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The History and Mystery of the Red Velvet Cake

Something you might not know about me is that I owned a bakery for nine years. I operated 'Frosted' in my licensed home kitchen and enjoyed creating custom wedding and event cakes for customers in my community.

When I first got started in the cake business, I dedicated a lot of time and research into crafting my own recipes. It was important to me that my cakes tasted as good as they looked. As I adapted a recipe for Red Velvet Cake I found myself curious about who invented it. One of my customers asked "What is Red Velvet?" I answered, "It's a subtle chocolate cake with vanilla and buttermilk in it. Think of it as a cake that couldn't make up it's mind." We had a good laugh but it did get me to thinking. Where did this mysterious red colored cake get its start?

Baking powder was invented around 1850, changing the structure and texture of cakes. Layer cakes began to be called velvet cake because of the fine, soft crumb. A recipe book by Dr. Alvin Chase in 1873 mentions velvet cake. I found one source that stated a velvet cocoa cake recipe was invented in the early 1900's.

The beginning of the Red Velvet Cake was harder to ascertain. I found three stories about the beginning of Red Velvet Cake that are seeped in lore. The first, and most accepted, is that a travelling salesman, John A. Adams, visited the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York. He had their velvet cake and loved it, and went home to his wife Betty, who altered the recipe, and also added her husband's red food coloring to create the famous color. Another report stated that Adams got the recipe from a southern woman whose boarding house he stayed at during his days as a traveling salesman. No matter where Adams first got the idea or the recipe, it's widely accepted that Adams extracts and food colorings made the cake what it is today. Adams published his wife's version of 'Red Velvet Cake' far and wide as an advertising tool to sell his food coloring. The Red Velvet Cake was here to stay.

Picture source; Adams Extract Company, accessed at

Picture source; Adams Extract Company, accessed at

Another story is that an unknown southern woman invented the cake during the great depression. Cocoa was hard to come by during that time and she didn't have enough for the chocolate velvet cake recipe she was making. So, she added some vanilla for flavor. Since she was out of butter to tenderize and add moisture to the cake, she added beets and the cake took on a red hue. Viola! The Red Velvet Cake was born. The cake being invented in the south seems plausible since early versions of the cake do include buttermilk and beets. These were common ingredients in southern recipes.

Still, another tale has been told in which the Red Velvet Recipe was the creation of a chef at the famed Waldorf Astoria Hotel who based it on a cake he tasted during his travels in the south.

Waldorf Astoria Hotel - found on

The story also goes that a woman visited the Waldorf Astoria in New York City and after eating a moist red chocolate cake in their restaurant, she wrote to the establishment and requested the recipe, even offering to pay for it. They gladly sent it, along with a bill for $300 (give or take depending on who is telling the story). She was furious. But since the secret recipe had already been exposed, they demanded payment. She went ahead and sent the recipe to every magazine and newspaper, giving their valuable recipe away for free. The first appearance of the story stated she ate the Waldorf cake recipe in a Chicago restaurant and not the Waldorf Astoria.

As much as I dug and researched, I couldn't find the truth. Then it occurred to me, could there be elements of truth in all three of these tales about the legendary red velvet?

Look for my post tomorrow and my fictional version of the story of Red Velvet Cake.

In the meantime, if you have a craving try Adam's recipe above or this one below. (Both are from the early 1900's so think of it like time travel! Vintage Recipes are the best recipes!)

This one is the earliest known published recipe of Red Velvet Cake: (I suggest you not add 1/4 cup of food coloring and stick with 2 tsp - 1 tbsp)

Found at, orig published by The Post-Gazette, Hillsboro OH, May 22, 1959, p 15

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Hi Paul, thank you! Some cakes were specificially requested by my customers. But for many, the client just gave me a theme or color they were looking for and after looking at their wedding or event decoration choices and learning about them and their style, I would present them with an idea for the cake.

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Very interesting stories and your cakes look fabulous! I'll bet they were all delicious! Did you get your ideas from your own inspiration or were customers very specific about what they wanted? Can't wait to see more of this.

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