Alice Medrich

A Double-Chocolate Cake That's Also Light As Air

March 13, 2018

Chiffon cake was invented in 1927 by Henry Baker, a Hollywood insurance salesman who catered cakes for private parties on the side. His innovative recipe—using vegetable oil rather than butter or shortening—produced a tall, airy cake that was richer and less sweet than angel food and moister than sponge cake. He sold the recipe to General Mills in 1948. We have to hope he made a bundle.

Chiffon cake was proclaimed “the first new cake in 100 years” in Better Homes and Gardens. A great fuss was made of it and the first recipe (Orange Chiffon Cake). Though rich in eggs and oil, chiffon cake seemed deceptively light—what could be more perfect for a diet-conscious Hollywood crowd? Unlike a traditional butter cake, the glamorous new cake stayed soft when chilled, making it perfect for filling with whipped cream and for ice cream cakes. Chiffon cakes have gone in and out of fashion over the years, often in sync with our changing notions about which fats and oils are healthy and which are not.

No wonder this deceptively light cake was so popular in Hollywood! Photo by James Ransom

It’s not hard to figure out why flavors like orange, lemon, chocolate, and spices make the best chiffon cakes, and why my experiments with non-wheat flours worked out so well in my book, Gluten-Free Flavor Flours. The cake needs a ton of flavor from other ingredients to offset the lack of (and sometimes questionable) flavor of neutral vegetable oils. Chiffon cakes are fun to make, but I’ve always had a lingering hesitation about using refined vegetable oils in fine baking. Most of these oils are chemically extracted, and some just don’t taste good to me.

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This week, I decided to revisit the chocolate chiffon cake that I worked on when I was hired to revise several baking chapters for the 1997 edition of The Joy of Cooking. Why not tweak and update it for our tastes today, and try to sort out the oil question too?

Seven trials in, I had to laugh. That cake was and is pretty damn good (why do I doubt myself?)! I ended circling back to it with only minor tweaks. But the oil question was not as simple as I’d hoped. I liked the idea of an organic, expeller-pressed oil rather than one that’s chemically extracted. I don’t care for the flavor of canola oil, and while I like avocado oil for some purposes, I don’t like it with chocolate. And, I’m nuts about extra virgin olive oil, but it does not taste good in this particular recipe. What to do?

I ended up choosing organic, expeller-pressed, high oleic sunflower oil. It has a mild, pleasant flavor and it’s high in heart-healthy fats. That said, 65% of it is omega 6 fatty acids, which Americans don’t need more of. I found that most of the vegetable oils (other than extra virgin olive oil) that are considered “healthier” seem to have this or a similar drawback. Operating on the philosophy of moderation in all things (especially dessert)—and let’s all just do the best we can—I decided to stick with the organic sunflower oil. Others may choose other oils for other reasons.

The recipe that follows calls for the same quantities of most of the ingredients in the 1997 Joy of Cooking, but with the addition of fine shards of dark chocolate for extra flavor and the use of better-quality oil. It also features a smarter, more streamlined method (you can still expect to use a few different bowls and several steps, but it comes together easily). The cake remains light, moist, and a mile high, with great flavor. I love it just as it is.

That being said, why not lace it with ground spices—maybe Mexican flavors like cinnamon, clove, and chili? Or maybe I’ll swap hot strong chai (sans the sweet milk) for the boiling water, or simply use my own blend of cinnamon, cardamom, fennel, star anise, ginger, and black pepper? Next time, right?

How would you like to experiment with chiffon cake? Let us know in the comments!

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My career was sparked by a single bite of a chocolate truffle, made by my Paris landlady in 1972. I returned home to open this country’s first chocolate bakery and dessert shop, Cocolat, and I am often “blamed” for introducing chocolate truffles to America. Today I am the James Beard Foundation and IACP award-winning author of ten cookbooks, teach a chocolate dessert class on, and work with some of the world’s best chocolate companies. In 2018, I won the IACP Award for Best Food-Focused Column (this one!).

1 Comment

Robin March 14, 2018
I'd love to try your recipe with those spices you mentioned in your last line before this recipe! Thank you. I'm anxious to try it. 💕