What's red and white and baked all over - especially around Christmas? Red Velvet Cake, of course, the colorful dessert with the legendary background.
Red Velvet Cake is not one of my favorite foods, although I'm smitten with the legend about it. Once I saw the recipe, I realized that it is nothing more than ordinary white cake with some cocoa plus two ounces of red food coloring added, and I lost my appetite for it.The bright red cake contrasts with its fluffy white frosting. Evidently this reminds people of candy canes or Santa's costume, but to me it looks more like a barber pole, and it tastes much too . . . well, too RED, is all I can say.
According to legend, the original Red Velvet Cake was baked during the 1950s in the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City. When a patron requested the recipe, it's said that the chef charged her an outrageous fee for it.
In revenge, the woman circulated the rip-off recipe to all her friends and told them about her sad experience. As the story spread, it acquired variations on the exact ingredients, the price and the reason the woman couldn't avoid paying it.
The Christmas connection was added to the legend later. In the early 1970s, people began to mention this as a favorite treat for the holiday season. Some cooks also associate it with Valentine's Day or Independence Day.
But it's the cake's association with Christmas that has been exploited commercially.
For example, in a 1988 catalog sent out by Swiss Colony Inc., of Monroe, Wis., you find, "Red Velvet Cake . . . A legend recreated for you. This regal dessert originated at New York's landmark Waldorf-Astoria hotel."
My guess is that an earlier tradition of baking bright red cakes for festive occasions has merged with the Waldorf legend. In the December 1962 issue of Woman's Day, a Wrigley's gum ad shows a bright red "Holiday Cake" with no hint of the hotel story.
This recipe simply calls for a packaged white cake mix tinted with a heavy dose of red food coloring.
I also have two items on file that mention "Red Velvet Cake" without alluding either to the hotel or the holiday. One is an ad for "Adams Best" vanilla that calls for "two half-ounce bottles of Adams Red Color."
The other item is an actual cake platter that a friend found in a garage sale. It pictures a woman in a red and white Victorian outfit gazing through her lorgnette at the familiar cake recipe, and bears the caption, "Miss Mary's Red Velvet Cake."
The association of Red Velvet Cake with Christmas seems firmly established now, and most people who send me the story and recipe mention the connection. Some even call it "The Famous Waldorf-Astoria Christmas Cake."
On March 11, 1989, the comic strip Arlo and Janis showed a woman in a department store returning a skimpy bathing suit to its display rack. She's saying, "I knew I shouldn't have made that red velvet cake for Christmas!"
In the 1990 Swiss Colony catalog the same item has been rechristened "Red Velvet Christmas Torte." The caption now reads, "Made memorable by New York's Waldorf-Astoria hotel. . . . As beautiful as poinsettias on white linen."
- Speaking of poinsettias and legends, let me mention (as I have several times before) that despite what you may have heard, this popular Christmas plant is NOT toxic.
Each year you read or hear something about poinsettias being poisonous, and every year doctors, scientists and folklorists deny the claim.
The strongest documented charge against poinsettias that I've found appears in the American Medical Association's "Handbook of Poisonous and Injurious Plants." The AMA reports that the plant "has been found to produce either no effect or occasional cases of vomiting."
My preference, though, is for poinsettia plants to remain on the Christmas table and for Red Velvet Cake to stay off the holiday menu.- "Curses! Broiled Again," Jan Harold Brunvand's fourth collection of urban legends, is now available in paperback from Norton. Send your questions and urban legends to him in care of the Deseret News.