Vintage Red Velvet Cake Recipe

Here's a vintage red velvet cake recipe that's unique and fun to make. These rich-tasting layer cakes are famous for their delicate chocolate flavor and fluffy white-as-snow icing.

But, what really sets these spectacular dessert cakes apart is their eye-catching appearance when cut — their interiors are an unexpected, blood-red color!

Vintage Red Velvet Cake Recipe

Vintage Red Velvet Cake RecipeBake a Vintage Red Velvet Cake
(Source: ©mantonino/

Strangely, while rummaging through Grandma's collection of old fashioned cookbooks, I could not find any mention of a vintage red velvet cake recipe. Not a single one!

I was hoping to include an early recipe in keeping with the historical theme of this site, since only modern red velvet cakes are featured on most food blogs. But, I came up short.

HOWEVER, I did manage to find a recipe for an old fashioned Philadelphia Red Cake that produces a chocolate cake bearing a striking similarity to the famous red velvet cake. Could it be the forerunner of the vintage red velvet cake recipe? Try it and see.

The original 1920 recipe is given below followed by my tips for adapting it to produce a traditional red velvet cake.

Philadelphia Red Cake Recipe

The Perry Home Cook Book (1920)

Philadelphia Red Cake

Cream 1-1/2 cups sugar and 1/2 cup butter; add-beaten yolks of 3 eggs, 1/2 cup sour milk, 1-1/2 cups flour.

Dissolve 2 squares of chocolate in 1-1/2 cups boiling water; add 1 teaspoon soda to chocolate. Let cool; add to cake batter; lastly, fold in well-beaten whites of 3 eggs. Add to it red coloring. Flavor with vanilla. (Bake cake in moderate 350°F oven until it tests done.) —Ida Repstine

How to Make a Red Velvet Cake

Adaptation © by Don Bell

Red Velvet Cake

The Philadelphia red cake recipe as given above makes a delicious cake, but if you want to adapt it to more closely resemble a vintage red velvet cake recipe, here's what you do:

Just reduce the water called for to 1/2 cup and increase the sour milk or buttermilk to 1 cup, to make a richer batter; and add 1 teaspoon white vinegar and 1 teaspoon salt to the list of ingredients.

Below are some added tips that will help you to create a contemporary red velvet cake.

Red Velvet Cake Baking Tips

  • The recipe calls for sour milk. To make milk sour, simply stir in about 1 teaspoon of white vinegar to the milk. However, I substituted buttermilk in the recipe and the cake turned out delicious.
  • Cream the 1-1/2 cups sugar and 1/2 cup butter. Make sure they are well creamed till the mixture is almost doughy in texture. Don't skimp on the beating as it helps to make a smoother, richer batter.

    It also helps if the butter is quite soft when you begin. You can substitute shortening for butter or use as I did, a mixture of 1/2 butter and 1/2 shortening.
  • To the creamed sugar and butter, add the 3 beaten egg yolks, 1 cup buttermilk, then the 1-1/2 cups sifted flour and 1 teaspoon salt. Blend well.
  • Note: For a richer, denser cake, use only 1/2 cup boiling water instead of the 1-1/2 cups the vintage recipe calls for.
  • After you melt the 2 squares (2 ounces) of chocolate in 1/2 cup boiling water, add 2 ounces red food coloring and stir until the mixture is smooth and uniform in color.

    The original recipe doesn't give a quantity for the red coloring, but 2 ounces is apparently what most vintage red velvet cake recipes call for.

    It seems like a lot of coloring, but a lesser amount won't make the batter red enough to be distinctive. However, use your own judgement.
  • Add 1 teaspoon of white vinegar and 1 teaspoon baking soda to the melted chocolate and stir until it's well mixed. It is normal for the soda to foam. When cool, add to the cake batter.
  • Finally, add 1 teaspoon vanilla and fold the 3 beaten egg whites into the batter. The batter fills two round, 8-inch cake pans.
  • You can split the 2 cakes to make 4 layers by using a clever method my Grandma often used:

    Place a length of strong thread (or dental floss) around the circumference of the cake and while holding the ends of the thread tightly, one in each hand, gently but firmly pull them apart thereby separating the cake evenly into 2 layers.
  • To make 3 layers, you can simply pour the batter equally into three 8-inch cake pans to bake.
  • Bake in greased cake pans at 350ºF for about 20 to 30 minutes or just until done. Test using a wire tester or toothpick. Your cake should be done when the toothpick still has a few crumbs. Over baking will make it hard.
  • Ice the cake with a thick layer of your favorite white icing and generously spread the same icing between each cake layer.

    White icing is traditionally called for in vintage red velvet cake recipes as white provides an eye-catching contrast to the deep-redness of the cake.

Old Fashioned Devil's Food Cake Recipes

Mom's Recipe Scrapbooks (c. 1920s)

Red Devils Food CakeVintage Red Devils Food Cake
(Source: Don Bell)

Some food historians believe that historical recipes for Devil's Food Cakes and Philadelphia Red Cakes might have inspired what we know today as the vintage red velvet cake recipe.

I chose some of the best old fashioned devil's food cake recipes and included them below so you can experiment and taste-test the theory.

However, since the distinctive deep-red color cannot be duplicated using today's commercial baking soda and refined coca products, you'll need to resort to adding red food coloring. Try the recipes and see what you think.

Red Devil's Food Cake

1-1/2 cups sifted all-purpose flour
1-1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoonfuls butter
1 cup granulated sugar
2 eggs, well beaten
1/2 cup sour milk
1/2 cup boiling water
2 squares Baker's Unsweetened chocolate, melted
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Sift flour once, measure the correct amount, add baking powder, and salt, and sift three times. Add sugar gradually to melted butter, and cream together until light and fluffy.

Add eggs. Beat mixture vigorously. Add flour and sour milk alternately, a small amount at a time.

Pour the boiling water into the melted chocolate; mix quickly. Add baking soda to chocolate and stir until thick. Cool slightly before adding to cake batter. Mix thoroughly. Add vanilla.

Bake in two greased 9-inch layer pans in moderate oven (350°F) for 25 minutes. To make three 10-inch layers, double the recipe.

Put favorite white frosting (see frosting recipe below) between layers and top and sides of cake.

Mrs. Dougan's Devil's Food Cake

1 cup butter; 3 cups sugar; 4 eggs (whole); 1 cup sour milk; 1 cup cocoa, 1 cup hot water; 4 cups flour; 1 teaspoon soda.

Pour hot water over cocoa and soda and stir in last of all. Be careful that water is boiling. Flavor with vanilla. Bake layers in moderate oven (350°F).

Raisin Filling:

Boil 1-1/2 cups sugar, very small amount of water beaten in the whites of 2 eggs, with ground raisins. —Mrs. H. B. Dougan

Mrs. O'Roke's Devil's Food Cake

1 cup sour cream; 1-1/2 cups sugar; 2 eggs; one-third cup hot water; enough flour; 1 teaspoon soda; 3 tablespoons cocoa; 1 teaspoon vanilla. Mix and bake layers in moderate oven (350°F).

Cocoa Filling:

2 cups brown sugar; 1/2 cup sweet milk; 1 tablespoon cocoa; butter size of a walnut. —Mrs. Galen O'Roke, Oskaloosa, Kansas

Mrs. Hackett's Devil's Food Cake

1 cup butter; 1 cup brown sugar; 1 cup white sugar; 1 cup sweet milk; 1/2 cup molasses; 4 cups flour; 1/2 cup chocolate; 1/2 cup boiling water; 4 eggs; 1/2 teaspoon cream tartar; 1/2 teaspoon soda; 1 teaspoon each of allspice, cloves and cinnamon; 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg; 2 cups raisins; 1 cup citron; 1 cup English walnuts. Bake in moderate oven (350°F).

Ice with caramel icing. This also makes a unique Christmas cake. —Mrs. John Hackett

Devil's Food Mocha Filling

4 tablespoons butter; 1/2 cup powdered sugar; 1 tablespoon cocoa; 4 tablespoons coffee; cream butter, sugar and cocoa; then stir in the coffee little by little. —Mrs. W. E. Cain

Snowy White Icing

This snowy white icing recipe is the perfect companion for a vintage red velvet cake recipe. White frosting is traditional on red velvet cakes.

1 egg white, unbeaten
3/4 cup sugar
Pinch of salt
3 tablespoons water
1 teaspoon light corn syrup
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Combine egg white, sugar, salt, water, and corn syrup in top of double boiler. Beat about 1 minute, or until blended.

Cook over rapidly boiling water, beating constantly for about 4 minutes, or until frosting will stand in stiff peaks.

Remove from boiling water. Add Vanilla flavoring and beat for 1 minute, or until frosting is thick enough to spread on cake.

About the Vintage Red Velvet Cake Recipe

The true history of red velvet cakes remains unknown, but this unusual cake has long been a favorite in the American South.

A popular urban legend links its origin to New York's famous Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, but it cannot be substantiated, and the hotel persistently denies the alleged connection.

Some food historians think these unusual cakes might have originated as a devil's food cake. Chocolate devil's food cakes became very popular in the early 1900s.

It's said that a chemical reaction between the old-style baking sodas and processed coca powders sometimes gave the cake batter a distinctively reddish tinge.

Apparently, some cooks enhanced and encouraged this phenomenon by adding a generous amount of cochineal (red) food coloring.

Enjoy experimenting with the devil's food cakes that might have inspired the invention of the vintage red velvet cake recipe.

One thing that IS known, everybody loves these chocolatey red dessert cakes. They are most popular for serving on special occasions such as birthdays and anniversaries.

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