Most people wouldn’t think of strawberry shortcake as a divisive dessert. But it is.
The debate centers on the base: biscuit or cake, and then it can delve into what kind of cake, angel food or pound, shortbread or sponge. A story I wrote last spring left out one cake that many consider the best pedestal for strawberries and whipped cream: chiffon cake.
Chiffon cake is one of the only cakes to have originated in America. Chapel Hill, N.C., cookbook author Jean Anderson shares its history in “The American Century Cookbook.”
It seems a Los Angeles insurance salesman named Harry Baker developed the recipe, a cross between an airy angel food cake and a sumptuous butter cake. Baker, a hobby cook, began making the cakes for celebrity functions and the famous Brown Derby restaurants and, finally, sold the recipe to General Mills in 1947. Chiffon cake became popular in the 1950s after appearing in a Betty Crocker cookbook.
One of the most vocal fans of chiffon cake was April McGreger, a former pastry chef at Lantern in Chapel Hill who now owns Farmer’s Daughter brand pickles and preserves.
McGreger discovered chiffon cake while working at Lantern. She had cooked her way through the cake canon, but nothing had the ideal texture she wanted for strawberry shortcake: Genoise was too dry. Angel food was too “cottony.” Chiffon cake was different. The whipped egg whites gave it a fluffiness like angel food, egg yolks gave it a richness like a butter cake and vegetable oil gave it a softness that, McGreger says, is an American preference from cake mixes.
McGreger uses chiffon cake to re-create her childhood birthday treat: a strawberry tall cake that her mother made using yellow cake mix.
McGreger’s version requires two chiffon cakes, baked in springform pans, cut in half vertically to create four layers. She macerates fresh strawberries with honey and either lemon juice or orange flower water, and lets that sit for a couple of hours. She then makes barely sweetened fresh whipped cream. She takes a layer of cake and tops it with strawberries, a thin cap of whipped cream, and the next cake layer. She repeats that twice more, tops it with the final cake layer and covers the entire cake with whipped cream. The cake should sit in the refrigerator for several hours before serving.
You can follow McGreger’s instructions for a strawberry tall cake or you can go simple: a slice of cake, a dollop of whipped cream and sliced fresh strawberries.
Either way, you will likely become a chiffon cake fan.
Classic chiffon cake
From April McGreger of Farmer’s Daughter brand pickles and preserves.
2 1/4 cups sifted cake flour (8 ounces)
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups sugar, divided
1/2 cup vegetable oil
7 egg yolks (about 1/2 cup)
3/4 cup water or orange juice
1 tablespoon grated lemon zest
1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
10 egg whites (about 1 1/3 cups)
1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar or lemon juice
Heat oven to 325 degrees. Line the bottom of a 10-inch springform pan (3 inches high) with parchment paper cut to fit. Do not butter or flour the pan.
Whisk together flour, baking powder, salt, and 1 1/4 cups sugar in a large bowl. Make a well in the center and add oil, yolks, water or orange juice, lemon zest and vanilla. Whisk well for about 1 minute or until smooth.
Beat egg whites in the bowl of an electric mixer until frothy. Add cream of tartar or lemon juice and beat until whites hold soft peaks. With the mixer running, slowly mix in the remaining 1/4 cup sugar. Beat whites until they are glossy and hold stiff peaks. The peak of egg whites on the end of the beater should not droop when you turn the beaters over.
Use a large whisk or spatula to gently stir about a third of the whites into the batter to lighten it. Then gently fold in the remaining whites until just blended.
Pour batter into prepared pan and level the top. Bake for 45 to 55 minutes until a skewer inserted into the center comes out clean.
Place cake on a wire rack and let it cool completely in the pan. Run a spatula or knife around the outside edge of the cake and unmold it from the pan. Peel off the parchment and place the cake on a serving platter. Garnish lightly with powdered sugar to serve.
Makes one 10-inch cake.