Waldorf Astoria Red Velvet Cake

My great-grandmother was the original hipster: she was making red velvet cake before it was cool.

Though, in all sincerity, it does seem that red velvet cake has suddenly become A Thing. I’d never heard of it before, then suddenly the kids at ACAD are making it, the recipe is showing up in hip Friday newspaper supplements, and my parents claim to have found red velvet cupcakes at a high-end cupcake joint recently (…which about brings me to the limits of my pop-cultural awareness. Still. It seems to be cropping up a lot lately.)

No kidding people want to make red velvet cake: it’s a really beautiful colour, and it has a fancy (and frankly delicious-sounding) name; it’s an old-fashioned recipe, and there’s a real joy in this kind of interactive nostalgia.

My aunt made red velvet cake from this recipe and brought it to a family gathering, and it turns out that my uncle has my Great-Grandma’s original recipe in his possession: typewritten with handwritten comments in pencil. I have reproduced it below.

Apparently there is an urban legend that red velvet cake originated at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York, hence the name, but I suspect it has more to do with how posh you sound when you offer ‘Waldorf Astoria Red Velvet Cake’ to your family/friends/lover(s)/neighbours/co-workers. Undoubtedly, my Great-Grandma J was an impressive woman with or without the ‘Waldorf Astoria’.


‘Waldorf Astoria Red Velvet Cake’

1/2 cup crisco

1 1/2 cups white sugar

2 eggs

1/4 cup red food colouring [my great-grandmother has crossed this out in the original, and hand-written,] Cochenial* [sic] from Drug Store (too strong, use less)

2 tablespoons cocoa

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 teaspoon salt

1 cup buttermilk

2 1/2 cups sifted cake flour

1 tablespoons white vinegar

1 teaspoon baking soda

Cream crisco and sugar until fluffy, add eggs one at a time and beat one minute. Put cocoa and red food colouring in a cup and make a paste and add to above. Add salt. Put vanilla in buttermilk and add slowly to mixture alternating milk and flour. Put vinegar in a cup and add soda, add to mixture. Bake in 2 – 9″ pans at 350 oven, 30 to 40 mins.


1 cup milk

5 tbsp. flour

Mix flour and milk to make a smooth paste; cook until thick. Cool.

1 cup butter

1 cup icing sugar (apparently my aunt used granulated sugar and that worked well)

1 tsp. vanilla

Beat with mixer. Add flour mix gradually till all blended.

*This is a misspelling of “cochineal”, a dye made from crushed bugs of the same name. As far as strange ingredients go, this one takes the cake (haha). (I’ll be writing more about this soon.)


I do not have a photograph of what this cake ought to look like when it’s finished, which, I think, is part of the fun — no glossy, intimidating photographs to frighten me away from giving it a go. Instead, I’ll leave you with a photo of my Great-Grandmother J and my aunts.


6 thoughts on “Waldorf Astoria Red Velvet Cake

  1. So, yesterday, I set about to make this prestigious cake. I decided on cupcakes rather than the full, more intimidating, cake. It is an easy enough recipe to follow so I think overall it was a success, but I did not collect the ingredients quite as carefully as I thought had. The recipe calls for 1/4 cup of red food colouring (I must be honest…something inside me cringed at the thought of putting crushed bug in my cupcakes so I opted for the chemicals) – so 60 ml of red food colouring – but I only had 14 ml (surprisingly difficult to buy food colouring in bulk at the local Safeway)! In the end my cupcakes turned into more of a blushing rose colour than a blood red. This colour greatly appeals to me but may not have quite the same pleasing effect on my colleagues when I share the cupcakes with them on Monday. We shall see 🙂
    The one thing that I noticed – did any one else notice this too? – is that the icing calls for WAY too much butter. When I finished the icing…it still tasted like… butter. Don’t get me wrong – I love butter…but not on top of my cakes. Either the butter needs to be cut in half or the sugar needs to be doubled…I still need to experiment.
    Happy baking!!

  2. I’m so happy you made this recipe!! ‘Blushing rose velvet cupcakes’ sound just as wonderful as (if not more so than) ‘red velvet cupcakes’! Yeah, this recipe calls for a LOT of dye and I’ve searched high and low for cochineal dye and it’s not to be found … except as a yarn dye … I will be writing about this shortly. Even if I could have found cochineal dye, I agree that the whole crushed bug thing is not terribly appealing, plus decidedly un-vegetarian. I’m sure your colleagues will love them 🙂

  3. Also, thanks for the heads-up about the butter. I really hope I didn’t copy this down wrong! I’ll go easy on it when I go to make my cake.

  4. Pingback: Another kind of cake | 4000 km + 1 table

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