I made this cake for Father’s Day (which was only a week ago for Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and Fiji, in case you thought I was posting a recipe I made in June… or any other of the assorted dates Father’s Day falls on around the world) and, being the calculating and malevolent character that I am, I forced everyone to guess what this particular red velvet flavour was and refused to tell anyone until they guessed its exact identity. NO CLUES! And if they didn’t guess it, well, they would just have to live with never, ever knowing, and it would be all their own fault.
Apparently that was the wrong thing to do, according to research. According Okamoto et al., when a person knows what they’re tasting, they rate the flavour as significantly more likeable compared to when they’re just given something mysterious and have to taste it without having any idea what it is. Participants in the study were given a range of flavoured liquids to taste. In one condition, the samples were labelled with their correct flavour names (“lemon”, “caramel candy”, “consommé soup” and “coffee jelly”… this interesting selection of flavours may have something to do with the study being conducted in Japan). In another condition, the samples were just labelled with a random number. Participants rated their liking for any given liquid’s flavour on a scale of -100 to +100, and it turns out that they liked a liquid when they knew what it was much more than when they didn’t know what it was, even if it was the exact same liquid.
Moreoever, the average rating for name-labelled liquids was above zero, which meant people liked them, whereas the average rating for number-labelled liquids was below zero, which meant people disliked them — the exact same liquids. You can make someone dislike something that they might otherwise like, just by not telling them what it is! Not telling people what a flavour is is a bad idea! So I issue this public apology to my family, whose experience of red velvet cake may have actually been marred, nay, ruined by my megalomaniacal obsession with forcing everyone to eat the cake and guess what flavour it was.
Then again, I’m not sure if a label with a random number on it was a good control condition for that study. I would say that in the context of food and drink, numbers are usually associated with artificial flavourings and preservatives, and a lot of people like to avoid those wherever possible. Getting a mysterious liquid with a mysterious number on it: yeah, I might not like it so much either. If I liked it, I’d mysteriously number my own drinks to get that thrill of the unknown.
So consider not serving people something like, say, duck surprise, without at least telling them what the surprise is. Otherwise, no matter how good the surprise is (“It’s stuffed with red velvet cake!”), they might not like it.
Okamoto et al., 2009. Influences of food-name labels on perceived tastes. Chemical Senses, 34, 187-194.
Recipe for black tea red velvet cake (full name: Earl Grey black tea red velvet cake, just to get another colour in there) under the cut.