Red velvet whoopie pies. Picture: Iain Gillespie/The West Australian

Red Velvet is the Lady Gaga of layer cakes. Dramatic, over-the-top, in-your-face and artificially coloured. You either love it or hate it.

As long as you are redding up the house for the holidays, you might as well red it up with this fabulous dessert. Red Velvet Cake with cream-cheese icing is all dressed up in candy-cane colours for any celebration you plan.

It is a cake for the season.

The velvet cake, so named because of its fine crumb, not its colour, was one of the very first layer cakes. An early sighting of a velvet cake dates from a recipe book by Dr Alvin Chase in 1873.

He noted that "nice smooth names for things" were in fashion, mentioning velvet cake and velvet cream.

Any mention of the colour red was a reference to brown sugar, sometimes called "red sugar".

A "red" devil's-food cake was so named because it took on a rusty hue as a result of the chemical interaction of brown sugar, cocoa and buttermilk or vinegar.

Fannie Farmer's early cookbooks list velvet cakes made with all-purpose flour cut with cornflour, and sometimes cocoa, to soften the firm, coarse protein structure of the flour.

These cakes also appear in her updated cookbooks available today. Fannie's Vanilla Velvet Cake is a bland, basic blonde with a fine crumb.

Some historians believe that velvet cakes that included cocoa - as a tenderiser, not a flavouring agent, and which gave the cake a reddish cocoa hue - were the inspiration for a visually red cake.

But in the Depression, Red Velvet got its shocking hue from John A. Adams, whose family founded The Adams Extract Company in 1888.

With sales slumping across the US, he set up displays of his company's products under a big colour illustration of a crimson-tinted, velvet layer cake. A free recipe and two bottles of Adams Red Colour came with every purchase.

The recipe circulated widely, helped along by regional newspapers, where it seems that every food writer tweaked it. Butter, vegetable oil or margarine might be used. Cocoa was added in any number of proportions to add colour, not flavour.

In 1989 there was yet another resurgence in the popularity of this cake, attributed to the film Steel Magnolias, in which the traditional groom's cake, a Southern tradition, is a Red Velvet Cake in the shape of an armadillo. (Don't ask, just Google it.)

But there's an elephant in the room.

Artificial food colouring is not organic, grass-fed, free-range or suitable for compost. But it won't hurt you. Much of the public reticence about using food dyes harks back to the worldwide hysteria following the announcement by Soviet scientists in 1971 that the widely used Red Dye No. 2 causes cancer in rats.

In 1976, the US Food and Drug Administration reacted by banning it, even though there was no evidence that it causes cancer in humans. It is still legal in many other countries.

Nevertheless, some food-health activists want all artificial food colourings banned regardless of their chemical composition, because a few unconfirmed studies have hinted that they may increase hyperactivity in children.

What's a cook to do? Some recipes (including ours) call for as much as 60ml of artificial food colouring. Others primly call for only a teaspoon, which might make for a better conscience but not a very reddish tint. The amount to use in your cake is up to you.

Will your version come on like Lady Gaga? Or Pat Boone?

To ramp up flavour, add a teaspoon of cinnamon to the dry ingredients when mixing. Because fresh cakes are fragile, this velvet cake will improve in flavour and texture if allowed to rest for a day before icing and serving.

The colour is dramatic. Be sure to choose white plates to show it off. Got leftover cake? Imagine a trifle or parfait with those stunning scarlet hues.

For the cake:
2 cups plain flour
1/2 cup cornflour
2 teaspoons Dutch process cocoa powder
1 teaspoon cinnamon, optional
1 teaspoon bicarb
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1-1/2 cups sugar
1/2 cup butter, softened
2 large eggs
1 cup buttermilk
60ml red food colouring
1 teaspoon white vinegar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

For the icing:
250g package cream cheese, softened
1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
450g icing sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup chopped pecans

For the cake: Preheat the oven to 180 degrees. Grease two 22cm round cake tins with butter or spray with nonstick baking spray. Line the tins with baking paper circles.

In a medium bowl or on a piece of baking paper, sift together flour, cornflour, cocoa, cinnamon (if using), baking soda, bicarb and salt; set aside. In a large bowl, cream together sugar and butter. Beat in eggs one at a time. Alternately add flour mixture and buttermilk. Beat in food colouring, vinegar and vanilla.

Spread the batter evenly in the cake tins; give each tin a sideways shake to settle the batter. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes or until a wooden toothpick inserted into the centre comes out clean. Cool in the tins for five minutes before turning out onto racks to cool completely.

For the icing: In a large bowl, cream the cream cheese and butter. Beat in icing sugar until fluffy. Beat in vanilla. Use to fill and ice the cake. Spread some of the chopped nuts in the palm of your hand and pat them onto the sides of the cake. Continue around the cake until the sides are covered with nuts. Makes about 10 generous servings.

- taken from Sylvia's Family Soul Food Cookbook by Sylvia Woods and Family (William Morrow, 1999)

This simple cake with its fine flavour and smooth, velvet texture is an old classic. It would be a good simple cake for a child's birthday. This was a Fannie Farmer favourite, circa 1950.

1/2 cup butter, softened
1 cup sugar
4 large eggs, separated
1/2 cup cold water
1 cup plain flour
1 cup cornflour
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 teaspoons baking powder

For the cake: Preheat the oven to 180 degrees. Grease two 20cm round cake tins with butter or spray with nonstick baking spray. Line the pans with baking paper circles. Cream the butter and slowly add the sugar, beating until light. Beat in the egg yolks and cold water and combine well. Combine the flour, cornflour, salt and baking powder. Add to the first mixture and beat thoroughly.

With clean beaters, beat the egg whites separately until stiff but not dry. Gently stir a third of the whites into the first mixture, then fold in the remaining whites.

Spread the batter in the baking tins and bake for about 25 minutes, until a toothpick comes out clean. Cool in the tins for five minutes before turning out onto racks to cool completely. Ice with a chocolate butter or caramel icing. Makes about 8 pieces.

Orange Velvet Cake: This is often called Princeton Orange Cake. Make a White Velvet Cake, but add the grated zest of 1 orange to the butter-and-sugar mixture, and substitute orange juice for water. Fill and ice with plain butter icing and sprinkle with 3/4 cup coconut shavings. Makes about eight pieces.

- taken from The Fannie Farmer Cookbook by Marion Cunningham (1990), and Fannie Farmer (1959).

The West Australian

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