Thursday, September 3, 2015

Does anyone make chiffon cakes anymore?

Today, we at A Book of Cookrye are dredging up forgotten recipe fads to see if they were any good and also conducting a small-scale sociological experiment!

The cake so light it becomes a lamp!

What is that hanging up to dry, you ask? We at A Book of Cookrye are making a chiffon cake!
Finding Betty Crocker, Susan Marks, 2005

Fresh Apple Topping
2 medium apples
⅔ c sugar

Cut the apples into dice (you needn't peel them unless you don't like the skins). Mix with the sugar in a small bowl and let stand for at least two hours. The sugar will dissolve in the juice it draws out of the apples.
If you mix it together right after putting the cake in the oven, it will be by the time the cake cools off.

As a recipe note, we didn't measure out a cup of egg whites. Since the recipe calls for seven yolks, we used seven whites. Well, actually, six since we messed up separating one egg.
This recipe was partly made possible by the fact that we got a really huge bag at a beginning-of-the-year giveaway. This thing's going to involve a lot of bowls, and now we have the means to carry everything down the stairs in fewer than five trips.
I hope this thing is sturdy.

Have you ever heard of chiffon cake? It's only the first truly new cake in 100 years! Or at least, so ran the advertisements when General Mills published the recipe under the Betty Crocker name.
The story (which is very well-known among those who care about such things) goes that there was this baker whose last name was Baker who sold this cake unlike any other in all of Hollywood where he lived. It purportedly combined the lightness of sponge cake (editor's note: has anyone recently eaten sponge cake?) with the richness of butter cake (i.e. what we now think of as cake). The baker named Baker's big secret was using cooking oil instead of butter, and the resulting cake made him one of the most in-demand people in the Hollywood catering world.
Right, that's the dry ingredients.

This baker named Baker kept the recipe a secret for twenty years until he decided to sell it to General Mills (who at the time was still letting people believe Betty Crocker was a real person). Apparently this cake caused a public frenzy because newspapers ran the recipe under headlines like Mystery Cake- Secret Ingredient X Revealed for Baking Mammoth Chiffon.
Apparently cooking oil makers had been promoting oil-based cake recipes similar to chiffon cake for about a decade before chiffon cake became a Hollywood sensation in the 1920's. It seems their recipes didn't get far beyond the test kitchens if, as claimed, the baker named Baker got famous for baking cakes like nothing his clientele had tasted before.
We're three bowls in and just getting started.

You may be wondering why we've got three bowls out. Well, the green one's for the egg whites, the bigger pot's for everything else, and the smaller pot is to crack each egg white into, that we may be sure no yolk got into it (as we all know, the slightest speck of yolk ruin our attempts to beat the egg whites into really stiff peaks) before letting it join the others. We had gotten prideful and thought we were just that good at egg separating before, but this happens every time we let eggs go to our head.
Curses and drat!

If you're going to mess up separating an egg, it's always one of the last ones you've cracked. Had we not had a little separate bowl, we'd have had to throw away all the other egg whites and busted open even more eggs. However, we were totally prepared, and now we have this bowl of perfectly clear, yolk-free egg whites!

Right next to the egg whites, we've got the rest of the cake drowning under a bunch of stuff.
Making a well was utterly pointless.

The book we got the recipe from says that chiffon cakes faded out after about fifteen years or so after being introduced. Some baking crazes lose their novelty and become part of everyday cooking (see chocolate chip cookies), others end up near-completely forgotten (see fondue). Chiffon cakes fall into the latter category, which is why we're making one. Was this some fad for a lousy cake that only got big because the Betty Crocker people were selling it, or is this a really good recipe idea that we should have held onto?
The egg yolks look like pustules.

Chiffon cake is an interesting point in baking history. Going back to the first half of the 20th century, you'll see advertisements about how this brand of flour will make your cake more tender, this brand of baking powder will make your cake airier, or that using shortening instead of butter will make your cake taller. Assuming it lives up to the ad copy, chiffon cake will meet all the standards people used to have for an impressive cake (height, lack of weight, etc). That doesn't mean it will be a good cake. Just because something looks impressive on a platter doesn't mean people will come back for seconds.
It turns out stirring together the dry ingredients beforehand prevents those flour lumps that refuse to go away. Also, this tastes like a really good cake batter.

Chiffon cake was one of the last industry-created cake fads before manufacturers seriously began pushing cake mixes. The focus was on the cake itself rather than how you cut it up after baking and rearranged the pieces and applied various decorations to turn it into something like an eagle or a baseball diamond.
The idea of cake mix as the starting point for something far removed from cake remains prevalent today. Cake mix is turned into cake balls, used as the foundation for fondant fancies, and so on. If you crack open a relatively recent community cookbook, flip to the cake section and you will see a lot of recipes beginning with "make cake mix according to box directions" with least three paragraphs of instructions for after you get it out of the pans. This is extra work compared to how such recipes used to be written. Rather than starting with "prepare to package directions," many older recipes just list "one large uniced cake" in the ingredients. If you want to go to the supermarket and buy a cake, the recipe never said you couldn't. However, it is true that while such recipes have been around a lot longer than cake mix, they really didn't become as commonplace or as varied until mix gained acceptance.

Most recipes that involve beating in egg whites, I stop when they're almost stiff like so, but this one emphasized very stiff and do not underbeat.

Chiffon cake was one of the last times the food industry created a fad out of a from-scratch cake that requires a fair amount of cooking experience. It's not a particularly difficult recipe. Anyone who routinely cooks their own dinner can make it, especially since the recipe has specific and clear directions rather than something vague like "mix in the usual manner." But it's not the sort of recipe you'd hand someone who said they'd never made a cake before and would like to learn how.
You don't see the food industry making publicity blitzes around recipes like this any more, and this attitude has spilled over into the publishing world. If you go to the cookbooks in most bookstores, most of them are either something like The Complete Kitchen Ditz's Guide To Boiling Water or coffee-table books full of unrealistic food porn with titles like Fantasies of the Moroccan Table. Books for the reasonably well-informed, while still published as steadily as ever, don't get as much shelf space and certainly not as much time on the center display stand as they used to.
There. I turned the egg whites into shaving cream. Hopefully that's what they meant.

This is not a eulogy the supposedly dead homemade cake. Grocery stores wouldn't have massive sections of flour and sugar if no one baked from scratch anymore. The same community cookbooks that have a lot of fanciful cake-mix creations also have multiple pages of from-scratch cake recipes. People on Facebook post many extravagant desserts that start with boxes of mix alongside recipes headed "this is the most decadent chocolate cake ever!". Incidentally, a lot posts fall halfway between the two categories, claiming that if you modify the box directions by replacing the oil with butter, adding extra eggs, and so on it will taste homemade.
However, cake itself doesn't figure prominently in advertisements or pop culture the way it used to. Cake-baking makes reality TV, but all of those Cupcake Feud  and Cake Master shows will spend the first 45 seconds hastily acknowledging that they have to make cake batter and insert it into an oven before spending the rest of the episode doing competitive cake decorating. The cake itself serves as a vehicle for icing sculptures. No one in any episode I've seen takes a fork to a plated slice and comments on how the cake beneath the fondant skyline of Cincinnati actually tastes.
My point is, people have tried to claim that cake baking is dead, but I put those statements in the same category as the claims in the 1950's that frozen dinners had ended cooking. The alleged death of home baking is something that various people in the industry really wish was true and a lot of columnists get paid to write moody, mournful op-eds about. However, I've seen no evidence that baking has gone the way of dipping candles.
Looks like ice cream and caramel sauce.

Actually, it's interesting to note that from about the late 1800's to around the end of the Depression, the food industry was actively involved in teaching people how to cook. This is when industrialization really took off, causing people moved out to the city before their mothers could give them a domestic education. This is also when things like ovens with thermostats, electric toasters, and other amazing new things we now take for granted went into large-scale production. While people undoubtedly were quickly sold on such devices (my great-grandmother refused to follow her husband to the United States until he provided her a stove she didn't need to build a fire in), they were more likely to learn how to operate modern kitchen equipment at public demonstrations led by industry representatives than from their mothers who had learned on a woodstove and been grateful to have more than a fireplace with a spit.
For a while, a lot of industries had to create demand by teaching their would-be customers how to use their wares. Accordingly, they had to treat their would-be customers like they had the intelligence to work the gas regulator on a stove. They also couldn't drive away people who had learned to cook on instinct while watching the state of the woodfire and adjusting dampers to control air drafts by telling them that cooking was too complicated for their womanly minds. So, various home economists and kitchen mavens (some more fictitious than others) used cooking classes, radio shows, and music-hall kitchen demonstrations as vehicles for very heavy-handed product placement alongside their (hopefully) wise kitchen advice.
When you start to get it mixed together, it looks like this.

Betty Crocker, under whose byline General Mills published this recipe, was one of these many corporate kitchen guides and by far the most successful. If you look into Betty Crocker's early history, the people who created her did an amazingly good job making someone who got deep into women's personal lives (and also told them to buy Gold Medal Flour). When they published chiffon cake, General Mills was still pushing the idea that Betty Crocker was an actual person. Betty Crocker had taught a lot of people to cook by way of radio shows, leaflets, advertisements, and books. Therefore, a lot of chiffon cake's popularity came from one of the most influential women (nonexistence notwithstanding) and most authoritative of food authorities putting her name behind it.

Still gradually adding all the other stuff to the egg whites...

How does all this relate to chiffon cake?  When this recipe was published in 1948, the industry was advertising to a generation of women who had held down jobs that required an active mind. You couldn't tell an audience of women who had just been assembling jet engines that cooking was beyond their mere feminine abilities. Also, since they had just done expensive ad campaigns involving radio shows, traveling exhibitions and demonstrations, and other things teaching women how to operate the equipment in the new, modern kitchen, they couldn't turn around and say that women did not know what to do in the kitchen. Chiffon cake was aimed at housewives with decent kitchen skills who had the intelligence to read a recipe before making it.
Turns out you need to drizzle the batter over the egg whites; if you just pour it in one place, it sinks through them.

This leads us to finding out if chiffon cake is actually any good once the PR has had a few decades to wear off. It may be interesting to look at as one of the last times the food industry acknowledged that women can make complex recipes, but that says nothing about whether it's any good.
It was actually fairly easy to make, as the old advertisements promised. The only part that required any substantial kitchen skill was folding the batter into the egg whites without deflating them, but that was only tricky because you really don't see many recipes that have you do that anymore. Beating egg whites into a stiff foam and then mixing things into it was more of a routine step than the "oh I hope I'm doing this right" operation it is today. Therefore, we will credit the advertisements for being correct as far as ease of preparation goes.
The recipe says to use a rectangle pan, but we so rarely get out the tube pan with pop-out legs Mom got us.

Also as promised, this cake rose a lot as it baked. You can definitely see why they extensively praised how tall it came out. You don't think about it these days, but a short stumpy cake just doesn't look as impressive as one that nearly comes up to the top of the pan! 

Now, the reason the recipe says to hang it upside-down to cool is because cakes like this fall flat if you don't. Most recipes today tell you to put a wine bottle up the center tube of the pan and leave the whole top-heavy thing precariously perched until the cake completely cools off.
The cake creature in its defensive stance, ready to run across the counter toward anything that threatens its territory.

Hanging cakes like this upside down does keep them from falling flat. However, this is the first time we've operated the feet on the pan Mom got us, and we were unaware that you're apparently supposed to put the center piece on the outside when baking. If you put it inside the ring, it will fall down and squash your cake, defeating the entire purpose of putting it upside-down.
Remember, the center tube goes on the outside next time.

Eventually, the cake fell out of the outer ring, so (lacking wine bottles to stand the tube on) we let it imitate a lamp from a really lame craft class until it got cold. It's not nice to find out you are too dumb to correctly operate a cake pan.

As we found out when making the man-bait apple cake, stirring together sugar and apple slices makes the sugar draw out enough juice to dissolve itself in, leaving you with apple pieces in super-tasty syrup.
So if nothing else, this cake led us to discover a new, easy, and very tasty dessert topping. But is the chiffon cake itself any good? Did it just go out of style because people wanted to seem up-to-date and therefore didn't want to use a fifteen-year-old cake recipe when trying to impress the neighbors, or was it not as good as the advertisements claimed?

It sprang back with surprising resilience when we first tried to get a knife into it. Are cakes supposed to bounce back that well? Once we got it sliced, it was the color of yellow cake and the consistency of angel food cake.
It's definitely a good cake, but if you dislike angel food cake you might find it odd. The "lightness of sponge cake and richness of butter cake" slogan used all over the advertisements was a bit of a stretch. Chiffon cake does come off kind of like a yellow cake got somehow combined with angel food, though. The apple stuff went really well on top of it. The cake soaked up a lot of the syrup, but since it was so springy, the syrup didn't turn it soggy.

Chiffon cake definitely meets all the expectations people used to have for cakes before they got relegated to that thing you put the icing decorations on. It is light, airy, fine-textured, impressively tall, and tastes good. It was very good with tea, but surprisingly bland when dunked.
But that's just my opinion of it, and I'm biased because 1) I made this and 2) I read the Betty Crocker history book and another article about chiffon cake so I was probably making a lot bigger a deal of this than I thought. What would people who had no prior expectations think? This brings us to the sociology experiment promised at the beginning: I left this out on a table in the lobby with no further explanation before I went to work:
I'd have set out the apple stuff too, but the roaches found it first.

I set this out partially because I wondered what people would think of the cake, but mostly to see what would happen if someone left a pan of cake slices and sheet for comments out for them to find. Would someone just throw out the paper and take the cake to their room? Would I come back to find penises drawn all over the paper? Would there be a lot of trolling like one usually finds in YouTube comments? Would (and this seemed the least likely) people just answer what the note on the top of the page asked? I came home to find an empty pan and this:

Surprisingly, the only thing I ended up bleeping out is one person's name.

 As further feedback, someone told me "About half the people thought it needed fruit and half the people thought it tasted like fruit." There was a fairly even mix of people saying they tried part of a slice and let someone else have the rest and people saying they got two or three. So it looks like while chiffon cake is on the whole pretty good, it's not the wonder cake advertisers claimed it to be. However, according to a lot of people, it goes really well with fruit. It also can sit out a while without going stale, and just looks so darn pretty when you put slices in a basket.
We weren't kidding when we called this cake resilient. Despite being piled on each other like this, the cake slices refused to crumble.


  1. My best friend's mother has a lovely book (which I always end up browsing through whenever I visit his parents' house) which is full of vintage cake recipes, tried and tested by the author and her posse. The recipes are from as early as the Nineteen-Aughts all the way to the 1970s, And yes... it has a number of recipes for chiffon cake. I think the ones it has go a little fancier than this, though. I think one included blueberry juice for a richer color if nothing else.

    I do wonder where cake balls will be in fifteen years. While I do like the idea of individual little cake dumplings, they are awfully pasty if done incorrectly, and they are quite prone to being too sweet.

    Incidentally, my favorite cake recipe is one of the simplest I know of. I first learned of it from a book called "Kids' Cooking: A Very Slightly Messy Manual," put out by Klutz Press--a book dedicated to teaching cookery to kids that ACTUALLY knows how to do it, since it follow the KISS method, is lavishly illustrated, and also comes with measuring spoons. Its recipe for "Chocolate Conecakes" (cupcakes baked in those flat-bottomed wafer ice cream cones that soft serve usually comes in) is effectively just an old-fashioned buttermilk chocolate cake, but by golly, the book's writers picked a winner! It does have to be doubled to make anything resembling a decent-sized cake (the book uses kid-sized portions for most recipes, after all) but it's nonetheless darn tasty.

    1. What color does blueberry juice turn it- purple or bluish? And from what I read, as soon as the original recipe proved popular, General Mills wasted little time coming out with really fancy variations.
      I used to think cake balls would wear off, but since they're being adapted and altered by people a lot (I've seen them made with crushed Oreos and cream cheese icing), the idea may actually stick.
      I recognized the title of that book, so I looked it up and-- we had the same one when I was a kid!

    2. Not shocking! Klutz was everywhere. And while we didn't make it, I think it does turn it purplish. Judging by the color that blueberry muffins made with real blueberries get, y'know, around the berries...

  2. Ahem, I made a strawberry chiffon cake this summer for a friend's birthday.

    That being said, chiffon cake are not my favorite. I like dense and flavorful cake that don't use every bowl in the kitchen.

    1. Yeah, this one was a lot of dishes for what you ended up getting. But how did your friend like it?