Chiffon cake that was kept secret for two decades with an old Hollywood origin story - Liberty

Monday, September 25, 2023

Chiffon cake that was kept secret for two decades with an old Hollywood origin story


Chiffon cake. (Chris Simpson/Image), - 100 years ago there were no chiffon cakes. It didn't grace the surreal dishes of our ancestors, with a thousand tiny holes and fluff with more air than sugar. It was born out of American ingenuity and perhaps peculiar American despair.

In 1927 Los Angeles, a fateful former insurance agent named Harry Baker abandoned his wife and children in Ohio to make a new life in Hollywood, obsessively tinkering with ingredients and measurements in his home kitchen. A cake recipe that was the embodiment of escape. Baker sold his cakes to the Brown Derby, first to the original hat-shaped restaurant on Wilshire Boulevard, then to an outpost on North Vine near Paramount Studios. The latter was mobbed by movie stars like Tyrone Power, Claudette Colbert, and Clark Gable, and Carole Lombard asked her hand in marriage in one of the red leather booths.

With an unbearable lightness of existence, Baker's silky creations dazzled the Derby crowd. In A 2007 article in The Rake, Journalist Joseph Hart reported that Baker had installed 12 hotplate ovens in his bungalow apartment to meet demand. “The finished cake was set to cool on the veranda,” Hart wrote, “and the customer retrieved the cake and left a $2 payment in the post box.” That's the equivalent of about $45 today. Barbara Stanwyck ordered a cake for a party. Eleanor Roosevelt requested the recipe.

For 20 years, Baker refused to reveal his secret. He finally cracked in 1947 and told everything to General Mills. (He took the pay he received to his grave when he died in 1974.) Instead of butter, he used vegetable oil with yolks for a thick batter, folded with glossy peaks of whipped egg whites, and curled at the ends. The company published the recipe the following year in a pamphlet titled 'Betty Crocker Chiffon'.

How does “chiffon” refer to both rags and light-transmitting shiny fabrics in the most insincere attempt to hide the body behind? The cake was called chiffon because of its weightlessness, but the name evokes negligees and the power of illusion. This cake is almost nothing but so rich. There are angels and demons at the same time.

In America, the novelty is gone. Chiffon cakes now have a mostly retro appeal. In Asia, however, it has earned a lasting reputation for its lightness, and its cloud-like kinship. “There is no tradition of heavy desserts in Asian cuisine,” says Christopher Tan, author of the cookbooks “NerdBaker” (2015) and “The Way of Kueh” (2019). In Singapore, where he lives, temperature and humidity are enemies of traditional cakes. Tan is relieved to not have to buttercream for 20 minutes.

While researching her cookbook, Tan came across a news item about a bake sale involving a chiffon cake held by a local female assistant to the American Association in 1952 (when Singapore was still a British colony). In the early 1980s, the cake was so popular that Australian company White Wings developed a box mix with pancakes specifically for the Singapore market.

Tan started teaching chiffon cake workshops 15 years ago. The hardest part, he says, is beating the egg whites properly. Like Baker, he has a secret. Mix in some potato starch (which absorbs more liquid than other starches) into the meringue to prevent air from escaping. (The idea came from making pavlova and seeing that adding cornstarch gave it a soft, marshmallow-like texture while providing stability.)

When Betty Crocker introduced chiffon cake to the world in 1948, orange chiffon was one of the staple recipes. Tan's version uses the mandarin oranges that fill Singapore's markets before the Chinese New Year. “I wanted to know how much zest and juice I could put in a cake without affecting the texture,” he says. There was so much zest that one student complained about the labor required. He likes the bright, sweet Honey Murcotts best, but other citrus fruits are fine as long as they aren't too acidic or off-putting in texture.

Tan believes that chiffon can stand on its own without decorations, even without the slightest drop of confectioner's sugar. Recipes often advise placing the cake crown side down, but sometimes he says "I serve it upside down straight" so the cracks are visible. “Students are intimidated by cracks,” he says. "But that's a sign that its light."