We were in Los Angeles to celebrate Thanksgiving as well as my oldest grand-daughter’s thirteenth birthday. Among her food requests was a red velvet cake for her birthday cake. Red velvet cake is a family favorite, making appearances at weddings, birthdays and other celebrations. It is also a Southern favorite for festive occasions. In our family it is also known as Waldorf Astoria cake, based upon an apocryphal story about one of my wife’s favorite aunts.

Supposedly a friend of this aunt was in New York City and happened to dine at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel where she was served this delicious cake. At the end of the meal, the lady asked the waiter if she might have the recipe for the cake. Bowing deeply, the waiter excused himself and then returned a short time later with a sheet of paper inscribed with the recipe. Thrilled, the woman took the recipe back to her home in Delaware and wowed all of her friends with her new, secret, delicious recipe. A short time later, she received a letter from the hotel. When she opened it she found a bill for some absurd amount to cover the cost of providing the recipe.

Enraged, the woman immediately made copies of the recipe and distributed it to all of her friends. Supposedly, my wife’s aunt was one of the luck recipients of the now-not-so-secret recipe. Not likely to be true, but it makes a good family legend.

To be made properly, the cake requires a large amount of red food coloring. In this day and time, some bakers are worried about potential hazards of food coloring. In the USA, commercial red food colorings are either or both Allura Red AC (US FD&C Red 40) and Erythrosine (US FD&C Red 3). There is some concern about Allura as it is an azo dye made from petroleum. It has been associated with hyperactivity  in children, although data are conflicting. Nevertheless, it is banned in Denmark, Belgium, France, and Switzerland. There are no restrictions on Erythrosine. Early studies suggested that in high doses it might cause cancer in rats, but more recent studies have not shown it to be a mutagen.

Still, some bakers would like to avoid the potential risk of these synthesized dyes. The most commonly used “organic” alternatives are beet juice and carmine (also called Natural Red 4), made from powdered female cochineal, scale insects from Mexico and South America that parasitize prickly pear cactuses and their relatives. A common use for carmine is to color lipstick. There is concern that these “more natural” coloring agents may add an undesirable flavor and even cause allergic reactions. Neglected in much of the discussion is that the extraction process for carmine. The substance producing the red color is extracted from ground insects with either ammonia or sodium carbonate. Then it is precipitated as an aluminum salt by adding alum. Stannous chloride, citric acid, borax, and/or gelatin may be added as stabilizers. This raises the obvious question as to what is “natural”?

One of my daughters wanted red velvet cake for her wedding. The vegetarian baker tried repeatedly to use beet juice, but it just wouldn’t work, so my daughter had to choose another cake flavor.

For all of these reasons, if you are worried about food additives, you may not be able to bake – or eat – this cake. That would be too bad, because it is delicious.

There is a final decision: what do you want to use for icing? The family recipe  uses a simple milk and flour base for the frosting while most Southern cooks insist that the only icing that will do is cream cheese icing. I’ve given you both recipes


Red Velvet Cake


  • ½ cup vegetable shortening
  • 2 eggs
  • 1½ cups sugar
  • 3/4 cup red food coloring
  • 2 tablespoons cocoa
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2¼ cups flour
  • 1 cup buttermilk
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon white vinegar


  1. Using a stand mixer, cream the shortening and sugar until light and fluffy. Then add the eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each addition
  2. In a small bowl, mix the red food coloring and cocoa together to make a paste. Then add to the shortening, sugar, and egg mixture
  3. Sift together the salt and flour. Add in thirds to the batter, alternating with the buttermilk until all combined. Mix well but do not overbeat. Then stir in the vanilla extract.
  4. In a small bowl, mix together the soda and vinegar. They will foam up. Don’t be alarmed, but make sure you have a big enough bowl so that the foam doesn’t overflow. Stir the mixture into the batter until well combined
  5. Pour into two cake pans prepared with baking parchment, greased, and floured.
  6. Bake in the middle of a preheated oven at 350°F (177°C) for 30 minutes. Test for doneness with a toothpick. If the toothpick comes out clean, remove from the oven, cool in the pans for 5 minutes, and then turn out onto a baking rack to cool completely before frosting.

Waldorf Astoria Frosting


  • 2 tablespoons flour
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1 cup butter
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract


  • Combine the flour and milk in a heavy saucepan over medium heat. Stir constantly until thick and smooth. Set aside
  • With an electric mixer, cream together the butter and sugar until fluffy. Beat in the cooled milk mixture along with vanilla extract. Refrigerate until ready to ice the cake.

Cream Cheese Icing


  • 8 ounces cream cheese, softened
  • 1 box (16 ounces, 2 cups)  powdered sugar
  • ½ cup butter
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract


  1. With an electric mixer, cream together the cream cheese, powdered sugar, butter, and vanilla extract. Beat until smooth and fluffy
  2. Ice the cake, Make certain the cake layers are completely cooled


Filed under Food, Photography, Recipes


  1. I love that story – makes you wonder what goes through people’s minds sometimes. As for food colouring – all things in moderation and it’s not like you’d eat the stuff every day…

  2. What a great story! Your cake looks really good and I like the Waldorf Astoria frosting which is used often in European cakes. Merry Christmas Darryl! 🙂

  3. Would you believe that I have never had red velvet cake…I’m sure it is delicious. Merry Christmas, Darryl. I hope you and your family have a wonderful day.

  4. What a fabulous story behind the origins of your beautiful cake! And so interesting about food coloring – I had no idea the risks in some. Cream cheese icing all the way. A happy belated birthday to your granddaughter! – Shanna PS Sorry to hear that your daughter could not have this cake on her special day… there is nothing quite like it.

  5. Sinfully Tempting

    I love that story! Thanks so much for this recipe. I have made countless cakes throughout the years, but suprisingly red velvet has not been one of them. Can’t wait to make this one!

  6. Pingback: GOODBYE TO CHILDHOOD | From the Family Table

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