to give it a shot.

It's a very standard cake recipe, originally from a Betty Crocker cookbook. You take 1 3/4 cups of flour, 1 1/2 cups of sugar, 1 1/4 teaspoon of baking soda, 1 teaspoon of salt and 1/3 of a cup of cocoa, sift it all together, and put it in a bowl. You add in a 1/2 cup of shortening and 2/3's of a cup of milk, and mix it together for 2 minutes. 

Then you add another 1/3 of a cup of milk, 2 eggs and 1 teaspoon of vanilla, and beat that all together for another 2 minutes.

Since this still looked pretty brown, I'll admit it: I cheated and broke out the red food dye. In doing this, I'm pretty sure I over mixed my cakes, which is probably why my cakes have been collapsing in the middle lately. At least the oven isn't broken!

The batter gets divided between two greased and floured eight inch cake pans, and then put in a 350 degree oven for 35 to 40 minutes. I left mine in for the full 40.

Even though both cakes collapsed a little, they were both very easy to remove from the pan!

Unfortunately, they really, really did not look red.

I guess they kind of looked a little, tiny bit rusty red? But considering I put in a fair amount of dye, I was expecting a deeper red color. I've never really played around with this side of baking before - I've never made a from scratch red velvet cake either! - so I don't know anything about what cocoa powder to use, whether or not I just had stupidly high expectations, if I just picked a bad recipe for a reddish cake, and I'm definitely interested to play around a little more and see if I can get a better result.

Until then, I made a simple buttercream and dyed it pink so this looked a little more appropriate for the holiday.

Slicing into it, you can still see that this isn't quite as red as you'd like it to be given the name.

Otherwise, there's honestly not too much new or exciting to say about the rest of this cake. It's a chocolate cake with buttercream frosting! How can you go wrong with that? (Unless you're allergic to chocolate - I promise this is the last chocolate post we'll be doing for a while!) It was tasty, had good texture, and had that great tastes better than a box mix, but also kinda familiar flavor. I'd definitely make it again, and next time, I'll leave out the food dye. It's not worth the risk of over mixing!

Even though it does make pretty pink frosting!


  1. To me, red velvet cake doesn't have any taste. But I have only tasted the grocery store ones and I am willing to admit that the homemade ones might indeed have flavor.

    1. It should be a slightly subtle chocolate cake! I think a lot of store bought cakes are essentially vanilla cakes that are dyed red, but cake mixes tend to be more chocolatey, if you ever feel like trying one out. c:

  2. Long time reader, first time commenter! I absolutely love your blog but I never seem to find time to comment. >_< I'm sorry!

    I'd always heard that red velvet cake originated in the South during the Civil War. While it has a solid history there, I couldn't (after admittedly a pretty quick Google) find anything to back up the Civil War origin, other than a lot of people seem to believe it. So really everyone from Addy onwards could enjoy it. ;)

    Love love love your blog (your photography is so beautiful and full of character! I wish I could capture even half of that with my dolls) and I'll try to get better with commenting.

    1. Eep, that should have read

      "Once again, love love love your blog"

      Dammit, brain! You need more caffeine.

    2. Interesting! I've never seen an actual in print reference to it from before the 30's. If you ever get your hands on one, I'd love to see it!

      And in general, I'm always happy to hear from my readers, so I'm glad you commented. Hope to see you around more often! :D

  3. Delighted to stumble upon your blog! I used to work in a bakery and the red velvet had massive amounts of red paste food color. It's pretty, but all that dye is a little scary! My daughter and I did a historical recipe for the blog of Kathleen Ernst, author of Caroline's books. Hope you can check it out. Your Maryellen is super cute!

    1. Oh how cool! I'll definitely go check that out. Glad you like the blog! :D