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Wednesday
Feb162011

Red-Hot: A Treat-ise on Marilyn Monroe and Red Velvet Cake

If Red Velvet Cake were a celebrity, living or alive, who would it be?

If you ask me, the answer is clear: Marilyn Monroe. 

After all, Red Velvet is one hot number of a cake (the New York Times has even referred to it as "vampy"); Marilyn, one hot number of a lady. But not content to leave it at that, I've created a "Treat-ise" if you will of similarities between these deliciously sensual icons.

Life and Death in 1962: As it turns out, the first recipe for the iconic dessert referring to it as "Red Velvet Cake" was published in 1962. The cake had existed before that, it's true, its red color a reaction of its ingredients, but this recipe calls for red food coloring, which amps up the color and has become a signature of the cake. So while the cake had existed, this was the year that it began its ascent into legendary territory. Similarly, for Marilyn, 1962 was a remarkable year: the year of her death, and also the year she went from starlet to legend with legacy.

Humble beginnings and a Swanlike Transformation: Both Red Velvet Cake and Marilyn Monroe began their lives in much simpler, humbler ways than the icons that we now call to mind when thinking about either party, pastry or person. In the case of Red Velvet Cake, it began as the slightly ruddy-hued outcome of buttermilk and vinegar reacting while baking; it wasn't until years later that bakers began to play up this reaction by adding red food coloring (and lots of it) for the dramatic look. Marilyn Monroe came into this world as Norma Jeane Mortensen--at a very young age, her mother remarried and Norma Jeane took on the last name Baker(!). But it wasn't until the 1940s, when she bleached her hair blonde and took on the name Marilyn Monroe that her career really took off.

A Dramatic Signature Look: There's no denying that both Red Velvet Cake and Marilyn Monroe are both iconic in appearance. In the case of Red Velvet Cake, cutting into the fluffy white frosting which gives way to a highly contrasting, visceral red expanse of cake is a downright heady experience. Marilyn, with her platinum locks, contrasting dark arched brows, signature beauty mark and pretty pout, had the power to draw all eyes to her. Love 'em or loathe 'em, in both cases there is no denying that they're striking visually.

Do these icons sometimes cross into caricature territory, more alluring in looks than in reality? Perhaps, but as Marilyn once said, "It’s better to be absolutely ridiculous than absolutely boring." 

Haute Hotel Connections: Both of these icons have ties to another legend--the Waldorf=Astoria Hotel. In the case of Red Velvet Cake, it comes by form of an urban legend: 

One early story links it to New York. In their new “Waldorf-Astoria Cookbook” (Bulfinch Press, 2006), John Doherty and John Harrisson say that the cake, which they call a Southern dessert, became a signature at the hotel in the 1920s. (It is also the subject of an urban legend: a woman at the Waldorf was supposedly so taken with it that she asked for the recipe — for which she was charged $100 or more. In revenge, she passed it along to everyone she knew. The tale, like a similar one about a cookie recipe from Neiman Marcus, has been debunked.)

As for Marilyn? According to Wikipedia,

In 1955, Marilyn Monroe stayed at the hotel for several months, but due to costs of trying to finance her production company "Marilyn Monroe Productions", only being paid $1,500 a week for her role in The Seven Year Itch and being suspended from 20th Century Fox for walking out on Fox after creative differences, living at the hotel became too costly and Monroe had to move into a different hotel in New York City.

Of course, there's no mention of whether or not she ate the cake while she stayed there.

They both have Famous admirers. It's true: both are famously (or perhaps infamously) favorites of high-ranking notables. I wanted to say that both had Presidential admirers, but after much googling I couldn't find any pictures or references of past or present presidents eating Red Velvet Cake (what's up, Google, not responding to my "Bill Clinton eating Red Velvet" query!?). Although...the President...of the Borough of Brooklyn, that is, Marty Markowitz, was recently a judge at a Red Velvet contest. So Red Velvet does have a presidential admirer! Of course, Marilyn's presidential admirer--a fellow named Kennedy--notably involved an incident with singing (and cake?).

But even without Presidential admirers, Red Velvet is still a known favorite of many famous people, having received public love from Oprah Winfrey (arguably more influential than the President), Katie Holmes, and Russell Brand.

Silver Screen Sirens: Obviously Marilyn Monroe stole the show in just about every movie she was in, but Red Velvet has had its moment too: it was famously featured in the classic film Steel Magnolias and is often cited as one of the most memorable bits about the movie (at least by people I know).

Say "Cheese": Yup--cheese figures into the lives of Red Velvet and Marilyn Monroe--literally and figuratively, respectively. Red Velvet is arguably most deliciously (if not technically most authentically) topped with cream cheese frosting. Marilyn famously did "cheesecake" calendar poses.

Of course, if after reading this you're still not with me on the Red Velvet-Marilyn Monroe connection, I'll leave you with these bits to prove that I'm not alone in comparing this sultry red cake to blonde starlets. “It’s the Dolly Parton of cakes: a little bit tacky, but you love her,” said Angie Mosier (via the NY Times), a food writer in Atlanta and a board member of the Southern Foodways Alliance at theUniversity of Mississippi in Oxford. Also, Lux, a cupcake shop, has a flavor that they call "The Marilyn Monroe". What flavor? You guessed it, Red Velvet.

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Reader Comments (9)

cool! i had red velvet cupcakes at a gathering with girlfriends last weekend. we were all talking about how much we love red velvet. :)
February 16 | Unregistered Commenterbecky
so, so iconic indeed!! i officially only want red velvet cupcakes for dinner tonight. and every night for the rest of the year.
February 16 | Unregistered Commenterkms
This is verry cool ! I love histori, MM and Red Velvet.
February 17 | Unregistered CommenterMMCakeDesign
trully enjoyed reading this...nd drooled a ton looking at the pics
February 17 | Unregistered Commenternotyet100
I love it! I agree with your assessment wholeheartedly. And now I want some red velvet cake....
February 17 | Unregistered CommenterMelanie
i just watched Steel Magnolias for the first time recently. True, a red velvet cake is featured (as "The Groom's Cake") but the design is completely unappetizing. Still, even shaped like an armadillo, I would eat red velvet cake!
I believe the most authentic red velvet cake icing is a cooked milk buttercream. The cream cheese icing came later.
February 17 | Unregistered CommenterFred
Love this! Wonderful comparisons!
February 17 | Unregistered CommenterMelanie
Red velvet is one of my favorite flavors. I love the picture you did!
February 22 | Unregistered CommenterCassidy

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