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More than just a Southern staple, this iconic cake showcases the true color of a Texan tradition.

The Rich and Unexpected History of Red Velvet

In many ways, red velvet cake has graduated from a favorite comfort food to a full-blown cultural phenomenon, resulting in everything from red velvet scented candles to body sprays. Even distillers have jumped on the bandwagon to market a vodka infused with red velvet flavoring.  

Yet in spite of its recent widespread commercial popularity, there’s no denying that red velvet cake has been an integral and iconic aspect of southern baking for the better half of a century—one with especially strong ties to Texas. 

The history behind red velvet cake is as rich as it is unexpected. It would seem safe to presume that, because of its widespread popularity throughout the South, red velvet cake couldn’t have originated anywhere else. Yet surprisingly, the recipe for the red velvet cake we know of today is widely credited to the historic Waldorf-Astoria in New York City

Originally debuting in 1959, this “Waldorf red cake” is noted by most as the first cake of its kind to incorporate large amounts of red food coloring—a notable departure from the cake recipes of the early 20th century that only called for a few drops to produce a beautiful pink hue in otherwise light-colored cakes. 

Of course, we Texans prefer not to concede any victory to New Yorkers, so instead of the Waldorf Astoria, we’ll credit the origins of the popular red velvet cake we know today to the creative merchandising by the Adams Extract company of Gonzales, Texas. 

Adams Extract Company

Though John A. Adams and his wife Betty weren’t the first to make the cake, they were among the first to try it while staying at the Waldorf. Inspired by their experience, the company promoted red velvet cake in order to garner more interest in their red food dyes. Capitalizing on the cake’s garish appeal, the Adams Extract printed simple in-store recipe cards and displayed their food dyes next to their vanilla extracts to entice shoppers. Suffice it to say that the sensation quickly caught on and red velvet cakes were whipped up in kitchens throughout the South, the Midwest and the Northeast

Food coloring used for red velvet cake

While there are countless interpretations of red velvet cake out there (shown here: a red velvet cupcake), it’s worth sharing the original Betty Adams Red Velvet Cake recipe, courtesy of the Adams Extract company. Try it as-is or dress it up with some pecans on the side. Either way, you’re set to enjoy an unadulterated taste of Texan tradition.

An iconic Texan tradition

Betty Adams “Original” Red Velvet Cake Recipe:

Batter ingredients
1 tsp soda
1 cup buttermilk
1 Tbl vinegar
½ cup shortening
1-1/2 cups sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp. “Adams Best” Vanilla 
1 tsp. Adams Butter Flavor
1 ounce Adams Red Color
3 Tbl cocoa
2-1/3 cups sifted flour
1 tsp salt

“Original” white icing ingredients

3 Tbl flour
½ tsp salt
1 cup shortening
1 cup confectioners sugar
2 tsp “Adams Best” Vanilla
1 cup milk
¼ tsp Adams Butter Flavor

For the cake: 

Cream shortening and sugar. Add eggs one at a time and beat vigorously. Add flavors to mixture. In a separate bowl, make paste of cocoa and food coloring and blend into shortening mixture. Sift together dry ingredients and add alternately with buttermilk to mixture. Add vinegar to mixture with the last part of buttermilk. Blend well. Bake in 3-9” or 10” pans for 20-25 minutes at 350 degrees. Let cool completely. 

For icing:

Combine milk, flour and salt in saucepan over medium heat. Cook until thick, stirring constantly. Take off heat and let cool completely. In separate bowl, cream shortening, sugar and flavors together. Combine milk mixture with shortening mixture and beat well. 

 - JE

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