Chiffon cake appeared occasionally on our Friday night table when I was growing up. My mother baked it because it was delicious and, most importantly for our fleishig Shabbat dinners, it was parve.
Nobody knows who made the first sponge cake or the first strudel but with chiffon cake it's a different story. The person credited with its invention in 1927 was a California insurance salesman, Harry Baker, who also did catering and eventually sold the recipe for his popular cake to General Mills. The company made it famous as the first new cake in over a century, with a secret ingredient: vegetable oil.
Like sponge cake, chiffon cake owes its lightness to a generous proportion of eggs, with the yolks and whites beaten separately. It differs from sponge cake in two respects. Firstly, its oil makes it richer and moister than sponge cake. Also, it contains baking powder, which makes the recipe more foolproof for the home cook because it helps ensure that the cake will rise even if the egg whites were not beaten perfectly.
I found a similar recipe in a standard French pastry book published 16 years before the American cake was created. In their manual for French pastry chefs, Traite de Patisserie Moderne, written in 1911 by Emile Darenne and Emile Duval, there are recipes for a basic French cake called biscuit manque, made with separately whipped egg whites and egg yolks and with melted butter folded into the batter. There is no baking powder in their recipes but since modern baking powder was invented and popularized among home cooks in Europe, they could have decided to add some to such cakes. If a Jewish cook in Europe felt like making a parve version of this cake, she would have used oil instead of melted butter, thus making chiffon cake.
According to The All New All Purpose Joy of Cooking, by Irma S. Rombauer, Marion Rombauer Becker and Ethan Becker, "Oil gives chiffon cakes great moistness and keeps them soft even when refrigerated, tender even when frozen. Thus a chiffon cake is a good choice for filling or layering with ice cream." The authors advise using a neutral flavored oil such as safflower, peanut, corn or sunflower. Since chiffon cakes do not gain flavor from butter, they need more generous amounts of flavorings such as citrus zest, spices or cocoa than other cakes do.
Miri Leibovitz-Shroster, author of the new book Parve (in Hebrew), devoted to cakes and cookies, prefers canola oil for her chiffon cakes, which she flavors with orange and with chocolate.
Harry Baker's famous chiffon cake was flavored with lemon zest and vanilla extract.
Over the years, creative home cooks have come up with variations. For her honey coffee chiffon cake, Penny Wantuck Eisenberg, author of Light Jewish Holiday Desserts, flavors the cake batter with coffee, honey, cinnamon and cloves, and embellishes the cake with coffee honey glaze and a sprinkling of chopped walnuts.
Rombauer bakes banana and pumpkin chiffon cakes, made with mashed bananas or pumpkin puree as the cakes' liquid. A guava chiffon cake from Hawaii calls for guava nectar as the liquid, and a guava glaze as icing.
Traditionally chiffon cakes are baked in tube pans so they are tall and dramatic, and, says Leibovitz-Shroster, look like the classic Shabbat, holiday and birthday cakes of the past. To make unmolding simpler, you can also bake them in rectangular or square pans as in my mother's orange cake recipe below.
MY MOTHER'S ORANGE CHIFFON CAKE
This cake is tasty on its own and even more festive when iced with melted chocolate or with Quick Orange Frosting (see recipe below) and a sprinkling of grated chocolate. To make serving easy, my mother usually baked this cake in a rectangular pan and served it in individual squares. Keep the cake tightly covered at room temperature; if you frost it, refrigerate it. Alongside each serving of cake you can add a few fresh orange slices, chocolate-dipped orange segments or chocolate-covered candied orange peel.
Makes about 12 to 16 servings
4 2 cups cake flour
4 1 Tbsp. baking powder
4 1â„2 tsp. salt
4 11â„4 cups sugar
4 3 large eggs, separated
4 2 egg whites
4 1â„2 cup vegetable oil
4 1â„2 cup orange juice
4 Grated rind of 1 large orange (about 1 Tbsp.)
4 1 packet vanilla sugar or 1 tsp. pure vanilla extract
4 Easy orange frosting (optional, see recipe below)
4 Grated semisweet or bittersweet chocolate (optional)
Preheat oven to 175ÂºC. Have ready a 33x23x5-cm. pan.
Sift flour, baking powder and salt into a large bowl. Add 3/4 cup sugar; stir until blended.
In another bowl combine egg yolks, oil and juice; beat until smooth. Beat in grated orange rind and vanilla.
Make a large well in bowl of dry ingredients; pour in egg yolk mixture. Gently stir dry ingredients into yolk mixture.
In a large bowl, beat egg whites to soft peaks. Gradually beat in remaining 1/2 cup sugar. Beat at high speed until whites are stiff and shiny but not dry. Fold about 1/4 of whites into yolk mixture until nearly blended. Gently fold yolk mixture into remaining whites. Transfer batter to prepared pan. Bake about 30 minutes or until a cake tester inserted in cake comes out clean. Cool in pan on a rack.
If you like, spread cake with frosting and grate some dark chocolate over the top.
EASY ORANGE FROSTING
This quick frosting is made by the usual method of confectioners' sugar icings but is not as sweet. It's good on orange cakes, simple chocolate cakes and white or yellow cakes, as well as on cupcakes.
4 1 cup powdered sugar, sifted
4 3 to 4 Tbsp. orange juice
4 110 gr. (1â„2 cup) unsalted butter or margarine, softened
4 1 Tbsp. grated orange rind
Cream butter until light. Add powdered sugar a little at a time, alternating with 3 tablespoons juice. Beat until well blended. Beat in another tablespoon orange juice if needed, so that frosting is spreadable but still thick. Stir in grated orange rind. When frosting is ready, spread it over cake in a thin layer.
Makes enough frosting for a 33x23-cm. rectangular cake, about 12 to 16 servings.
CHOCOLATE-WALNUT CHIFFON CAKE
Chiffon cakes like this one taste rich even without dairy products. A generous proportion of chocolate makes this chiffon cake especially luscious. Taste your walnuts to be sure they are fresh.
Makes about 14 servings
4 140 gr. bittersweet chocolate, chopped
4 1 cup walnuts
4 11â„2 cups sugar
4 2 cups cake flour
4 1 tsp. salt
4 1 Tbsp. baking powder
4 6 large egg yolks
4 1â„2 cup vegetable oil
4 3â„4 cup cool water
4 8 large egg whites
4 1â„2 tsp. cream of tartar
Preheat oven to 160ÂºC. Have ready a 25x10-cm. tube pan with removable tube; do not grease pan.
Melt chocolate in a medium bowl set above hot water over low heat. Stir until smooth.
Remove from pan of water and let cool.
Grind walnuts in food processor with 1/4 cup sugar. Transfer to a bowl. Sift flour, salt and baking powder into a large bowl, add 3â„4 cup sugar and stir until blended. In another bowl combine egg yolks, oil and water and beat until smooth.
Make a large well in bowl of dry ingredients and pour in yolk mixture. Gently stir dry ingredients into yolk mixture, using a wooden spoon. Add chocolate and stir just until there are no lumps.
Whip egg whites with cream of tartar in a large bowl until soft peaks form. Gradually beat in remaining 1â„2 cup sugar and whip at high speed until whites are stiff but not dry.
Fold about 1â„4 of whites into chocolate mixture until nearly incorporated. Gently fold chocolate mixture into remaining whites. Sprinkle ground nuts over batter and fold in lightly but quickly, just until batter is blended.
Pour batter into pan. Bake about 1 hour and 10 minutes or until a cake tester inserted in cake comes out clean.
Turn pan upside down on its "feet" and cool cake in pan 11â„2 hours. Run a metal spatula gently around cake. Push up tube to remove sides of pan. Run a thin-bladed knife around tube. Run metal spatula carefully under cake to free it from base and turn out carefully onto a platter. n
Faye Levy is the author of 1,000 Jewish Recipes and of Chocolate Sensations.