Well-loved for its rich flavor and smooth, tender texture, chiffon cake has been a staple in American baking since at least 1948. Our olive oil cake is a riff on the American classic. As legend has it, the recipe for chiffon actually first appeared in Los Angeles in 1923, when an insurance salesman and caterer named Harry Baker decided to start messing around with angel food cake in search of a more flavorful version of the popular dessert. Angel food gets its bouncy, light texture from whipped egg whites, but it lacks flavor because it doesn’t have a fat source ingredient like butter or shortening as most sweet cakes do. Baker allegedly tested over 400 recipes, trying different fats in different amounts in a largely unsuccessful attempt to richen the cake. Four years later, he finally stumbled upon the solution when he added vegetable oil (known as “salad oil” at the time) instead of a solid fat. The result was a much more flavorful version of angel food, with an even more heavenly texture.
Baker knew he had something special. He would keep his discovery secret for over 20 years, even as the cake grew in popularity among Hollywood’s elite. In 1928, he offered to make his recipe for guests of the famed Brown Derby restaurant in Los Angeles (where Cobb salad originated), mixing and baking each cake to order as part of a one-man operation so as not to reveal the secret recipe. Rumor has it that he baked up to 42 cakes per day, and his cake became a supremely desirable dessert in Hollywood high society.
In 1948, Baker finally relented and sold the recipe to General Mills, who quickly churned out a Betty Crocker pamphlet with 14 different variations on the original recipe. They called it chiffon cake, and marketed it as “the baking sensation of the century,” so simple “even your husband could bake one!”
Over the years, husbands, wives, and cooks alike have refined and modified chiffon recipes, but the basics remain the same: It’s a high-ratio cake (meaning the fat and sugar content each outweigh the flour), and it requires expertly-whipped egg whites for lift, “salad oil” and sugar for flavor, and a bit of cake flour for crumb. But with the recent natural food craze, one important element often gets lost: High-ratio cakes require good old-fashioned bleached cake flour in order to turn out just like Harry Baker’s 1927 sensation. That’s because the bleaching process changes the pH balance of the flour, in turn affecting the gelatin properties of the starch, and resulting in a flour that lends itself perfectly to high ratio cakes. Without the bleaching process, high ratio cakes collapse. So don’’t spring for anything unbleached if you want a perfectly soft, oh-so-tender chiffon, with all the richness and structure a cake like this deserves.
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