In the 1960s my brothers, mother and I lived in Baguio, a mile-high city in northern Philippines. Dad was working overseas and Mom taught at St. Louis University to make ends meet. One of the items that Dad sent home that Mom really appreciated was an electric hand mixer. She was also fortunate that we lived in a house that had a real electric range with an oven. The oven was particularly prized because most common oven of the day was a little, uninsulated metal box that had no thermostat and sat over a burner. It was in this context that she set out to bake a chiffon cake.
After three or four attempts, my mother presented us with a tall, moist, spongy chiffon cake to feast on one weekend. The fluffy white frosting was light and sweet. It was one of the two cakes – fruit cake was the other – that became Mom’s signature baked goods. When I was a child, for several birthdays my mother used to bake a vanilla chiffon cake with a plain white frosting, then decorate it with M&Ms.
Chiffon cake was a triumph because my mother had to overcome her lack of more advanced appliances, the mountain altitude and atmospheric pressure, and the absence of a mentor.
In contrast, I have a Kitchen Aid stand mixer, a battery-powered sifter, a great oven in a house close to sea level, and the internet and my niece as resources. So I finally worked up the courage to try Mom’s chiffon cake recipe.
This cake is intimidating. It calls for seven room-temperature eggs, separated. Seven eggs! I had to sift the flour before I could measure it, then sift it again with other dry ingredients. There can’t be any traces of yolk or water in the egg whites and, in a moment when I second-guessed myself, found that some recipes call for cream of tartar and others, like my mother’s, do not. When I fold the meringue into the yolk-based batter until there are no streaks, how do I know if I’m doing this correctly, sufficiently, or too much? How true is it that loud noises or sharp vibrations while the cake is baking can cause it to drop or collapse into itself?
The fluffy white frosting is just as intimidating as the cake. Making the simple syrup is simple enough, but at what “frothy” point can you start adding it to the egg whites? I’ve heard different theories about using a low, medium or high speed to whip the whites. And if you want to tint the frosting, when do you add the food coloring?
I took the leap when a friend celebrated his birthday and I offered to bring the cake. So after dinner one evening I assembled my ingredients. Sifting and re-sifting the dry ingredients was tedious. Separating seven eggs took longer than I thought, as I struggled to develop a rhythm that included separating each one over a small bowl to check for spoilage and to prevent the whites from being contaminated by yolks or shell fragments. Despite finding several recipes that called for cream of tartar in the meringue, I decided to follow Mom’s recipe and leave it out. I folded the egg batter and meringue together carefully to preserve the lightness of the resulting mixture. I poured it all into the tube pan, careful to not drip any batter onto the sides or cone.
An hour after I placed the tube pan in the oven, I was rewarded with a cake that had risen beautifully and filled the kitchen with the warm and gentle aroma of vanilla. I flipped it over on the counter to cool overnight.
When I woke up the next morning I examined the cake and was delighted to see that it had not dropped. I gently liberated it from the tube pan with a small spatula and slipped wax paper under it so frosting would not smear the cake plate.
I prepared the frosting, hoping the whole time that it would fluff up properly. I was relieved when it turned out well, even after I added orange extract. Then I realized that I had never frosted a cake before.
My wife came to my rescue, applying a crumb coat and advising me to chill the cake in the refrigerator for 10 to 15 minutes. Then she showed me how to add the rest of the frosting and how to give it some texture. She left me to figure out how to add the orange zest I wanted to use for décor.
Fortunately, the cake was a hit at our friend’s birthday dinner. That gave me a boost of confidence and a rush of ideas for flavors and decoration. This won’t be my last chiffon cake.