Who Knew Real Red Velvet Cake Was Not Even Red #waitwhat

Slice of btoen red velvet cake by bake this cakeIf you’re looking for red, you won’t find it here. But if you’re looking for old-fashioned cocoa cake flavor in a moist (brown) red velvet cake layered with classic vanilla custard frosting, well then, you’ve come to the right place! We’re going to take you step by step through a nice little retro cake recipe that is pretty easy to prepare and fun to serve (and talk about). And it might even charm your socks off!

Natural Red Velvet Cake on a vintage glass platter in the window by bake this cake

All Gussied Up! We will be dressing up our Brown Red Velvet Cake with a gorgeous homemade Heirloom Vanilla Custard Frosting that uses regular ole’ granulated sugar with a simple stove-top cooked custard recipe. And we’ll make some simple rose swirls up top made by piping the frosting through a large “1M star” decorating tip.

Cutaway of brown red velvet cake showing heirloom custard frosting roses by bakethiscake

What’s All The Hubbub About? There seems to be a Red Velvet Cake controversy running through the land. It goes something like this: Who thunk up Red Velvet Cake in the first place? Was it at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel? Is it a Civil War era close cousin to the historic “Velvet Cake” or the “Brown Velvet Cake”? Was it born much later in the 50’s? Not until the 70’s? Is the “correct” frosting a cream cheese frosting or a cooked custard frosting? Do people love it mostly for the bright red color or is it the subtle cocoa flavor that is the draw? Is there an overload of Red Velvet nowadays in everything from cupcakes to pancakes to toothpaste? All this and more is food for thought and much discussed in this “Get Baked” video chat that I participated in as a panelist called “The Red Velvet Debate”.

Going Red is Cool Too: If you’d prefer to punch up the color, go for it. I love the festive red color and all that the red color might symbolize. Check out our recipe for Miss Rubie-Lee’s Dangerous Red Velvet Cake for a really red party cake. Here’s a photo of our Rubie-Lee cake compared to this cake, even though they each use nearly the same recipe.

Red Velvet Cake comparison with red food coloring and without by bakethiscake

Let’s Meet Your B-B-B-Back to the Future Cake: Our recipe transforms the endless debate into a super moist (brown) red velvet cake without one drop from (a whole bottle of) red food dye. But there are a lot of B’s in this cake. Like: buttermilk, beets, berries and butter. A simple purée of steamed red baby beets starts the show for a little earthy zing and a moisture punch (plus the beets make a cute pink batter). And when was the last time your decadent slice of cake was loaded up with beet potassium, magnesium, phosphorus, iron and vitamins A, B and C? Yeah, I thought so. 🙂

Beets for natural red velvet cake without food coloring by bake this cake

It’s like a party-in-a-cake kind of cake! Then we’ll smooth and brighten the cake with a few strawberries and raspberries, some wildflower honey and a little ricotta cheese. Oh, and did I mention we’re using a nice Bourbon vanilla with our natural cocoa?  All that goodness is going to ratchet up and complicate (in a good way) the fun flavor profile. It’s that #waitwhat first bite surprise smile.

Ricotta strawberries and honey for natural red velvet cake by bake this cake

Earth Mother is Calling: Since we’re making a natural style brown cake, I’m going to go whole hog and send my son out back to collect the daily allotment of 2 fresh brown eggs from our little urban hen-house. That’s where our Rhode Island Reds, Domesticus and Gallus, reside. I just adore the sight of these precious lovelies!

Fresh eggs from the coop for the natural red velvet cake by bake this cake

10-Steps to the Brown Red Velvet Cake:

This is actually a fairly simple homemade cake. If you’re a busy hustler and your time is precious, I hope it will help that I’ve broken the recipe down into steps to show you exactly how to bake up this special dessert in the fastest and easiest way possible. The10-step Cake Program, ha! Just haul your smart phone, smart pad or laptop over to the counter and scroll down through this recipe as you work along. And don’t forget to jack up ⇑ the tunes while you bake (a key to every great cake creation). You can follow my Pandora music station if you like and swing your hips to the music as you get your creative juices flowing in the kitchen.

Cutaway of brown red velvet cake with blue watercolor in BG by bake this cake

Tools Needed for Brown Red Velvet Cake:

2 cake pans: I’m using two 8″ cake pans (but 9″ cake pans work fine too)
Parchment or wax paper (to line the bottoms of the pans)
Food processor, or knife and mashing tool (for purée of the beets and berries)
2 Large mixing bowls (for dry ingredients and main batter)
Sifting tool (to sift dry ingredients together)
Electric mixer
2 small bowls or cups (for pre-mixing eggs and the baking soda potion)
Measuring cups and spoons and spatula
Wire cooling rack(s)

Vintage natural brown red velvet no dye by bake this cake

Ingredients for Brown Red Velvet Cake:
About 1 Tablespoon of unsalted butter (for greasing up the pans)
3 fine quality fresh baby beets (about 4 ounces) peeled and steamed, room temp
1/2 cup ricotta cheese, good quality
3 Tablespoons wildflower honey (substitute your favorite honey)
5 medium strawberries
2 raspberries
2 cups sifted cake flour (substitute all-purpose unbleached flour)
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 Tablespoons unsweetened natural cocoa powder
1 Tablespoon dried cultured buttermilk powder (substitute 1/3 cup liquid cultured buttermilk)
1/2 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
1-1/2 cups granulated sugar
2 large eggs, fork beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla extract, fine quality
1/3 cup 2% fat milk (omit this ingredient if you are substituting liquid cultured buttermilk plus add 1/4 cup water)
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 Tablespoon cider vinegar

Brown red velvet cake recipe with no red food coloring with rose custard frosting by bake this cake

1. Prep the pans and the oven:

Smear the cake pans with a light coating of unsalted butter, line the bottom of the cake pans with a circle of parchment or wax paper, then smear a little more butter over top of the paper.

Set the oven rack to center position and pre-heat the oven to 325 degrees. This is a lower baking temperature than the norm for a longer and slower baking in order to retain super moisture in the cake. Go #slow food!

Prepping cake pans with butter and parchment by bake this cake

2. Puree the beets, berries, ricotta and honey:

In a food processor (or by hand using fine chopping & fork mashing), purée until smooth (about 2 minutes) and set aside:
3 baby beets (about 4 ounces) peeled, steamed, room temperature
5 medium strawberries
2 raspberries
1/2 cup ricotta cheese, good quality
3 Tablespoons honey (I used a wildflower honey)

Berries ricotta and honey in the food processor for red velvet by bake this cake

The purée should look nice and smooth with little speckles throughout.

Berry ricotta and honey puree for retro red velvet cake recipe by bake this cake

3. Sift the dry ingredients together:

In a large bowl, use a sifting tool (or heavy whisking) to sift together and set aside:
2 cups cake flour (substitute all-purpose general flour)
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 Tablespoons unsweetened natural cocoa powder
1 Tablespoon dried cultured buttermilk powder*

*You may substitute liquid cultured buttermilk for the dried variety by skipping this dried ingredient, swapping out the milk and adding a little water. See specific instructions below at the milk ingredient.

Cocoa and flour mixture for vintage natural red velvet cake by bake this cake

Although I’m usually a lazy sifter, because cocoa powder can sometimes clump, I think a few quick shakes of the sifter will ensure a nicely blended mixture of all dry ingredients.

Sifting flour for red velvet cake recipe with no dye by bake this cake

4. Cream the butter and sugar and then the eggs:

Using an electric mixer, blend for about 2 minutes on high-speed:
1/2 cup unsalted butter (usually 1 cube)
1-1/2 cups granulated sugar

Beating eggs and sugar before adding eggs by bakethiscake

5. Beat in the eggs and vanilla:

Beat into the creamed butter-sugar mixture on high-speed (about 3 minutes):
2 large eggs, fork beaten

Creamed butter sugar and eggs for old fashioned brown velvet cake by bake this cake

6. Beat in the pink flavors with some vanilla:

Beat into the butter mixture on high-speed for about 1 minute:
the prepared berry mixture
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract, fine quality

Beating beets and berries into red velvet cake batter by bake this cake

7. Fold the dry ingredients and milk into the batter:

Using a spatula, fold into the batter in half portions until just fully blended:
the prepared dry ingredients
1/3 cup milk (I used 2% fat milk)**

**If you’re using liquid buttermilk instead of dried cultured buttermilk, replace the milk ingredient with 1/3 cup liquid buttermilk plus add 1/4 cup water

Folding flour and milk into natural red velvet cake recipe by bake this cake

8. Mix up the magic potion:

In a cup or small bowl, use a spoon or fork to mix:
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 Tablespoons cider vinegar

Mixnig baking soda and apple cider vinegar for cake batter by bake this cake

9. Add the bubbles and give it a final stir:

Using a spatula, fold until blended:
the bubbling baking soda-cider mixture

Final batter for old fashioned red velvet cake without red dye by bake this cake

10. Let’s bake this cake!

Divide the batter evenly between the 2 prepared cake pans. You see there really is a hint of red to the batter, although this color will transform to brown as it bakes up.

Pink batter in the pan for natural no dye red velvet cake recipe by bake this cake

Bake the 8″ cakes on the center rack in a “slow oven” at 325 degrees for about 45 minutes or until the toothpick test shows clean, edges are slightly separated from the sides of the pan and the center of the cake is slightly firm when pressed gently with your fingertip. If you’re using 9″ cake pans, you might be able to reduce the time by about 5 or 10 minutes to a total cooking time of about 35 minutes.

Tip: Because this cake is rather unique, moist and dotted with tiny fruit bits, I recommend using a temperature tool to show an internal temperature of about 205-210 degrees. If you don’t have one, then just triple check all the traditional signs to be sure the cake is fully baked.

Double Tip: I suggest placing a little parchment on the wire racks while these cakes cool to prevent the cakes from sticking to the wire. Plus it makes moving them around the kitchen much easier. I like to use raised wire racks (that are also stackable) to dissipate the heat beneath the cakes for faster cooling. If you don’t have wire racks, just cool them on paper on the counter, but because they will take longer to cool, I recommend covering them lightly with parchment or wax paper to prevent crusting.

Old fashioned brown red velvet cakes hot from the oven by bake this cake

Because these cakes are slow-baked at a lower temperature, they will likely not produce a mounded top (so no need to slice off a top mound) but you may still like to flip them upside down as you assemble the cake for frosting to show a perfectly smooth top. You can use a cake lifter tool to slip under the whole cake for easy cake transport around the kitchen and for upcoming 4-layer slicing and assembly.

Homemade Brown Red Velvet Cake flipped upside down for frosting by bake this cake

The inner workings of this cake are distinctly different from your average chocolate or cocoa cake (that sometimes can tend to be on the dry side). The 4 B’s of beets, berries, butter and buttermilk and our little secret bubbling potion have worked their magic to plump and soften this baby up with little bits of fruit peeking through — almost like a moist carrot cake.

Spreading old fashioned custard frosting made with granulated sugar on cake by bake this cake

Time to slice and frost this puppy! #socute

I recommend slicing each cake in half horizontally so that you have 4 layers of old-fashioned goodness to slather with a lightly sweet frosting.  You could follow our lead and cover the entire cake in heavenly Old School Custard Frosting or you frost only the tops of the layers leaving the sides unfrosted so your guests really get the feel for the cake at first sight. I’m so pleased to see that these “naked cakes” are becoming popular again, even at weddings. To me, open sides on a cake show off the cake nicely. It also raises the charm quotient and prevents frosting overload. Think of peering in the window of a great toy shop or oogling the pet store window puppies…’cept it’s cake. 🙂

Side view of brown red velvet cake with no red dye by bakethiscake

Here’s a close-up of the rose swirls made with whipped table sugar and butter mixed with a simple flour custard. A special frosting from the pages of history that spreads like a charm and tastes like a dream.

Old school vanilla roux cake frosting with granulated sugar by bake this cake

Let’s just lust after this thing for a second, shall we?

Vintage natural brown red velvet cake with no red food coloring by bakethiscake

Thank you for joining me for this old school romp that leaves the red out of Red Velvet but puts back a double portion of natural flavors. I do hope you get the chance to try it.

Slice of vintage brown velvet natural cake recipe by bake this cake

Happy vintage cake baking to you! Please consider joining me on Instagram and Pinterest for lots of photo sharing fun.


Leslie Macchiarella


Dowtown LA Collage Pershing Square and 6th and Grand by Leslie Macchiarella

You may also enjoy reading:

Heirloom Custard Vanilla Frosting (bakethiscake.com)

Chocolate Wine Cake (bakethiscake.com)

Rubie-Lee’s Red Velvet Cake Recipe (bakethiscake.com)

Betty’s Banana Layer Cake (bakethiscake.com)

Heavenly Chocolate Almond Torte Caprese (bakethiscake.com)

8 thoughts on “Who Knew Real Red Velvet Cake Was Not Even Red #waitwhat

    • Ah, so glad you like the 4 B’s in this little cake. And I’m super pleased you like my Pandora station. Makes me smile from ear to ear…she said as she swings her arm weights to a cake baking beat. 😀

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