Sweets are not in short supply around Valentine's Day. But here's an option a little more sophisticated than candy hearts or chocolate kisses: try Red Velvet cake. The rich red color always surprises people and makes it perfect for a holiday that is celebrated with a lot of crimson.
This allegedly Southern gem has been gaining some popularity, see 1989's Steel Magnolias and Jessica Simpson's wedding cake for her 2002 nuptials to Nick Lachey. The New York Times noticed the trend in 2007, and said that more than 20 bakeries in New York City were serving the dessert.
The cake gets it red color from copious amounts of red food coloring, though beets have been used in times of war rationing and recently as a concession to the health-food craze. (But it is cake after all--it isn't supposed to be healthy.) My favorite versions are covered in cream cheese frosting—a sweet but tangy layer on top.
The origin of the cake, like that of so many of our favorite foods, is less than clear. One of the most popular stories is that the cake was invented at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City. An urban myth held that a woman asked for the cake recipe, was charged a ridiculous amount of money for it, and then circulated the recipe in revenge. A version of this myth has been spreading for decades, most recently related to a cookie recipe from Neiman Marcus.
The first credible reference to red velvet cake comes in 1972's American Cookery by famed chef and food writer James Beard. He notes that the reaction between the buttermilk and vinegar—both common ingredients in red velvet recipes—can enhance the reddish color of cocoa powder. In the days before Dutch-processed cocoa powder was widely used, natural cocoa powder had more of a reddish tint. The use of processed powder might have necessitated the use of food coloring.
After I discovered the cake in junior high, I brought Red Velvet cupcakes into class for every Valentine's Day party. The cake was relatively unknown in Chicago, where I grew up, and never failed to get a smile or two.