Red Velvet Cupcakes

Red velvet. I mean, what even is it? An invention by the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel to sell more cake? I think so! It’s basically a chocolate cake that isn’t very chocolatey, and instead has red food colouring, as if it somehow makes up for the lack of chocolate! I mean, it sounds like a bad halloween specialty – something you only eat once a year because it looks like maybe it could pass as a creepy cake, but not because it has any merit of its own!

But alas, upon researching this bizarre cake, I’ve learnt something I didn’t want to learn: the red velvet cake has a much more interesting history than I give it credit for (in other words it wasn’t just a simple Google search that confirmed my theories about it being concocted as a cheap gimmick…). And so, I (begrudgingly) give you the rather patchy history of the red velvet cake…

The origin of the red velvet cake is widely (and intensely) debated. Some argue it was an old recipe from the Deep South, others that it was invented by the Waldorf-Astoria, and others that it was just a gimmick created to make money. So who really knows? It’s a mystery! I do, however, think it’s reasonably safe to say that it was a “thing” by the 1930s, partly thanks to the Waldorf-Astoria, who, if they didn’t invent it, definitely championed it in the 1920s and 30s. One thing we do know is that it’s definitely American (or maybe Canadian?) – no one’s debating that fact (well, almost no one…). But the colour of the cake is also debated…is it naturally red-tinged from a chemical reaction in the cocoa, or just from red food colouring? Or was it because people used beetroot as a filler for cakes during the world wars when rationing meant anything like cocoa was suddenly comparable to diamonds for its desirability. Again, there are fierce debates about the ingredients and the colour of the cake (but seriously…exhibit A and exhibit B)! Who knew red velvet was such an enigmatic cake? I certainly did not.

And so, this odd cake is much more interesting (historically) than I ever thought possible. And what’s more, Nigella makes them, therefore they must be good, right?


Red Velvet Cupcakes

Makes 12 | Allow 40 minutes


Cupcake Ingredients

250g plain flour

2 tbsp cocoa powder

2 tsp baking powder

½ tsp bicarb soda

100g soft unsalted butter

200g caster sugar

1 tbsp red food colouring

2 tsp vanilla extract

2 large eggs

175ml buttermilk

1 tsp cider vinegar


Frosting Ingredients

500g icing sugar

125g cream cheese

125g soft unsalted butter

1 tsp cider vinegar or lemon juice


  1. Preheat the oven to 170°C fan-forced, and line 2 muffin tins with patty pans.
  2. Combine the flour, cocoa, baking powder and bicarb soda in a large bowl.
  3. In the bowl of a stand mixer, cream the butter and sugar on high speed, beating until light and fluffy. Then add the food colouring and the vanilla.
  4. With the mixer still running add the flour, cocoa, baking powder, bi carb and 1 egg and beat until combined.
  5. Add the rest of the dry ingredients, the other egg and half of the buttermilk and beat on a low speed until combined. Increase speed and add the rest of the buttermilk and the vinegar.
  6. Scoop the batter into the patty pans and bake for about 20 minutes.
  7. Leave them to cool on a wire rack.
  8. In the meantime make the frosting by beating the cream cheese and icing sugar on low speed in the bowl of a stand mixer.
  9. Add the cider vinegar/lemon juice and beat again until smooth.
  10. Frost each cupcake when completely cool. Best eaten immediately!

Happy Baking!



  • Frosted cupcakes are best eaten on the day of baking but will keep for a few days at room temperature. The cream cheese frosting will do best in the fridge, so ideally keep the cupcakes in the fridge.
  • Unfrosted cupcakes can be stored for a few days at room temperature or frozen for up to a month.

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