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How-To

Chiffon Cake Makes a Comeback

The cake’s lofty height comes from whipped egg whites, its moist and tender crumb from vegetable oil

Fine Cooking Issue 38
Photos: Scott Phillips
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A chiffon cake is what angel food cake wants to be when it grows up. A little taller, a little prettier, and a lot sexier. Like angel food cake, it gets its height and airy texture from whipped egg whites. But that’s where comparisons end. Chiffon cakes also boast richness and an almost unbelievable tenderness. They’re not as sweet as angel food and can come in all kinds of flavors, including the classic orange version that made its debut at Hollywood parties in the 1940s. And while pure-white angel food cake would seem inappropriate iced or lavishly garnished (think of lipstick on a child), its more worldly sister looks comfortably stylish covered in pink frosting or candied almonds.

If you haven’t guessed it already, I love these cakes. On top of how impressive they look and taste, they’re a pleasure to make, especially when you’re combining voluminous whipped egg whites with a whipped eggyolk mixture that already includes the flour. Folding these two fluffy batters together makes me think of what it must be like to mix clouds together. The lightness, the lovely pale color, even the fffft, fffft, fffft sound you hear as you fold are all very soothing.

An amazing tenderness from oil

Other sponge-style cakes include egg yolks and may even include a fat, such as the melted butter in a génoise. What distinguishes chiffon cakes, and what gives them their soft, moist texture, is the addition of vegetable oil, which tenderizes and moistens the crumb. The oil gets beaten (along with the egg yolks and flavorings) with the flour. The fat coats the flour proteins, thereby reducing their ability to form gluten. The less gluten, the more tender the cake.

I generally use a colorless and mostly flavorless oil; canola, safflower, corn, and grapeseed oil all work well. Just be sure to smell and taste the oil before you use it; even plain vegetable oil can develop an off flavor that may come through in the cake. You may also want to experiment with olive and nut oils, which would add their own subtle flavor as well.

Oil is the secret ingredient that makes chiffon cakes so tender. Be sure to test it for freshness before using. 

A stately stature from egg whites

Although these cakes contain a little bit of chemical leavening, their impressive height is owed to the leavening powers of whipped eggs, especially to properly whisked egg whites.

Underwhipped is better than overwhipped. When beating whites, it’s important to whip them to the correct stage. As whites whip, their color changes from very pale yellow to white. Properly beaten whites will look smooth, wet, and shiny and will form soft peaks. If in doubt, it’s preferable to underbeat whites slightly than to overbeat them. Overbeaten whites look lumpy and dull and form big white clumps when you fold them into another mixture. Because their air bubbles are overworked, they’re more likely to collapse in the oven, resulting in a cake that’s more chewy than tender.

Underwhipped. These egg whites are just beginning to hold a peak and still look quite wet. This is the right time to slowly add the sugar.
Overwhipped. These clumpy whites will be harder to mix and will result in a shorter, denser cake.

Here are more tips for whipping egg whites:

• Let the whites warm up a bit before whipping; you’ll get best results when they’re about 60°F.
• Whip the whites in a clean, deep, stainless-steel or copper bowl. Even the slightest bit of fat will inhibit the whites’ ability to trap air. Wipe the beater and the bowl with a paper towel moistened with a bit of white vinegar and remove even the tiniest speck of yolk with a piece of egg shell.
• Begin whipping the whites on medium-low speed until frothy and then increase the speed.
• Add sugar, which helps stabilize the whites, just as the whites reach the soft-peak stage; add it slowly so that the egg whites have time to absorb it.

Perfectly whipped egg whites hold a definite shape but are still smooth and soft.

Egg yolks are more forgiving. You can breathe easier when whipping the egg yolks, which are almost impossible to overwhip. Beat the yolk mixture until a smooth, fluffy batter develops, a solid three minutes at the least.

A glamorous debut for a glamorous cake

Chiffon cake is a relatively new kind of cake, at about 60 years old. It was invented by Harry Baker, an insurance salesman who also baked for private Hollywood parties. His orange-flavored version combined the lightness of an angel food cake with the moist richness of a butter cake. The secret, which was revealed when Baker sold the recipe to General Mills in 1947, is simple yet clever. He had combined the whipped egg whites of an angel food cake with the whisked yolks of a sponge cake and enriched the batter with oil.

Think gentle when combining the two batters

Now that you’ve spent all this time incorporating air into your cake, you need to mix the two batters together with the lightest touch possible. I find it helps to stir about one-third of the beaten egg-white mixture into the beaten yolk mixture to lighten it to a more similar consistency. Then, using a large rubber spatula, fold in the remaining egg whites, digging down to the bottom of the bowl with the spatula and bringing the two mixtures up and over each other. Turn the bowl as you fold so that the mixtures blend quickly, and fold just to the point that no white streaks remain.

This cake should stick to the pan. Chiffon cakes bake in a large tube pan that doesn’t get greased. (Tube pans have a smooth bottom rather than the patterned bottom of a bundt pan.) As the batter bakes, it climbs slowly up the sides and stays put. I once absentmindedly greased a tube pan for a chiffon cake. It rose quickly and was unusually high. I thought: “Aha! Here’s another food myth disproved!” But as soon as the cake came out of the oven it collapsed in a heap. The greased sides couldn’t support the weight of the batter, and all that had been under the top crust was a big air bubble.

Use a large bowl when folding the two airy batters together. Forcing the batter into a smaller one would cause the batter to deflate.

Cool the cake with the center of the tube pan inverted onto a bottle. This allows air to circulate around the cake and keeps the weight of the cake from pushing down on itself as it cools. Just be sure that you bake the cake fully; if the interior is underbaked, the weight of it may pull the cake out of the pan. A short bottle or an inverted funnel will keep any damage from a premature fall to a minimum.

The cooled cake can be a challenge to remove from the pan. If it doesn’t come out after inverting it and giving it a gentle tap, run a long, thin knife around the cake as close to the side of the pan as possible. To cut smooth, even slices without crushing the cake, use a serrated knife and a sawing motion.

You can serve this kind of cake with pride for at least three days. An unfrosted and ungarnished cake will also freeze beautifully.

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