1920s angel food-butter cake hybrid is simple, open to variation

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Heralded as “the first new cake in 100 years” when it was introduced, the chiffon cake — one of the darlings of midcentury cuisine — became famous for its wonderfully light and airy texture, seemingly weightless as angel food but with a moist tenderness almost like a rich butter cake. And the delicate creation was originally developed by a Los Angeles insurance salesman.

Though it might seem like a Betty Crocker-era relic, the cake is as relevant today as it was when it first revolutionized the baking world more than half a century ago. Chiffon is a really simple cake to make, lending itself to a host of flavor possibilities and accents. Try a classic orange variation, but complement the flavors a little with rich hazelnuts. Fold cacao nibs into a chocolate cake for extra depth and crunch. Or look to Southeast Asian flavors for inspiration with a fragrant pandan coconut chiffon cake. The options seem endless.

Harry Baker is the salesman who came up with the original formula in the late 1920s. He moonlighted as a caterer and was soon baking the popular creation for the Hollywood elite. He even sold cakes to the Brown Derby, which featured the dessert on its menu.

Baker kept his original formula secret for decades. Finally, in the late 1940s, he sold the recipe to Betty Crocker’s parent company, General Mills.

General Mills fine-tuned the method and ingredients in 11 months and released the chiffon recipe in 1948. With a heavy marketing campaign, it wasn’t long before the cake became a national sensation.

Los Angeles Times food expert Marian Manners (the pseudonym used by various Food section editors, cooking instructors and writers of the time) touted the release on Feb. 15, 1948, under the headline “Sensational New Recipe for Cake.” The announcement prompted more than a thousand letters and phone calls from readers. The Times soon featured the dessert as part of a cake demonstration for its own “Times College of Cookery.”

Chiffon was certainly a new kind of cake. A type of sponge cake, chiffon uses whipped egg whites for its light and airy “lift,” giving it the look and feel of angel food. But to give it that almost buttery richness — and the moist crumb not normally found in a sponge cake — chiffon included a unique ingredient for cakes at the time: vegetable oil. Oil, unlike butter, remains liquid at room temperature, keeping the cake moist and tender.

Best of all, the method is simple, requiring a handful of basic ingredients and a few kitchen tools.

The dry ingredients — flour, sugar, a pinch of salt and a little baking powder — are sifted together in a large bowl. (While the egg whites provide most of the lift on this cake, a little chemical leavener helps to seal the deal.) Add the liquids — oil, egg yolks, a little milk (or water) and flavoring such as vanilla — and beat everything together to form a smooth batter.

The egg whites are whipped to form a stiff meringue. To get the most lift from the whites, use room-temperature eggs, and be sure to beat them using a very clean bowl and beater; any traces of dirt or grease can decrease the volume of the meringue.

Beat the whites with a little cream of tartar on low speed to strengthen the structure of the bubbles as they form, then slowly sprinkle in the sugar with the mixer going. Keep beating (you can increase the speed of the mixer), just until the whites form stiff peaks when the beater is lifted. Check the eggs as they thicken; if the eggs overbeat (they will look crumbly), their delicate structure will break down and won’t be able to support and lift the cake as it bakes.

Gently fold the egg whites into the batter before transferring it to the pan. As the cake bakes, it literally puffs up in the oven and can rise over the top of the pan by a few inches. It’s done when the cake is golden and gently springs back when touched.

Immediately invert the cake over a wine or tall soda bottle as soon as it’s out of the oven. This gives the proteins in the cake time to set up as it cools, so the delicate structure doesn’t collapse under its own weight.

Because of that light structure, chiffon cakes work best lightly garnished. Don’t weigh the cake down with a heavy frosting. Dust the cake with powdered sugar or a little sweetened cocoa powder. Or leave the cake alone, but slice it thinly and serve it with a dollop of freshly whipped cream and fresh berries.

As it promoted the cake, General Mills marketed variations — 14 of them at one time — for the chiffon. And with such a simple method, the cake easily lends itself to a little creativity.

For a chocolate chiffon, replace a little of the flour with unsweetened cocoa powder. A sprinkling of cacao nibs lends a nice crunch to the cake. Dust the cake with a little powdered sugar for added sweetness, or give the cake extra depth with a drizzle of rich chocolate glaze.

Or go for something more exotic. Pandan is a popular flavor in Southeast Asian cuisine. It has a fragrant, earthy nuttiness that is a natural complement to coconut in many dishes. The flavor is also popular in sponge cakes, including chiffon, many of which are tinted a pistachio shade of green (whether naturally from extract or juice, or artificially with food coloring).

Substitute coconut milk and pandan juice for the milk in the recipe, and use pandan essence in place of vanilla. Frost the cake with a drizzle of coconut glaze, coconut milk whisked with a little powdered sugar, and a sprinkling of toasted coconut.

Chiffon Cake

Total time: 1½ hours plus cooling time for the cake. Servings: 12 to 16

This recipe calls for a 10-inch angel food cake pan, preferably one with a removable insert.

2 cups (8 ounces) cake flour

1½ cups sugar, divided

2½ teaspoons baking powder

¾ teaspoon salt

7 eggs, separated, plus 2 egg whites

½ cup vegetable oil

¾ cup milk

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

¾ teaspoon cream of tartar

Heat the oven to 325 F. In a large bowl, sift together the cake flour, 1¼ cups sugar, baking powder and salt. Whisk the dry ingredients well to make sure they are thoroughly combined. Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients.

In a small bowl, beat the egg yolks. Pour the egg yolks into the well, along with the vegetable oil, milk and vanilla. Beat the wet ingredients into the dry until completely smooth.

In the bowl of a stand mixer or in a large bowl using a hand mixer, beat the egg whites and cream of tartar until foamy. With the mixer running, slowly sprinkle in the remaining ¼ cup sugar. Continue to beat the whites until stiff peaks form when the beater is lifted.

Fold the beaten whites into the rest of the batter: Gently spoon 1/³ of the beaten egg whites into the large bowl with the batter. Slowly and carefully fold the whites into the batter using a spatula or whisk until mixed. Add another 1/³ of the beaten whites to the bowl and gently fold into the batter. Be very gentle as you fold in the whites as you do not want to deflate them; the whites lighten the batter and are largely responsible for the cake’s ability to rise as it bakes. Gently fold in the remaining 1/³ of the whites.

Spoon or gently pour the batter into a 10-inch ungreased angel food cake pan. Place the pan in the oven and bake until the cake is puffed — it should rise over the top of the pan by 2 to 3 inches but will deflate a little as it cools — lightly browned on top and a toothpick or cake tester inserted comes out clean, 1 hour to 1 hour, 10 minutes.

Remove from heat and invert the pan over a wine or soda bottle. Set the pan aside until cooled completely, 1 to 2 hours.

Loosen the sides with a thin knife or metal spatula and tap it gently to remove the cake. If using a two-piece pan, loosen the outside of the pan to remove, then gently work the knife or spatula along the top of the insert and inside to remove the cake before serving.

Chocolate Chiffon Cake With Chocolate Glaze

Total time: 1 hour, 45 minutes plus cooling time for the cake. Servings: 12 to 16

This recipe calls for a 10-inch angel food cake pan, preferably a pan with a removable insert.

Chocolate glaze

¼ cup (½ stick) butter

½ cup heavy cream

½ cup water

¾ teaspoon vanilla extract

3 tablespoons corn syrup

Pinch salt

1 pound bittersweet or semisweet chocolate

(chips or finely diced bits)

In a medium saucepan, combine the butter, cream, water, vanilla, corn syrup and salt. Bring to a good simmer over high heat. Remove from heat. Stir (do not whisk) in the chocolate until melted and combined.

This makes about 2½ cups glaze. It will thicken as it cools. Rewarm slightly to thin, or stir in a little extra cream to reach the desired consistency. The glaze will keep, covered and refrigerated, for up to 1 week.

Chocolate chiffon cake and assembly:

1½ cups (6 ounces) cake flour

½ cup unsweetened cocoa powder

2 tablespoons instant espresso

1½ cups sugar, divided

2½ teaspoons baking powder

¾ teaspoon salt

7 eggs, separated, plus 2 egg whites

½ cup vegetable oil

¾ cup milk

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

½ cup cacao nibs

¾ teaspoon cream of tartar

Chocolate glaze

Heat the oven to 325 F.

In a large bowl, sift together the cake flour, cocoa, instant espresso, 1¼ cups sugar, baking powder and salt. Whisk the dry ingredients well to make sure they are thoroughly combined. Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients.

In a small bowl, beat the egg yolks. Pour the egg yolks into the well, along with the vegetable oil, milk and vanilla. Beat the wet ingredients into the dry until completely smooth. Stir in the cacao nibs.

In the bowl of a stand mixer or in a large bowl using a hand mixer, beat the egg whites and cream of tartar until foamy. With the mixer running, slowly sprinkle in the remaining ¼ cup sugar. Continue to beat the whites until stiff peaks form when the beater is lifted.

Fold the beaten whites into the rest of the batter by gently spooning 1/³ of the beaten egg whites into the large bowl with the batter, then slowly and carefully folding the whites into the batter using a spatula or whisk until mixed. Add another 1/³ of the beaten whites to the bowl and gently fold into the batter. Be gentle as you fold in the whites as you do not want to deflate them; the whites lighten the batter and are largely responsible for the cake’s ability to rise as it bakes. Gently fold in the remaining 1/³ of the whites.

Spoon or gently pour the batter into a 10-inch ungreased angel food cake pan. Place the pan in the oven and bake until the cake is puffed — it should rise over the top of the pan by 2 to 3 inches, but will deflate a little as it cools — lightly browned on top, and a toothpick or cake tester inserted comes out clean, 1 hour to 1 hour, 10 minutes.

Remove from heat and invert the pan over a wine or soda bottle. Set the pan aside until it has cooled completely, 1 to 2 hours.

Loosen the sides with a thin knife or metal spatula and tap it gently to remove the cake. If using a two-piece pan, loosen the outside of the pan to remove, then gently work the knife or spatula along the top of the insert and inside to remove the cake.

Drizzle the warm glaze over the top of the cake as desired.

Pandan Chiffon Cake With Coconut Glaze

Total time: 1½ hours plus cooling time for the cake. Servings: 12 to 16

Pandan leaves and essence can be found at Thai and select Southeast Asian markets. This recipe calls for a 10-inch angel food cake pan, preferably with a removable insert.

8 pandan leaves, chopped

½ cup water

2 cups (8 ounces) cake flour

1½ cups sugar, divided

2½ teaspoons baking powder

¾ teaspoon salt

7 eggs, separated, plus 2 egg whites

½ cup vegetable oil

¾ cup coconut milk, divided

¼ teaspoon pandan essence,

more to taste

¾ teaspoon cream of tartar

2 cups powdered sugar, sifted

¼ cup toasted coconut flakes for garnish

Heat the oven to 325 F.

Combine the chopped leaves with the water in a blender and purée. Strain the juice into a bowl. You should have almost ½ cup. Separate ¼ cup to use in the cake; the rest of the juice can be stored, covered and refrigerated for as much as 1 week. Use the remaining juice to flavor rice or coconut dishes.

In a large bowl, sift together the cake flour, 1¼ cups sugar, baking powder and salt. Whisk the dry ingredients well to make sure they are thoroughly combined. Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients.

In a small bowl, beat the egg yolks. Pour the egg yolks into the well, along with the vegetable oil, ½ cup coconut milk, ¼ cup pandan juice and pandan essence. Beat the wet ingredients into the dry until completely smooth.

In the bowl of a stand mixer or in a large bowl using a hand mixer, beat the egg whites and cream of tartar until foamy. With the mixer running, slowly sprinkle in the remaining ¼ cup sugar. Continue to beat the whites until stiff peaks form when the beater is lifted.

Fold the beaten whites into the rest of the batter by gently spooning 1/³ of the beaten egg whites into the large bowl with the batter, then slowly and carefully folding the whites into the batter using a spatula or whisk until mixed. Add another 1/³ of the beaten whites to the bowl and gently fold into the batter. Be very gentle as you fold in the whites as you do not want to deflate them; the whites lighten the batter and are largely responsible for the cake’s ability to rise as it bakes. Gently fold in the remaining 1/³ of the whites.

Spoon or gently pour the batter into a 10-inch ­ungreased angel food-cake pan. Place the pan in the oven and bake until the cake is puffed —it should rise over the top of the pan by 2 to 3 inches, but will deflate a little as it cools — lightly browned on top and a toothpick or cake tester inserted comes out clean, 1 hour to 1 hour 10 minutes.

While the cake is baking, make the glaze. In a medium bowl, whisk together the remaining ¼ cup coconut milk with the sifted powdered sugar until thoroughly combined. Cover and set aside until the cake is cooled before glazing.

Remove from heat and invert the pan over a wine or soda bottle. Set the pan aside until it has cooled completely, 1 to 2 hours.

Loosen the sides with a thin knife or metal spatula and tap it gently to remove the cake. If using a two-piece pan, loosen the outside of the pan to remove, then gently work the knife or spatula along the top of the insert and inside to remove the cake.

Drizzle the coconut glaze over the top of the cake, then sprinkle the toasted coconut over the cake before serving.