It really does keep me up at night

Wednesdays and Thursdays are the killer part of my week, possibly because I never work hard enough on Monday and Tuesday, and because it is against my religion to work too hard on Fridays.

Yesterday smacked me down hard and today isn’t looking much better, so instead of blathering on about nothing I will instead turn over to you the most pressing matter currently on my mind where you might actually be of assistance. (I mean, unless you want to write a couple of articles for me.) (Do you? Want to write a couple of articles for me? Lord, I am tired.)

It all started yesterday when we got into a discussion of Otto’s upcoming birthday and what the appropriate celebration would be. That, of course, led into a discussion of what Monkey wants for HIS birthday, and things spiraled out of control from there, as you might imagine.

For the record, at least Otto is not demanding the following, which Monkey was kind enough to write up and leave on my desk for me:

1. superhero name
2. Games
3. cake
4. presents
5. more games
6. Party bags
7. Party’s over

I thought about using that template for Otto’s birthday as well, but I was stumped right at “superhero name” since “Stepdad Man” really doesn’t have the ring one might hope.

Anyway, based upon that conversation, it was decided that I would attempt to complete my southern transformation and bake a red velvet cake for Otto’s birthday. I’m perfectly game (if you can read you can cook, my mother always said), but after reading through a million and one recipes and going to the store for the ingredients, I have a burning question:

Why the red?

I understand that it’s pretty, I guess. But as I suspect Monkey of having some sensitivity to food dye, I started considering leaving the dye out… and then several pieces of recipes I came across seemed to indicate that the dye itself affects the moistness and consistency of the cake, so now it would appear that it’s not just for show, but for actual taste.

Can anyone tell me why you NEED the red food dye, and/or how this cake started? Help a dumb yankee out.


  1. All Adither

    I’m a dumb yank too. But you can buy natural food coloring (like Beet juice or whatever for red). So far, it’s hasn’t magically transformed any of my baked goods into Day-Glo, but I think it’s because I haven’t used enough. Anyway, we get it at Whole Foods. Not sure if you have one of those down there or any other health food store?

    All that dye worries me the slightest bit too. ‘Course, that doesn’t stop me from bribing my kids with brightly colored candy when need be.

  2. Andrea

    Absolutely no idea here! I’m not sure I have even tried red velvet cake. I’ll be interested to check back later to learn more!

    Can’t say “dumb yankee”…how about Dumb West Coaster?! :)

  3. Jennifer

    Whooo hooo
    I’m the first commenter!
    Here is the explanation out of wikipedia for the red dye.

    *Ah chemical reactions, gotta love ’em.*


    James Beard’s 1972 reference, American Cookery[1] describes three kinds of red velvet cake varying in the amounts of shortening and butter used. All of them use red food coloring for the color, but it is mentioned that the reaction of acidic vinegar and buttermilk tends to turn the cocoa a reddish brown color. Furthermore, before more alkaline “Dutch Processed” cocoa was widely available, the red color would have been more pronounced. This natural tinting may have been the source for the name “Red Velvet” as well as “Devil’s Food” and a long list of similar names for chocolate cakes.[2]

    A recent resurgence in the popularity of this cake is partly attributed to the 1989 film Steel Magnolias in which the groom’s cake (another southern tradition) is a red velvet cake made in the shape of an armadillo.

    [edit] Dye And Other Color Sources

    The use of red dye to make “Red Velvet” cake was probably started after the introduction of the darker cocoa in order to reproduce the earlier color. It is also notable that while foods were rationed during World War II, some bakers used boiled beets to enhance the color of their cakes. Boiled grated beets or beet baby food are still found in some red velvet cake recipes. Red velvet cakes seemed to find a home in the U.S. South and reached peak popularity in the 1950s – just before a controversy arose about health effects of common food colorings.

    *Not just cause that’s how Grandma did it!*

  4. Wendy

    Oh dear Mir, why haven’t you used Google. Here is what I found, even though I know I have heard the story, before, but it is not what I found here:

    That recipe says that the moist depends more on the oil and cake flour. She, also, claims that you can use as much dye as you like.

    And now out favorite online research guide:

    It appears that the red velvet cake was passed around like a cheap hooker, because of a pissed off customer. Well, we all know how that feels. The pissed off customer, not the hooker. Although, if you know the before…well, never mind.

    My philosophy for these types of cakes is to just let someone use make it and I will buy it. Good Luck

  5. Jennifer

    Aww, dang, not the first one!
    Oh well, I’m Just a dumb Pacific Nw’er!

  6. Leandra

    I’m about as southern as you can get, and although I love red velvet cake, I have no earlthy idea why it’s red. But it does seem like it would be…lacking…somehow if weren’t red. All Adither had a good suggestion. You could probably find natural dyes at Earth Fare here in town.

    As for Otto’s superhero name — I’d go with Otto, SuperChocolateMan! since he’s always coming to your rescue with stashes of chococlate. Or BaconGuy!

  7. Megan

    I can’t see how food coloring would really change the quality of the cake since people I’ve talked to have used the liquidy stuff, gel, and the professional kind in little pots in varying amounts etc. Without the red it will be hard to convince the masses that it’s truly RED velvet cake, but give ’em an extra big slice and I’m sure they’ll be more than reasonable.

  8. amy

    Ahh yes, the joy of birthday party planning. I LOVE Monkey’s list! Thankfully my Monkey has NO CLUE what a birthday actually is, so I’m off the hook on that one. It’s Punkin’s birthday I’m worked up about, since she’s turning 9 and each year has to be better than the last.

  9. Liza Martino

    I just made a red velvet cake for the woman who works for me for her birthday- it is her favorite, which is strange since she is a native New Yorker but whatever. I am also a Yankee, though I did spend my college years in South Carolina (go Tigers!). I used the recipe from It was delicious. The frosting has cream cheese,marscapone, AND whipped cream (Yes, I gained five pounds reading the recipe). The actual cake recipe was pretty much the same as Paula Dean’s and Martha Stewart. The vinegar part weirded me out a bit but most recipes seem to use that method. A Red Velvet Cake is really a Devil’s Food Cake that has red food coloring added to it.

  10. jennielynn

    God, now I want red velvet cake.

  11. ikate

    I’m not sure about the red part, but I think you could use natural (beet juice or something) or less – I don’t think it will make a huge difference.

    I’m not sure what recipe you ended up with, but I’ve tried a few and this one for cupcakes is AMAZING. The buttermilk is the acid, instead of vinegar and all the oil, while a bit shocking, makes them so so moist. My mouth is watering just thinking about them…,1977,FOOD_9936_36737,00.html

    I’ve made them with the full amount of food coloring and about half – both were nearly the same color red and didn’t have any taste difference.

  12. Otto


    That seems so wrong to me … and, probably, only me …

  13. The Other Leanne

    Here I thought this Red Velvet Cake was something exotic and it turns out it’s just a Devil’s Food Cake dyed red. Crap.

    On the other hand: mmmmm….cake!

  14. Stephanie

    on the above website, look to the right and try silly superhero names. it has no options, just randomly generates, and I came up with ‘chipmunk warbler.’

    at my daughter’s last birthday party, we sang karaoke and danced. one of the games was pick slips of paper out of two different baskets, one contained animal names and the other contained verbs, and they were to combine the two to make up a dance. try the ‘kangaroo shuffle.’ anyway, you could use that to make up the kids superhero names.

  15. Karen

    I am with Jennifer. Food Network recently did a thing about the history of red velvet cake and they talked about the chemical reaction and the beets. I personally do not like red velvet cake. Just keep that in mind when I present you with my list of birthday demands. :)

  16. StephLove

    I once made it with beet juice. It seems like you’ve got a lot of links to recipes from other readers, but if you need another I can look around for it. Happy Baking! And happy early b-days to Otto & Monkey!

  17. Stephanie

    Oh, Otto! I love BaconGuy. Or how about The Bacon Avenger! That exclamation point is not punctuation for the sentence. It is actually part of the name.

    ‘The Bacon Avenger!’

  18. Burgh Baby's Mom

    Just a second, what do you mean red velvet cake can be made from scratch? What? I thought I needed Better Crocker for that task. Hmm . . . I need to spend more time in the South so that I can learn useful things like that.

  19. Amy-Go

    It just IS.

  20. Beverly

    Most of the recipes I have seen for Red Velvet cake call for 2 to 4 tablespoons of liquid food coloring. Leaving out this liquid could affect the moistness of cake slightly, so instead of the food coloring, try substituting with water or more buttermilk or even applesauce.

  21. Deb

    If they are relying on the food color as the moisture in the cake..ICK! and man would you have to use a lot of it! Don’t worry about it, leave it out or use a natural coloring like a few others suggested. Good luck and hope it turns out great for you.

  22. Jamie

    People think it’s southern, but it actually originated in the 1950s in the heart of Manhattan — at Oscar’s at the Waldorf — and from there traveled South.

  23. Jamie

    I didn’t meant to hit submit yet…Although some say that it originated at the Waldorf Historia Hotel… It is believe that it was from the Pillsbury Bake off held at the Waldorf back in the 1950’s

  24. Anne Glamore

    I don’t have any input on the red dye, but if you want to make it really Southern, instead of baking it in the shape of a regular cake, pick your favorite roadkill (possum or armadillo) and decorate accordingly.

    This makes nice guts when sliced. If that’s what you’re going for.

  25. mama speak

    Isn’t Ottomatic for the Mass (or whatever it is) his superhero name already?? I’m so confused.

  26. Mary

    No idea, but red dye makes my kids crazy so we avoid it at all costs. You don’t know how many times my kids say, “Oh, man!” when I look at the ingredients. Sorry, kids, Red #40, no way!

  27. Sara

    The best thing about red velvet cake is the icing. That’s blasphemy to many, I’m sure, but come on. It’s ICING!!

  28. diane

    I made a RVC from scratch in heart-shaped pans for a Valentine event at my house, to which ten eight- and nine-year-old girls were invited. I don’t remember them bouncing off the walls because of the food coloring, but then again, I sent them home about the time it would have kicked in.

    Finding a natural alternative coloring or using half the recommended amount of regular coloring seems to be the best bet.

  29. jenn

    I actually made white velvet cupcakes for St. Patty’s Day this year, and iced them with dyed-green cream cheese icing. The cake part was just fine without the dye, I thought. Yummm, cake.

  30. Deputy's Wife

    One of the comment’s said said the recipe at is a good one to try, I would agree. Yet, the best one that I have made is through Cook’s Country. One thing though, the cocoa in red velvet cake helps produce a more rich red color. If using food coloring alone, you will never achieve the red velvet. Trust me on that one.

    Good luck to you.

  31. angie

    It wouldn’t be red cake without the dye. That would be chocolate cake. Which is good, you know? All red velvet cake I’ve had tastes like dye. I guess that’s part of the appeal.

  32. BOSSY

    Red Velvet Cake? Wow, that’s like one-stop-shopping for all the senses, isn’t it?

  33. dad

    Reread the Red Badge of Courage dude. It’s the blood. Everything is better if suffering and sacrifice are involved.
    Would you make me a pecan pie for Otto’s birthday?

    Color: yes. Consistency: possibly. Taste: no way! Red dye # !8?J has no taste. My government told me so.

  34. kailani

    Funny RVC story…
    My husband, who totally pink puffy hearts “Blood Cake,” as he calls it…was turning 30 just a few days after I came home from the hospital with our newborn daughter. Due to the timing and everything we didn’t make any plans for his milestone bday. At the last minute, the day of his birthday, I decided to make him his favorite cake. And I decided to make it in a heart-shaped pan, to show him how much I adored him. Hormones, I do believe. Anyway, I decided too late in the day to do this. In order to have it on the table to “surprise” him when he walked in the door from work, I frosted it when it was still kind of warmish. BIG mistake. This was the scene he found when he got home….the kitchen was awash in flour, including me, the dog and the baby. The cake was cracking and….oozing?…..dripping white buttercreme frosting and the red of the cake was literally bleeding through so everything was kind of runny and red and pinkish. The baby was screaming, I was crying and there was a flour explosion everywhere. I really think he thought he had stumbled onto a crime scene…it was straight out of CSI. I don’t know how he managed to choke down a piece. And I don’t like it to begin with.

    As a side note….the best thing about the the whole bad, bad server thing that happened to you is the fact that I found you here at WCS when I was going through withdrawals over at Want Not. And now I picture you in a whole new light and I think you are even prettier than before! Stunning, in fact! Out of something bad comes something good!

    Good luck with your own baking. Hope it turns out better than mine!

  35. Carolyn

    I grew up with a “red” velvet cake for each and every birthday. The fun part for us was we always got to pick the color of our cake. So, if you’re just avoiding the red food dye – you can make a blue or green or yellow velvet cake that tastes just as good.

  36. Lady Faire

    I had my first experience with Red Velvet cake as an adult, only a few years ago. It was fairly good and I wound up consuming a rather large piece. I wish someone would have warned me that the red food coloring is NOT processed by your body. Uh…dark red goes in and…dark red comes back out later. I had **quite a scare** until I remembered the Red Velvet Cake! Maybe all the other Southern kids have had Red Velvet Cake their whole lives and are used to it. I’d suggest you warn Monkey and the rest of your family if you’re going with the Red Velvet Cake!!

  37. liv

    ok, i’ve skimmed the comments, and i don’t think i saw this explanation (i didn’t follow the links, tho) and i’ll offer what i learned when i researched this topic myself. red velvet is red be/c in the super early days of its existence, the cocoa that was used in the cake had a chemical reaction w/ the buttermilk that is typically used as an ingredient, turning the batter red. cocoa has since been refined and no longer turns a cake red when mixed with buttermilk, so dyes are now used to keep the traditional look of a red velvet cake. sorry if this is redundant info and you already scored enlightenment from a previous commenter, but had to throw in my 2 cents. :D if you can find some crazy old school cocoa you’d be able to produce a red velvet cake that won’t irritate monkey’s dye-sensitivities, but you might be hard pressed to do so. ;) hope that helped! :)

  38. Nancy R


    Can’t you just hear the echos after that?

  39. Stephanie

    gee, you can really sort the commentors based on what they chose to reply to. super hero name or red velvet cake. hmmm. Red Velvet Cake Baker to the rescue.

  40. Aimee

    Why stop at a plain old Red Velvet Cake? Make a bleedin’ armadillo groom’s cake! That is, assuming you can figure out how to make gray icing…

    BTW, I *love* that the very first thing on Monkey’s list is a superhero name. I think you need to fulfill that wish.

  41. carolyn

    Red Velvet is my favorite and so my mom bakes me one every year, even tho I’m half way through my forties. One year, she did not have enough red food coloring so she used the little bit she had and prayed for a good result. Oh, it was good allright, tasted sooo great and the frosting was to-die-for. But red? Not so much – more like beige, or tan or very light pink. We still tease her about it, and I think she puts in extra red coloring now, to make up for the beige cake a long time ago.

  42. Hay

    Simply has to be Ottoman…a great addition to any lounge!

  43. Karen

    Seriously, don’t click through to the CakeLove site unless you are prepared to be tempted. I live in Oregon and have no reason to order two cakes from Washington DC, but My Downfall and Cynthia’s Sin are way too tempting.

    I definitely need chocolate now.

  44. Brandy

    I’d always heard that a red velvet cake is a modified Lady Baltimore cake. And, as a Southener, I could not tell you why there is red dye or cocoa for that matter! *g* Good luck!

  45. aly

    my husband ADORES red velvet cake; we lived in maryland for 2 years and he developed a taste for it. it’s pretty easy to make (cream cheese frosting is mandatory, btw!! :)). i thought it was red b/c beets were used at one point.

    i will say it’s our christmas dessert every year b/c i think it’s so pretty (i tint the frosting green so it’s very colorful and perfect on the table for christmas!).

  46. Meg

    Ahhhh! Bleeding armadillo cake!! That’s the first thing I thought of too – I’m so glad Aimee mentioned it! Gotta love Steel Magnolias.

  47. tammy

    A friend of mine made her husband a green velvet cake for his birthday a couple of years ago because she started making it and realized she didn’t have any red food coloring. She said it was funny looking, but it tasted okay.

    Me personally, I’d go for blue velvet, but then I’m (a) a Bobby Vinton fan, and (b) a trifle peculiar.

  48. Andrea

    I’ve never eaten or made red velvet cake, but I made a regular chocolate cake a few days ago and it turned reddish. Must be the cheap cocoa powder I use.

  49. Beth

    There is a food blog called that is wonderful. She did a red velvet cake not to long ago. It’s not listed under her recipes, but if you do a search it will come up. Great explanations for each recipe and the pictures are to die for. Anything I have ever made from this site was delicious. Hope this helps.

  50. D

    My Nana, a good sweet Texan matron, said that “Red Velvet Cake must be red, else it ain’t Red Velvet Cake, it’s just cake.” I think she poured in like two bottles of red food colouring – and wore gloves while doing it. My Sis and I could *never* help with that part – LOL!

    I’m awful on super hero names – but if you hum a few bars of the articles you need written, I could commiserate with you [I’ve a few to write too – alas].

  51. Patricia

    Well, if you have issue with the red dye — I think perhaps you should use BLUE. Then when it is all done, smash the cake into bits and you can have (wait for it…)

    Crushed Blue Velvet Cake!!!!

    (I crack me up)

    But seriously, Yankee Mir — stop questioning the reason, and dye the dang cake red — it is important and hence it works (also only use cream cheese icing, also important). And should you want a recipe for the perfect chocolate cake, I’ll gladly send you a Coke Cake recipe — but don’t go questioning the cola, ok?

  52. cotterpin

    I can’t help with the red velvet cake- but I’ve always heard that your superhero name is the word “The” + your second favorite color and your favorite weather element. I would be The Green Thunder…

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