A Zingerman’s exclusive for July and August only! Pavlova is the iconic dessert of Australia and New Zealand, named after the Russian Ballerina Anna Pavlova, who performed there in the 1920s. It is a light, luscious, fruity, sweet, cloud-like dessert. It begins with piping a round of vanilla meringue and baking it until the exterior is crispy, but the interior remains soft and smooth. It’s then covered with a thick wavy layer of unsweetened whipped cream (plenty of sugar in the meringue for the entire dessert) and generously decorated with colorful seasonal fruit. In the land down under, it’s most popular in the summer so passion fruit, mango and kiwi are common choices. We’ll be making them fresh everyday with a variety of summer fruit, local if and when we can get it. Enjoy them while you can!
Cocoa Velvet Cake
This is the story of our new Cocoa Velvet Cake and the history of red velvet cake.
Here at Zingerman’s Bakehouse we are proud to make and sell great tasting food that is traditionally made. We are constantly working and reworking recipes in an effort to be the best bakery we can imagine. This commitment for greatness recently took form in a pursuit to find and offer our customers a delicious, historic Red Velvet cake.
Our research of Red Velvet cake yielded an inconsistent history. A more recent tale of Red Velvet’s rise to popularity involves a man by the name of John Adams, the owner of the Adams Extract Company during the early 1940’s. While Adams and his wife were eating a beet colored version of Red Velvet cake at the Waldorf Astoria in New York, he had the idea to develop a version that used his company’s red food coloring. Not only would the food coloring resolve the issue of the cake tasting like beets, it would also boost his company’s sales, which were suffering post-Great Depression. Paired with a cooked milk and flour icing, Adams promoted his food coloring by offering this “original” recipe on a card with the dye. It seems that this is how the modern, very red version of this cake was born. After being featured as the groom’s cake in the 1989 movie Steel Magnolias, Red Velvet quickly rose to fame. Popular wedding planning magazine “The Knot” lists Red Velvet as one of it’s top 8 wedding cake flavors, likely in part because of the romantic red hue.
Looking back further, velvet cakes have much deeper roots. As early as the 1800s, cocoa (along with almond flour or cornstarch in some recipes) was added to the flour in cakes to soften the proteins and create a more delicate texture. Some recipes, like the “Velvet Cake” published in Montreal’s The New Dominion Monthly in 1871, paired baking soda with an acid, such as vinegar, lemon juice or buttermilk to further enhance the smooth texture. The chemical reaction that occurs when the baking soda and acid are mixed is similar to the action of volcanoes, lots of bubbling and movement. When this happens in a cake batter, it makes for a lighter, smoother texture. This is why this style of cake was dubbed as “velvet.”
There are many velvet cakes around. Historic recipes can be found for lemon velvet, pineapple velvet, mahogany velvet, and brown velvet chocolate cake. The internet is also full of modern recipes for blue or purple velvets that merely replace the red food dye with other colors. So where did Red Velvet get its name? There are two popular theories on how velvet cake became synonymous with the color red. The first has to do again with the chemistry of the ingredients. The cocoa powder used in traditional velvet recipes was different than our modern, Dutch process cocoa powder in that it still had an acidic pH level. Combining the alkaline baking soda with the acidic cocoa powder, vinegar, and buttermilk creates a subtle red finish, hence Red Velvet. The other idea behind the name has everything to do with the sugar.
Many traditional Red Velvet recipes call for using red sugar instead of the white sugar that is commonly used for cakes. The modern translation for red sugar is simply brown sugar. So it is possible that the name of the cake came from the type of sugar used in the recipe and not the cake color at all. Whichever the case, these traditional Red Velvet cakes visually had little in common with the bright red cakes that we are all familiar with now.
For months, bakers here at the Bakehouse have been working behind the scenes on many different Red Velvet recipes. We tried cakes using three different types of cocoa powder, some alkali treated through the Dutch process and some natural. We adjusted the acid level in the cakes. We made versions of Red Velvet that were naturally enhanced with everything from beets to an all natural food color. Some of our test cakes had terrific texture with no visual resemblance of red. Some were red, but tasted like beets. Some even turned out red on the exterior and brown on the inside.
We feel great about adding a velvet cake to our menu that is completely traditional and natural. What you’ll find in our Zingerman’s Bakehouse Cocoa Velvet cake is brown sugar, natural cocoa powder, and baking soda reacting with vinegar and buttermilk. What you won’t find is any red food coloring or a bright red color. You’ll feel the light, smooth texture that only can be described as velvety. You’ll see very subtle reddish hues. You’ll taste full flavor of a made from scratch cake paired with our rich cream cheese frosting. Experience it for yourself this July and August.