From the time I was 12 years old, I baked this Red Devil’s Food cake for my dad every year on his birthday and often when we had guests coming for dinner. It always put a smile on his face and made me proud of my baking accomplishments.
Whenever I baked this cake my dad would stake a claim to at least half of it. The buttermilk is a slight tangy counterpoint to the sugar and cocoa, adding depth and richness. If you don’t have buttermilk on hand, you can always add a little vinegar to milk, stirring until it is thickened.
This cake recipe was developed in rural Indiana in the 1920’s by my Great Aunt Mildred Mains. Mimi always served it with butterscotch icing and it is a family classic. Over the years I’ve found other great chocolate cakes, but this is the original that started it all.
If you have read other recipes for Red Devil’s Food cake you’ll often see them call for red food coloring. Mimi used to laugh about that because it is the buttermilk that lightens the chocolate color and reveals its underlying red tones.
When I got old enough to attempt making a cake from scratch on my own, dad gave me this recipe to practice on. He always told us it was topped with a butterscotch icing from the Joy of Cooking, but I searched and couldn’t find it. It turns out their caramel icing is what Mimi used. Butterscotch or caramel is not the first thing that comes to mind when you think of frosting a chocolate cake, but it is absolutely addictive.
One of the tricks of using this icing is that it firms up as the butter cools so as soon as you have it made, spread it on top of the still warm cake. Quickly make any swirls or other decorations you want. The icing will be firm and hold its shape in less than 5 minutes.
I hope you become converts to this Red Devil’s Food style of chocolate cake and join my family in our tradition of baking it for any occasion, when guests come over, or just because it is Wednesday.
Have a very happy Chocolate Monday and a marvelous week ahead!
Key Ingredients for Red Devil’s Food Cake:
- All-purpose flour or gluten-free flour blend
- Baking powder, baking soda, salt, and xanthan gum (if baking GF)
- Brown sugar
- Cocoa powder
- Evaporated milk
- Confectioners’ sugar
What is the difference between butterscotch and caramel?
In its simplest form, caramel is made with regular white sugar and butterscotch is made with brown sugar. Their flavors are similar but not interchangeable.
When you are done making the liquid portion of the icing in the saucepan, fill it with water and bring to a boil. This melts the candy and cleans the pan effortlessly. A quick wash with soapy water and rinse and the pan is ready for your next project.
If you don’t have buttermilk on hand, you can sour and thicken regular milk or half and half by adding about a teaspoon of vinegar. Pour it in, let it sit for a couple of minutes, then stir to evenly distribute the thickened liquid. If you want it thicker, add a touch more vinegar and stir again.
How to make Red Devil’s Food Cake:
- Whisk together the dry ingredients in one bowl
- Beat the brown sugar and cocoa, add the butter then the eggs, buttermilk, and vanilla in the bowl of your stand mixer
- Add in the dry ingredients, mixing until smooth, then carefully add the water and mix it on low speed
- Bake the cake 35 to 45 minutes and leave in its pan to cool on a wire rack
- Make the icing: combine the butter, brown sugar, salt & evaporated milk; cook until sugar is dissolved then cool slightly
- Beat in the confectioners’ sugar and vanilla
- Quickly spread over the warm cake because the icing hardens rapidly
- Serve immediately while warm or store, covered, in the refrigerator
Kitchen Tools I Use to Make This Recipe (affiliate links):
Use a gluten-free flour blend, like my favorite here, and add either xanthan gum or psyllium husk powder to help keep the cake from becoming crumbly. Always weigh your ingredients, if possible, for the best and most consistent results.
- 2 cups (240 g) all-purpose flour or gluten-free flour blend
- 1 tsp baking powder
- 1/2 tsp baking soda
- 1 tsp salt
- 1/2 tsp xanthan gum - only if making this recipe with a gluten-free flour blend
- 2 cups brown sugar
- 1/2 cup cocoa powder
- 2/3 cup softened butter or vegetable shortening
- 2 eggs, lightly beaten
- 1 cup buttermilk or soured milk
- 1 tsp pure vanilla extract or paste
- 1/2 cup hot water
- 4 tbsp (1/2 stick) butter
- 1/2 cup brown sugar
- Dash salt
- 1/3 cup evaporated milk or whole milk (Not sweetened condensed milk!)
- 2 cups confectioner's (powdered) sugar, or as needed
- 1/2 tsp vanilla or rum
- Preheat the oven to 350°F. Butter and flour a 9x13x2-inch pan; set aside.
- Prepare the Cake: In a mixing bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Add xanthan gum or psyllium husk powder if you are using a gluten-free flour blend, whisking well to distribute it evenly in the dry ingredients. Set aside.
- In the bowl of your stand mixer, beat together the brown sugar and cocoa. Add the butter and beat until smooth. Add the eggs, buttermilk, and vanilla, beating until blended. Add the dry ingredients and mix in, then add the 1/2 cup hot water and carefully mix it in.
- Pour the batter into the prepared pan. Bake 35 to 45 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Transfer to a wire rack and leave in the pan to cool. Cover with Butterscotch Icing and serve.
- Make the Icing: In a heavy saucepan, combine the butter, brown sugar, salt, and evaporated milk. Cook, stirring over medium heat until smooth, and the sugar is dissolved, about 3 to 4 minutes. Cool slightly and pour into the bowl of your stand mixer.
- Beat in the confectioners' sugar, using as much as needed to get a good spreading consistency. Beat in the vanilla.
- Quickly spread on the warm cake because the icing hardens rapidly. Serve immediately or store, covered, in the refrigerator.
Amount Per Serving: Calories: 567Total Fat: 18gSaturated Fat: 10gTrans Fat: 1gUnsaturated Fat: 6gCholesterol: 78mgSodium: 565mgCarbohydrates: 90gFiber: 2gSugar: 48gProtein: 10g
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This post was first shared in Aug 2017. The article was updated in 2020.