Red velvet cake, once an idiosyncratic specialty of the Southeastern United States, has made the big time, appearing on chain menus across the country and morphing along the way — appearing as waffles, pancakes, and doughnuts, as well as in beverages.

Red velvet appeared on 23 percent more menus in 2013 than in 2012, according to menu research firm Datassential. Since 2005, its mention on menus has grown by 500 percent.

Although the exact origin of red velvet cake is difficult to pinpoint, legend and science point to chocolate cake batters containing acidic components such as buttermilk or vinegar. Chemical reactions between the cocoa and acid would turn the antioxidant anthocyanin, which naturally occurs in cocoa, red. That reddish hue also is believed to be the origin of the name “Devil’s Food” for certain rich chocolate cakes.

Modern chocolate processing methods make chocolate less acidic, so the cakes don’t turn red anymore. Instead, large amounts of food coloring — as much as two 1-ounce bottles per cake — are added to the batter in modern recipes. The amount of cocoa powder has also been reduced over time for a much more subtle flavor. In fact, in some recipes cocoa is completely absent.

Cream cheese frosting is the customary icing for the cake.

“I'm only somewhat surprised at the continued popularity of red velvet,” menu trend expert and NRN columnist Nancy Kruse said. “I think several factors account for its popularity. The cream-cheese topping really boosts the indulgence factor. And because the cream cheese provides a nice balance to the chocolate, I suspect that red velvet may appeal to consumers who aren't typically chocolate lovers. …

The Harlem Shake features red velvet cupcake pieces from a local bakery in New York City“But the major driver behind its popularity, I think, is the creative use of the product on menus at all levels of the business. It's used in pancakes and milk shakes, cupcakes and ice cream. It has appeared in beverages, both alcoholic and non-alcoholic. It's also crossed over to the savory side, appearing in hush puppies and as a breading for fried chicken. And as always, it helps that red velvet cake is not something that consumers are likely to make at home.”

One such beverage is The Harlem Shake, at a fast-casual burger restaurant of the same name, located in the New York City neighborhood of Harlem. The shake is made from red velvet cupcake pieces from a local bakery, locally made ice cream and local milk, and is priced at $4.50 for 10 ounces and $6.25 for 16 ounces.

Dunkin’ Donuts also offered the flavor in liquid from with its Red Velvet Latte that appeared on its menu during the holidays. Made with flavorings of red velvet cake and cream cheese frosting, the latte was topped with a red drizzle and sold at a suggested $2.29 for a small. The chain also offered a Red Velvet Drizzled Donut at the same price as its other doughnuts. It was a glazed red velvet cake doughnut drizzled with cream cheese icing.

Cosí also came out with a seasonal red velvet latte, starting at $3.49, and Krispy Kreme had red velvet cake doughnuts for $1.09.

Panera offered a red velvet crinkle cookie during the holidays. It was a soft brownie-like cookie with cream cheese flavored chips, for $1.99.

Dairy Queen’s Blizzard Treat of the month is Red Velvet, made by blending pieces of red velvet cake and cream cheese frosting with vanilla soft serve.

Pie Five, a 19-unit fast-casual pizza concept based in Dallas, introduced a Red Velvet Pie in February, which is really a pie-shaped cake: devil’s food cake layered with cream cheese icing. It’s available through March 9 for $1.59 per slice.

Friendly’s menu, which the family dining chain revamped in January, now has red velvet waffles topped with strawberries and whipped cream for $7.49-$7.59, depending on the location.

Sonic Drive-In recently ran a red velvet limited-time offering: a Red Velvet Molten Cake Sundae, which featured red velvet cake with a liquid center served on cheesecake and topped with ice cream. It was available through Feb. 23 and priced at $4.49.

Contact Bret Thorn: bret.thorn
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