Original Waldorf Astoria Red Velvet Cake With Traditional Icing
Made with buttermilk and cocoa powder, this original Waldorf Astoria red velvet cake recipe is moist with a hint of chocolate that isn’t too rich. Add on the traditional cooked red velvet cake icing with its whipped cream consistency and you have a dessert that’s to-die-for!
This is the classic red velvet cake recipe from the Waldorf Astoria.
The story goes that the restaurant at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York City was the first to serve this cake, back when it first opened in the 1920’s. Although some would argue that it is actually a classic Southern cake recipes.
In either case, it’s one of my absolute favorite cakes!
This red velvet cake has a chocolate flavor but isn’t too rich and uses buttermilk to make sure it is moist.
The original Waldorf Astoria recipe includes an unusual buttercream icing recipe that is so light and fluffy it almost looks (and tastes) like whipped cream.
It’s a little finnicky to make and requires a lot of beating to get it that light and fluffy.
But some people swear it is the only frosting that should ever be used on a red velvet cake.
(However, if you’re a cream cheese icing lover like me, you can serve red velvet cake with this fluffy cream cheese frosting instead. I promise I won’t tell…)
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Here’s your shopping list for the cake:
- Baking supplies: 2¼ cups cake flour, 1 teaspoon baking soda, ½ teaspoon salt, 1½ cups granulated sugar
- Dairy: 1 cup buttermilk, 1 stick (or ½ cup) shortening or unsalted butter – the original recipe calls for shortening (which may make the cake a little moister) but I prefer the taste of butter
- Eggs: 2 large ones
- Flavoring: 1 teaspoon vanilla extract, 2 Tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
- Food Coloring: 2 Tablespoons red liquid food coloring works best since it is the easiest to get evenly distributed.
- Vinegar: 1 Tablespoon white distilled vinegar
Here’s the ingredients for the traditional icing:
- Baking supplies: 5 Tablespoons all-purpose flour, 1 cup confectioners’ sugar (also known as powdered sugar or icing sugar)
- Dairy: 1 cup (or 2 sticks) butter, 1 cup milk
- Flavoring: 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- You can substitute 1 teaspoon of red gel food coloring instead of the liquid food coloring if that’s what you have on hand.
- Or if you don’t want to use food coloring, omit it and buy natural cocoa that has not been alkalized. It will be more acidic and react with the buttermilk and vinegar to create a naturally red color. (Although it won’t be as red as using food color).
- If you prefer, you can use our cream cheese icing recipe instead of the traditional frosting.
How to make the original red velvet cake
This recipe make 2 or 3 8-inch layers or 24 cupcakes.
Take the butter, eggs and buttermilk out of the refrigerator a couple of hours in advance. If they are too cold when you mix them, the cake will turn out heavy and dense.
Before you start, adjust the oven rack to the middle position and preheat the oven to 350 ºF.
Grease 2 or 3 8-inch cake pans (or line the bottoms with parchment paper.) For cupcakes, put cupcake liners in the muffin tins.
Mix the cake batter
Add ½ cup of shortening or butter, 1 cup sugar, and 2 eggs to the stand mixer.
Beat until they are light and fluffy (2 to 3 minutes). This is another important step in helping the cake to turn out with the right texture.
The original recipe called for liquid red food coloring. If you are using this:
- Mix 2 Tablespoons of liquid red food coloring and 2 Tablespoons cocoa powder in a small bowl to form a paste.
- Add the food color/cocoa mixture to the butter mixture and mix until combined.
If you are using gel food coloring:
- Mix about 1 teaspoon directly into the creamed shortening (or butter) mixture.
- Then mix in 2 Tablespoons of cocoa powder.
In another small bowl, mix 2¼ cups of cake flour with ½ teaspoon salt.
To make sure the cake turns out perfectly, it is important to follow the next few steps in order:
- Add 1/3 of the flour to the butter mixture. Beat just until combined.
- Next add 1/2 cup of buttermilk to the butter mixture and beat until combined.
- Mix in the next 1/3 of the flour mixture until combined.
- Then add another 1/2 cup of buttermilk and mix again.
- Add the last 1/3 of the flour mixture and beat again.
- Add 1 teaspoon vanilla and mix until combined.
- Then mix in 1 Tablespoon of white vinegar until it is combined.
- Finally, add 1 teaspoon baking soda to the cake mixture and beat a few more seconds until combined.
Bake the cake
Pour the cake batter into the greased cake pans or spoon it into the muffin tins.
Bake for 25 to 30 minutes for a cake with 2 layers, or 20 to 25 minutes for cupcakes or a cake with 3 layers. A toothpick inserted in the center of the cake should come out clean.
Different ovens and the atmosphere in your location can cause cook times to differ. So if you’re not sure how they might affect your baking, you may want to test a little earlier to make sure the cake isn’t cooked too long. Which will cause it to dry out.
Also, if you are using 2 racks in the oven, it’s a good idea to switch the pans from the top to the bottom half way through so they bake more evenly.
Let the cake sit on a wire cooling rack in the pan for a couple of minutes. This makes it a little easier to remove. But don’t leave it too long or the bottom of the cake will get soggy.
Then remove it from the pan and let it cool completely on the rack before icing.
Make the traditional icing
Mix the flour and milk together in a saucepan, making sure to get rid of any lumps.
Over medium heat, cook the flour and milk mixture until very thick (almost solid), stirring constantly.
Let cool completely.
In the meantime, beat the butter, vanilla and the confectioners’ sugar together with the mixer until light and fluffy (2 to 3 minutes).
Make sure the flour mixture is completely cooled before continuing to the next step. Otherwise, it will melt the butter and your icing will turn into a soupy mess.
Add the milk and flour mixture into the butter mixture.
Beat it at high speed until it is very fluffy. It should have a whipped cream consistency when it is done. This will take some time!
Note: This icing is very soft so it isn’t appropriate for piping.
Store in an air tight container in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.
Makes enough to frost 2 or 3 8-inch layer cakes, or 24 cupcakes.
Frost the cake
Spread the frosting between the cake layers and over the top and sides of the cake.
Or you can make a naked red velvet cake by spreading icing between the layers and on the top, leaving the sides open so you can see the cake.
If you made cupcakes, spread the frosting over the tops of the cupcakes with a knife.
How to store
Red velvet cake that has not been frosted can be stored in an air tight container at room temperature for a couple of days.
However, once it has been frosted, it needs to be refrigerated because of the icing.
If I’m making the cake ahead of time, I usually make the cake and frosting and store them separately. Then wait until shortly before the party to put it together.
Frequently asked questions
Yes, red velvet cake is made with cocoa powder so it has a chocolate flavor. But it isn’t as rich as a traditional chocolate cake because of the buttermilk and vinegar.
The frosting on the original Waldorf Astoria red velvet cake was a light and fluffy cooked icing. However, most people today use cream cheese frosting.
If it has not been frosted, red velvet cake does not need to be refrigerated. However, since the icing is made with dairy products, cake that has been frosted should be.
Other Dessert Recipes You Might Like
Waldorf Astoria Red Velvet Cake
- mixer and mixing bowl with paddle attachment
- 2 bowls
- 2 or 3 8-inch cake tins or 2 12-cup muffin tins
- Sauce pan
Red velvet cake
- ½ cup (or 1 stick) shortening or butter softened
- 1½ cups sugar
- 2 eggs at room temperature
- 2 Tablespoons liquid red food coloring
- 2 Tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 2¼ cups cake flour
- 1 cup buttermilk at room temperature
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1 Tablespoon distilled white vinegar
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 5 Tablespoons all-purpose flour
- 1 cup milk
- 1 cup butter softened
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1 cup confectioners’ sugar
Red velvet cake
- Heat the oven to 350° F
- Beat the shortening (or butter), sugar, and eggs with the mixer until they are light and fluffy (2 to 3 minutes).
- In a separate bowl, mix enough of the red food coloring with the cocoa powder to form a red-colored paste.
- Add the food color/cocoa mixture to the shortening mixture and mix until combined.
- In another bowl, whisk together the flour and salt.
- Add ⅓ of the flour mixture to the shortening mixture and beat just until combined.
- Then mix in ½ of the buttermilk.
- Add the next ⅓ of the flour, followed by the other ½ of the buttermilk and then the last ⅓ of the flour, beating until combined between each addition.
- Add vanilla, vinegar and baking soda to the shortening mixture in that order, mixing in between each addition.
- Pour into 2 or 3 8-inch cake pans or 24 muffin tins.
- Bake for 25 to 30 minutes for a 2-layer cake, or 20 to 25 minutes for cupcakes or a 3-layer cake. A toothpick inserted in the center of the cake should come out clean.
- Let cool completely before icing.
- In a saucepan, stir together flour and milk making sure to get rid of any lumps.
- Over medium heat, cook the flour and milk until very thick, stirring constantly.
- Let cool completely.
- In the meantime, beat the butter, vanilla and the confectioners' sugar together with the mixer until fluffy (2 to 3 minutes).
- Add the flour mixture into the butter mixture together and beat until it is very fluffy. It should have a whipped cream texture when it is done.
Frost the cake
- Spread frosting between the layers and over the top and sides of the cake. Or spread over the top of cupcakes with a knife.
- For the best texture, make sure to use cake flour and sift it before measuring.
- Using room temperature eggs and butter (or shortening) and then beating them with the sugar until they are light and fluffy will add air to the cake and prevent it from turning out too heavy and dense,
- Bring the buttermilk to room temperature for the best results.
- If you are using gel red food coloring instead of liquid, add it directly into the creamed shortening mixture. Then add the cocoa powder.
- If you are using 2 racks in the oven, it is a good idea to swap the pans from the top to the bottom rack about half way through so they can bake more evenly.
- For the icing, make sure that the flour and milk mixture is completely cool before adding it to the butter mixture. Otherwise, it will melt the butter which will ruin the icing.
- This traditional red velvet cake icing is too soft to be piped, so it’s not a good choice for decorating the cake
- Substitute cream cheese icing for the traditional version if desired. Get our fluffy cream cheese frosting recipe.
Nutrition values are estimates only, using online calculators. Please verify using your own data.
Have comments or questions about the original red velvet cake recipe? Tell us in the section below.
This post was originally published on May 20, 2015 but was updated with new content on May 12, 2023.
First time I’ve ever seen almost the same recipe that my Aunt gave me back in 1967!!! Only difference is the granulated sugar was “fine granulated sugar” I put it in the blender to “grind” the granulas but stop before it turns to powdered sugar. This gives the cake and the cooked frosting a “finer texture”. Also actually “sifting” the flour also gives a better texture. All these time consuming steps make me only make this cake for very special people that appreciate the effort and the texture. The frosting just doesn’t seem to go with other cakes for some reason and the cream cheese frosting should NEVER touch this home made version of Red Velvet Cake.
Thanks, Connie! I had not heard of grinding the sugar granules. I’ll have to try that the next time I make it. I do always sift the flour when I’m baking cakes, but thanks for pointing it out…I should add that to the instructions 🙂
My Mom’s recipe says sift flour 3 times!!!
She also had Add salt to buttermilk instead of flour?
And Add vinegar to soda and fold in…
Thanks for your recipe. It helped clarify some things I didn’t understand in Mom’s recipe.
Thanks, Mary! If you have the time, more sifting never hurts 🙂 I don’t think adding the salt in the buttermilk vs putting it in the flour will make that much difference. I wouldn’t mix the vinegar and baking soda directly since they will start to react right away rather than in the cake batter, which might cause the cake to be denser (but I haven’t tried it, so it might work just fine).
Really nice recipe. Today I tried it and my husband really like it. Thank you 😊
I have made this cake for years. My recipe is very much like yours, (with the exception, I use butter and granulated sugar), and has the title of Waldorf Astoria Red Cake. It was passed down to me sometime in the late 50’s or early 60’s. Great Go To cake for very special occasions. Love it!
Thanks, Phyllis! It is my go-to cake for special occasions, too 🙂
I’m a convert to the boiled milk aka Ermine frosting. Once you’ve had it made correctly it’s a perfect light and fluffy with an amazingly delicious amount of “not too sweet.” I messed it up the first time by not whipping it long enough and had chunks of butter (yeah it was bad). But since then it’s been well worth it. It hard to explain except it’s like a sweet whipped cream. My friend makes it every year for my birthday. It’s at the top next to my favorite 7 minute frosting made by my mom. That too has bit longer cooking process but it’s so worth it! Ok I’m done commenting. This may be an old recipe and no one will read this, but that’s ok! Thanks for baking!
I agree, Jen! It’s one of my favorites now that I figured out how to make it properly 🙂
I’m heartbroken. The perfect recipe that I’ve been looking for and finally found it. Followed everything to a T and baked it 30 minutes on 350. It was done at first check with a clear toothpick. Both layers were perfect and so was the frosting. I made both the original and the cream cheese frosting and made the cake frosted half and half so both my son and my husband would have their favorite frosting. It was the picture of perfection! Then he tasted it. Then I tasted it. It was dry! I shouldn’t have baked it for 30 minutes. It must be my oven. I could just cry.
Oh no, Cara! After all that work! I’m sorry it didn’t turn out for you. It does sound like you didn’t need to bake it that long.
I baked mine for 30 minutes and it was far too long too. Given that you can make 2 OR 3 pans, the cakes will be of varying thickness and therefore cook more quickly (or not). The recipe should be modified to suggest you start testing it around 15-20 minutes. In addition it should say that if you have 3 pans, on two oven racks, you should switch them (top shelf to bottom, and vice versa) halfway through for even cooking.
Thanks for the suggestions! I have never had red velvet cake take less than 30 minutes in my oven (regardless of whether I’m making 2 or 3 layers), but I’ll update the recipe to account for different baking conditions.
I’m very curious. How you can say this is the original recipe from the Waldorf Astoria? I have to official Waldorf Astoria cookbook, printed in 2006 by Hilton Hospitality Inc. The recipes are NOTHING alike. Maybe you need to edit your page?
Hi Tamara…the recipe in the book you are referring to is what they use now. This one is the original from the 1930’s. I got it from my grandmother who said it was published in the 1940’s.
The first time I’ve ever made this kinda cake and icing it was awesome
Thanks, Sandy! I’m glad you liked it (it’s one of my favorites, too).
This is a really great recipe and a good read. Funny, I always thought Red Velvet went back to the Victorian era during which they’d use a particular kind of cocoa that would react with the buttermilk and oxidize to a rusty red-brown, no food coloring involved. We just don’t have the same ingredients that were available to Victorian bakers.
In historical cookbooks, “shortening” typically referred to any kind of fat that was solid at room temperature, so butter is (as always) a completely valid life choice.
Thanks Ann! There is some debate about when and where Red Velvet cake came from, so it’s entirely possible that it is a Victorian age recipe 🙂 Using non-alkalized cocoa powder will cause the oxidization process you mention. It is still available, but can be hard to find.