Red Velvet Cake: A Southern Legend

Red velvet cake is definitely a Southern creation, arguably even a Texas creation – unless you are one of those New Yorkers who associate it with the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, or a Canadian who thinks the recipe comes from Eaton’s department store. We call the latter two kinds of people benighted souls.

Seriously now. Doesn’t red velvet cake appear in every Southern cookbook, not to mention on the dessert menus of restaurants, cafes and bakeries billing themselves as “Southern,” from Seattle or Portland to Chicago or Brooklyn? And doesn’t it put in an appearance at a very Southern wedding in the movie Steel Magnolias, baked in the shape of an armadillo, no less? How Southern can you get?

We think history supports a Southern origin and a Southern identity for red velvet cake, while the Texas part will factually prove itself. 

Red velvet came into being – the name tells us as much – in the late 1800s or early 1900s. So-called “velvet cakes” feature a soft “crumb” consistency in a way not possible with earlier recipes and chemistries, as we see from the quite-different pound cakes, sponge cakes and others. It’s no coincidence that we’ve heard people refer to red velvet cake as “red devil cake,” since the recipe came out in the same batch, as it were, as the very similar devil’s food cake. The only difference: devil’s food used melted chocolate and red velvet used cocoa powder, which had a reddish tint in those days.

Velvet cake took the red and ran with it. Some early bakers, by then in the 1930s and 1940s, used beet juice and other colorings found in nature to make the hue more intense. A Texas-based company still called Adams Extracts perfected a red dye that did the trick quicker and better, thus becoming a regular part of the red velvet recipe. 

The popularity of red velvet cake as we know it started in Texas and spread state by Southern state from there. During the Great Depression, families welcomed a recipe made with products they could afford that would still add color and excitement to their dessert rotation.

As with other omnipresent favorite foods – tres leches in Central America comes to mind – the key was advertising. Adams, which of course produced a lot more extracts than this red dye, chose to feature red velvet cake in point-of-sale posters in grocery stores and to distribute the recipe on cards (that pre-historic version of the Internet) every chance it got.  

But… What about those other two places, those other two origin stories? Honestly, it’s not uncommon in food history for cooks and bakers to hear or read of a great idea not known in their area, maybe tweak it a little or not, and introduce it as their invention. By today’s political standards, the fib involved is small and relatively harmless. 

A version of red velvet cake became known as the “Waldorf-Astoria Cake” in New York City, thanks to its popularity at that classic hotel, and as Eaton’s Cake in Canada, where department store employees who knew the recipe were sworn to secrecy. Most said they believed the cake was created by the retail chain’s matriarch, Lady Eaton herself. Perhaps, even in the great white north, she had a secret subscription to Southern Living.

Equally Southern is red velvet cake’s traditional cream cheese icing. In its earliest version, the cake showed up with a smooth, creamy French-style icing, sometimes called “ermine.” But this was difficult for non-professionals to make. Some genius opted for the same, much simpler cream cheese icing already beloved on carrot cake, with a few more taste memories of the best “New York-style” cheesecake. 

This icing founds its way atop Southern red velvet cake and never found its way off. Whether you choose to make your cake in the shape of an armadillo is entirely up to you.


If our Original Roasted Raspberry Chipotle Sauce is a Deep South party favorite simply poured over cream cheese and served with crackers, we figured it would be awesome with the cream cheese icing atop Southern red velvet cake. The amount you use in the icing (and in these cupcakes, if you wish) is a matter of personal taste.  

2 large eggs, room temperature
1 cup buttermilk, room temperature
1 1/4 cups vegetable oil 
1 tablespoon cocoa powder 
1 teaspoon salt 
1 teaspoon baking soda 
1 1/2 cups sugar 
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour 
1-2 tablespoons Fischer & Wieser’s Original Roasted Raspberry Chipotle Sauce
2 tablespoons red food coloring 
1 teaspoon white distilled vinegar
1 pound cream cheese, softened
2 sticks butter, softened
1 teaspoon vanilla extract 
4 cups confectioner’s sugar, sifted
2 tablespoons Fischer & Wieser’s Original Roasted Raspberry Chipotle Sauce

Preheat the oven to 350 °F. Line 2 (12-cup) muffin pans with cupcake papers. In a medium mixing bowl, sift together the flour, sugar, baking soda, salt and cocoa powder. In a large bowl gently beat together the oil, buttermilk, eggs, food coloring, sauce, vinegar and vanilla with a handheld electric mixer. Add the sifted dry ingredients to the wet and mix until smooth and thoroughly combined. Divide the batter evenly among the cupcake tins about 2/3 filled. 

Bake in oven for about 20 to 22 minutes, turning the pans once, half way through. Test the cupcakes with a toothpick for doneness. Remove from oven and cool completely before frosting. In a large mixing bowl, beat the cream cheese, butter and vanilla together until smooth. Add the confectioner’s sugar and on low speed, beat until incorporated. Increase the speed to high and mix until very light and fluffy. Stir in the sauce with a fork, leaving some swirl if you wish. Makes 24 cupcakes.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Red velvet is one of my favorites! Thanks for sharing this recipe and I’m following your blog for more! I just made a zucchini bread that turned out great, so I recommend trying it out too 🙂

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