August 13, 2008
When Maxence and I lived in California at the turn of the century, we liked to visit a small shop in Mountain View called Hong Kong Bakery. The Chinese-style pastries all seemed very exotic to me and we ate our way through the full range over the first few months, but soon stopped when we found our gold-medalled champion: the chiffon cake.
If you've never had chiffon cake, perhaps you can start by imagining what it might feel like to eat a cloud -- a fluffy, moderately sweet, and lightly eggy cloud that would deflate in your mouth with a moist sigh. It is not unlike angel food cake, if you think about it, except that the chiffon cake is not shy about egg yolks; it offers hence a richer mouthfeel, and does not threaten to block your airways.
The classic chiffon cake is baked in an ungreased, not nonstick tube pan, in which such batters rise higher because they have more walls to climb. In Chinese bakeries, however, chiffon cake appears under the much more appealing guise of a paper-wrapped cake -- a single-serving confection baked in a tall metal tumbler, lined with a thin sheet of paper.
Naturally, this allows the lady behind the counter to unmold the cakes easily and two at a time, in symmetric flips of the wrists. But, more to the point, you get to peel the paper off the body of the cake as you eat -- one of the more thrilling of earthly sensations, akin to the removal of the plastic sheet that protects the screen of a new cell phone.
I don't own a tube pan (there is no such thing in the galaxy of French pans; the closest relative is the savarin mold, but it's really a third cousin twice removed), nor a set of tall metal tumblers, but I had long ago read, on my friend Chika's blog, that chiffon cake could be baked in unwaxed paper cups.
Chika had then been kind enough to translate her recipe, which she herself had obtained from a Japanese site, and I finally -- after, oh, a good four years -- got around to trying it earlier this summer.
My chiffon cakes rose nicely (although, unlike Chika's, they did not form a dome) and developed a delicate top crust, in welcome contrast to the sponge-like crumb. We enjoyed them so, and found them to be such ideal summer treats, that I am planning to bake an encore batch as soon as I get my kitchen back (believe it or not, our renovations are still not done), but this time I will line the paper cups with parchment paper -- it seems less wasteful to at least reuse the cups, and did I mention how much I love stripper cakes?
- 130 grams (1 cup plus 1 tablespoon) soft flour (pastry flour, or cake flour, or type 45 flour*)
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 6 medium egg yolks (whites used below)
- a pinch of salt
- 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- 150 grams (3/4 cup) granulated sugar
- 120ml (1/2 cup) water
- 80ml (1/3 cup) vegetable oil (I used olive oil)
- 6 medium egg whites
Preheat the oven to 170°C (340°F) and have ready 14 sturdy unwaxed 120-ml (1-cup) paper cups, ungreased.
Sift the flour and baking powder together 3 times, or combine the flour and baking powder in a freezer bag, zip it shut with lots of air inside so it will form a balloon of sorts, and shake the bag vigorously to make the flour fluffy. Set aside.
In a large bowl, combine the egg yolks, salt, vanilla extract, and 75 grams (6 tablespoons) of the sugar (reserve the rest for later). Whisk for several minutes, until the mixture turns pale yellow and thick ribbons fall from the whisk. Stir in the water and the oil, and whisk well between each addition. Fold in the flour mixture and whisk until well blended, but don't overmix.
In another large and spotlessly clean bowl, combine the egg whites and 60 grams (5 tablespoons) of the sugar (reserve the remaining tablespoon for topping), and beat with a clean whisk until stiff. You may use an electric whisk or a stand mixer with the whisk attachment; make sure neither the bowl nor the whisk have any trace of fat, or the eggs will not rise and life will seem rather pointless.
Fold a third of the beaten egg whites into the batter and mix gently until blended. Fold in the rest of the egg whites, gently lifting the batter up and over the egg whites with a rubber spatula until just blended.
Pour the batter into the prepared cups to about 3/5 of their capacity, and sprinkle the surface with the remaining tablespoon sugar. Bake until set and golden brown, about 30 minutes. Invert the cups onto a cooling rack so the cakes won't collapse, and let cool completely. To unmold, run the blade of a knife around the inside of the cup to loosen, and shake gently until the cake falls out.
Serve the cakes on their own, in the cup, or with a fruit salad, a drizzle of berry coulis, or a scoop of ice cream.
Note: The batter may also be baked in a tube pan (not nonstick), ungreased. The baking time should then be 40 to 50 minutes.
* See Wikipedia's flour article for clarification if you're not sure what these are.
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