Heirloom Recipe: Red Velvet Cake

The first time I ever had red velvet cake was when Grandma Rieley served it for dessert at a family dinner when I was a child.  I had never seen such a thing as red cake, and I loved it!  It’s not a dessert that’s often found on restaurant menus–even in the South.  And, grocery store versions just aren’t as good as homemade.  I hadn’t thought about red velvet cake for years until one of my favorite food bloggers, the hungry mum, posted a wonderful recipe for red velvet cookies with cream cheese filling a while ago.  Since I didn’t have Grandma’s recipe for red velvet cake, I decided to have a look in my cookbooks.

I consulted a cookbook called Southern Cakes, and I found a fabulous, vintage recipe complete with directions for cream cheese icing.  I made this cake; and, all I can say is this may be the best red velvet cake ever.  I loved the tangy note of flavor due to the unusual combination of vinegar, buttermilk, and cocoa in the batter–YUM!  This red velvet cake was so wonderful that I could’ve eaten it completely by myself.  Alas, I didn’t.  I shared half of it with my parents and the other half with my husband.  This may be one of the most delicious cakes I’ve ever made; however, it was definitely a time investment as you have to prepare three separate mixtures, not including the extra steps for the icing.  But, since you won’t be documenting every step of the recipe with your iPhone, it probably won’t take as long.  🙂

I only had two issues:  First, I ordered a natural red food coloring made using vegetables from Sur La Table instead of using a synthetic one (red dye number carcinogen).  All was fine until I realized that the 3 pack of food coloring bottles were .5 ounces each and only included one red one; the recipe called for a 1-ounce bottle of red food coloring.  I ended up combining red and orange food coloring to make up my 1-ounce, and everything seemed okay–the batter turned pink when I mixed it.  However, when the cakes came out of the oven, they weren’t the dazzling burgundy color that I’d envisioned.  Instead, they had more of a brown hue.  Oh well!  Brown velvet cake it is.  That’s what icing is for, right?  Second, the cakes sunk in the middle.  This was either because I closed the kitchen door too hard as I took the dogs outside for a walk, or I didn’t mix in the baking soda and vinegar combination quickly enough (because I was taking pictures).

Anyway, my red velvet cake may not have won any beauty contests due to its brown, sunken appearance, but we enjoyed it all the same!  This cake is definitely worth making if you have the time.  Just don’t slam the kitchen door or take any pictures during the process, and I’m sure it will look as lovely as it tastes.


*Use organic ingredients when possible.

Southern Cakes cookbook

Serves 8-10


2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 cup buttermilk

2 tablespoons cocoa

One 1-ounce bottle (2 tablespoons) red food coloring

1 cup (2 sticks) butter, softened

2 cups sugar

2 eggs

1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda

1 tablespoon cider vinegar or white vinegar



TO MAKE THE CAKE, heat the oven to 350 degrees F. Grease two 9- inch round cake pans generously, and line them with waxed paper or kitchen parchment.  Grease the paper and flour the pans.

PREPARE THREE SEPARATE MIXTURES for the batter:   Combine the flour and salt in a medium bowl and use a fork to mix them together well.  Stir the vanilla into the buttermilk.  Combine the cocoa and red food coloring in a small bowl, mashing and stirring them together to make a thick, smooth paste.

IN A LARGE BOWL, beat the butter with a mixer at low speed for 1 minute, until creamy and soft.  Add the sugar, and then beat well for 3 to 4 minutes, stopping to scrape down the bowl now and then.  Add the eggs, one at a time, beating after each one, until the mixture is creamy, fluffy, and smooth.  Scrape the cocoa–food coloring paste into the batter and beat to mix it in evenly.

ADD ABOUT A THIRD of the flour mixture, and then about half the milk, beating the batter with a mixer at low speed, and mixing only enough to make the flour or liquid disappear into the batter.  Mix in another third of the flour, the rest of the milk, and then the last of the flour in the same way.

IN A SMALL BOWL, combine the baking soda and vinegar and stir well.  Use a wooden spoon or spatula to quickly mix this last mixture into the red batter, folding it in gently by hand.  Scrape the batter into the prepared pans.

BAKE at 350 degrees F. for 20 to 25 minutes, until the layers spring back when touched lightly in the center and are just beginning to pull away from the sides of the pans.

COOL THE CAKES in the pans on wire racks or folded kitchen towels for 15 minutes.  Then turn them out on the racks or on plates, remove the paper, and turn top side up to cool completely.


Makes enough for one 3-layer cake, one 13-by-9-inch cake, or 24 cupcakes


One 8-ounce package cream cheese, softened (1 cup)

1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter, softened

One 1-pound box (3 2/3 cups) confectioners’ sugar, sifted

1 teaspoon vanilla extract


IN A MEDIUM BOWL, combine the cream cheese and butter and beat with a mixer on medium speed to mix well.  Add the confectioners’ sugar and vanilla and beat at high speed until the frosting is fluffy and smooth, stopping once or twice to scrape down the bowl and mix everything well.  Spread the frosting on a cooled cake, or cover and refrigerate for up to 3 days.


Categories: Recipes

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    • Thank you, Prajakta! I’m happy you’re thinking about making this cake. The reaction of acidic vinegar and buttermilk tends to bring out the red hue in cocoa and keeps the cake moist, light, and fluffy. The vinegar also helps activate the baking soda and leaven the cake. Most recipes I found used vinegar. You can’t actually taste it in the cake. I’ll check a few more places; if I find a recipe without vinegar, I will send you a link. 🙂


  1. Look delcious, the only thing really on the red velvet I really care for is the cream cheese icing…. But I do a red velvet but mine is made with strawberries and the coloring on it is wicked awesome.. I will have to make another… But love your detailed information and it does look very deeelicious!!!:)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for sharing this recipe and about the red food coloring from William Sonoma. If ever I want to make it, I know where to find the safer one then those carcinogenic food coloring!
    The cake looks delish! We love red velvet and often buy red velvet cupcakes from Sprinkles!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. A cousin in London had red velvet cake for her wedding – I’d never heard of it before. I have a feeling they used beetroot for the red colour but strawberries sound better. Can you use Philly cheese for cream cheese? (Another US-GB difference in terminology, I think).

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m not completely sure. I tried googling it but didn’t find anything definitive. I looked on Nigella Lawson’s website, and it said that you should use a cream cheese with 33% fat content ( some soft cheese spreads in UK have fat contents as high as 55%). I use a Philadelphia brand cream cheese from the grocery to make cream cheese frosting, but I’m not sure if it’s the same as your Philly brand. Maybe you could check with someone at your grocery store. Sorry I couldn’t be more help.


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