Having researched the origins of Red Velvet Cake on the web it seems to be as problematic. Was it housewives of the South or that greedy chef at the Waldof Astoria? Nothing seems clear except that recipes for it starting appearing in the early 1900’s and probably changed over time due to fluctuations in the availability of various ingredients.
It is appears to have been derived from Devil’s Food Cake which was a chocolate cake that originally had a reddish tint hence the “devil”. Apparently the cocoa used back in the day had a red pigment called anthocyanin which was brought out by reaction with baking soda. The cocoa we now use loses anthocynanin during the production process which left the Devil’s Food Cake a decided chocolate. It appears at some stage the recipe took two different paths: Devil’s Food Cake as we know it today which is a dark chocolate cake and Red Velvet Cake which is a decidely red with the help of food coloring.
There seems to be as many recipes as there are theories but most use eggs, sugar, vanilla, buttermilk, vinegar, baking soda and flour. Most use red food coloring but some use different forms of red beet for color so that they vary from a reddish brown to a deep red depending on the coloring used. (Note that using beets and baking soda together is supposedly problematic and so recipes that use beets of any kind tend to not use baking soda so as to maintain the red coloring).
However recipes seem to vary most in terms of whether butter, oil or shortening is used which is not surprising given the age of the recipe and the fact its been through the depression and a few wars.
Most claim that cream cheese frosting is a must and anything else is sacrilege and we have to admit it sure does seem to be the icing on the cake! The combination of the cake and the cream cheese frosting certainly is what it seems to be about. And here all frosting recipes here are so similiar. They all use butter, cream cheese, powdered sugar and vanilla in varying quantites that you can really play with as you go.
However a more authentic frosting is said to include flour and not powdered sugar.