A century ago, chiffon cake did not exist. It did not grace the plates of our forebears, surreal in its fluffiness, with its thousand tiny holes, more air than sugar. It was born of American ingenuity, and perhaps a peculiarly American despair.
In 1927 in Los Angeles, a former insurance agent named, by kismet, Harry Baker, having abandoned a wife and children in Ohio to make a new life in Hollywood, fiddled obsessively with ingredients and measurements in his home kitchen until he came up with the recipe for a cake that was escape incarnate. Baker sold his cakes to the Brown Derby, first to the original, hat-shaped restaurant on Wilshire Boulevard and then to its outpost on North Vine near Paramount Studios. The latter was mobbed by movie stars like Tyrone Power, Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable, who asked Carole Lombard for her hand in marriage in one of the red-leather booths.
Baker’s gossamer creation, with its unbearable lightness of being, dazzled the Derby crowd. The journalist Joseph Hart, in a 2007 piece for The Rake, reported that Baker installed a dozen hot-plate ovens in his bungalow apartment to meet demand. “Finished cakes were set to cool on the porch, where customers retrieved them, leaving two dollars’ payment in the mail slot,” Hart wrote — the equivalent of around $45 today. Barbara Stanwyck ordered the cake for parties; Eleanor Roosevelt asked for the recipe.
For two decades, Baker refused to divulge his secret. He finally cracked in 1947 and revealed all to General Mills. (How much he was paid he took to the grave when he died in 1974.) Instead of butter, he used vegetable oil in a batter thick with yolks and folded together with glossy peaks of whipped egg whites, curling at the tips. The company unveiled the recipe the following year in a pamphlet titled “Betty Crocker Chiffon.”
How is “chiffon” a word that means both a rag — a castoff piece of cloth — and the lustrous fabric that lets the light through, that makes the most halfhearted attempt to hide the body behind? The cake was called chiffon for its weightlessness, but the name conjures negligees too, and the power of illusions. It is almost nothing, this cake, and yet so rich: angel and devil at once.
In the United States, the novelty has worn off. Chiffon cake has a mostly retro appeal now. But in Asia, its lightness — its kinship to clouds — has brought it enduring fame. “Not many Asian cuisines have a tradition of heavy desserts,” says Christopher Tan, the author of the cookbooks “NerdBaker” (2015) and “The Way of Kueh” (2019). In Singapore, where he lives, the temperature and the humidity are enemies of more traditional cakes. It’s a relief not to have to cream butter for 20 minutes, a process that “can go belly up very quickly,” Tan says.
In doing research for his cookbooks, Tan found a news item from 1952 — when Singapore was still a British colony — about a bake sale featuring chiffon cakes, held by the local Women’s Auxiliary of the American Association. By the early 1980s, the cake was so popular that the Australian company White Wings developed a box mix specifically for the Singapore market, laced with pandan, whose flavor falls somewhere among hazelnut, rose and a freshly mowed lawn after rain.
Tan started teaching chiffon-cake workshops 15 years ago. The most difficult part, he says, is beating the egg whites properly. Like Baker, he has a secret: He mixes a little potato starch (which absorbs more liquid than other starches) into the meringue, to guard against deflating. (The idea came from making a pavlova and seeing how adding cornstarch gives it a soft, marshmallowy texture but also lends stability.)
When Betty Crocker introduced chiffon cake to the world in 1948, orange chiffon was one of the lead recipes. Tan’s version uses mandarin oranges, which fill the markets in Singapore before the Chinese New Year. “I wanted to see how much zest and juice I could pack into the cake without affecting the texture,” he says — so much zest that one student complained about the labor required. He likes bright, sweet Honey Murcotts best, but other citrus fruits will do, as long as they’re not too acidic, or the texture will suffer.
Tan believes the chiffon can stand on its own, unadorned, without even the faintest snowfall of confectioners’ sugar. Recipes often advise presenting the cake crown down, but sometimes, he says, “I serve it perversely upright”— with the cracks showing. “Students are petrified of cracks,” he says. “But that’s a sign that it’s light.”
Recipe: Chiffon Cake