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LIGHT MOTIF
SPRING IS THE PERFECT TIME TO REVIVE THE AIRY CHIFFON CAKE

In the baking world, chiffon cake once had it all.

It had history. It had glamour. It had a secret ingredient. It even had publicity agents.

General Mills introduced the chiffon cake to the world in 1948 with the headline "The first really new cake in 100 years!" It was so big, sales of cake flour went up 20 percent.

And then, like an escaped party balloon, chiffon cake drifted away. No more orange cake with glaze down the sides. No more tall cakes lording over the bake sale.

Why should we breathe life back into the chiffon cake? Well, it's quick. If you're not intimidated by separating eggs and whipping egg whites, you can put together a chiffon cake almost as fast as you can make a cake from a mix.

But maybe the real reason we should rescue the chiffon cake is just because it deserves it. Because it's light and not too sweet and it looks great on a cake stand.

Who knows who made the first chocolate cake or fruitcake? But chiffon cake is different. It was invented by an insurance agent in Los Angeles. His name, believe it or not: Harry Baker.

Baking was Baker's hobby. In 1927, he came up with an unusual cake. It was light and fluffy, more tender than angel food, more flavorful than sponge cake. It became the toast of Hollywood. Baker sold it to stars for their parties, and he made cakes for the Brown Derby restaurant.

The cake got so popular, Baker was selling as many as 40 a day. For 20 years, he wouldn't tell the secret ingredient. Finally, in 1947, he agreed to sell the recipe to General Mills, so "Betty Crocker could give the secret to the women of America."

Jean Anderson researched the story for her book, "The American Century Cookbook." General Mills tinkered with the recipe for about a year before releasing it. "Knowing home economists," she says, "they probably made it foolproof."

When the company finally released the secret recipe in the May 1948 Better Homes and Gardens magazine, it did it with a splash. Calling it "high, light and handsome," General Mills declared the cake "light as angel food, rich as butter cake."

The secret, it turned out, was vegetable oil. Baker had replaced the usual butter with oil and skipped the step of creaming butter. Instead, you make a flavored batter, and then you fold in stiffly beaten egg whites. The egg whites puff up in the oven, making a tall, fluffy cake.

You can also make it in almost any flavor. Through the 1950s, General Mills sponsored chiffon cake contests. People came up with rainbows of flavors -- orange, lemon, walnut, marble, coconut.

Through the 1950s and '60s, chiffon was the cake to make.

"It was terribly, terribly, terribly fashionable," Anderson says. "Everybody was doing it," particularly lemon and orange.

Chiffon cake's beauty was its simplicity.

It's easy to put together, Anderson says, and it doesn't even need frosting. "I frankly think chiffon cake doesn't need a thing. I like it straight up. Maybe with a scoop of ice cream on top."

There are only two tricks to making chiffon cake. The first is beating egg whites. If the egg whites aren't stiff enough, the cake will be tough. The other trick is using cake flour, which is lighter. Although the cake is best known as a tube cake, made in an angel food pan, it can also be baked as a layer cake. Just line the bottom of the pan with waxed paper and cool the cake in the pan upside down. The pan is ungreased, so the cake can cling to the sides while it bakes. And the pan is always cooled upside down, so the cake doesn't flatten. Stand the tube pan over a funnel or a small-necked bottle until it's completely cool.

Light and airy, chiffon cake just seems made for spring.

This recipe is from "The American Century Cookbook" by Jean Anderson. The tube pan is traditional, but it's easily made as a layer cake of three layers. Place circles of waxed paper on the bottom of the pan, but don't grease the sides. The cake clings to them to rise.

Basic Chiffon Cake

2 1/4 cups sifted cake flour

1 1/2 cups sugar

3 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup vegetable oil

5 egg yolks

3/4 cup cold water

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

2 teaspoons grated lemon zest

1 cup egg whites (7 to 8)

1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

Sift flour, sugar, baking powder and salt into a large mixing bowl. Make a well in the center and add oil, egg yolks, water, vanilla and lemon zest. Beat until smooth with a spoon.

Whip egg whites with cream of tartar to stiff peaks. Pour yolk mixture gradually over beaten egg whites, gently folding with a wide rubber spatula just until blended.

Pour batter into ungreased 10-inch tube pan. Bake 55 minutes. Raise temperature to 350 degrees and bake 10 to 15 minutes longer, until surface springs back when lightly touched. (For layers, bake in three 9-inch round cake pans at 325 degrees about 40 minutes, until tops spring back.) Invert pan on a rack immediately, or balance upside down on the tip of a funnel. Cool completely.

Turn cake right side up and rap sharply on counter to loosen. Run a thin-bladed knife around the outer edge and around the tube. Turn cake out and frost as desired.

Variations: For butterscotch, substitute 2 cups brown sugar (not packed) for granulated sugar and omit lemon zest. For orange, omit vanilla and lemon zest, use 3 tablespoons orange zest and use orange juice for some or all of the water. For chocolate chip, increase sugar to 1 3/4 cups and omit lemon zest. Fold in 3 ounces of grated semisweet chocolate just before pouring batter in pan.

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