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Chiffon is a quintessentially American cake, similar to angel food but delicately rich thanks to the addition of both egg yolks and oil. Chiffon was all the rage in the 1940s and 50s, but its popularity waned as American bakers embraced the increasingly rich and fluffy all-butter layer cakes of the modern era.
Now it's seen as something of a retro throwback, but I think it's a shame chiffon ever went out of style. I'm all about obscenely rich and buttery cakes, but I also believe that desserts should always work in service of the meal. And when summer barbecues mean loading up on hamburgers, potato chips, and mac and cheese, there's something to be said for the lightness of chiffon. It's soft and tender, with a airiness reminiscent of angel food cake, but a sweetness that's far more mellow.
Like angel food cake, chiffon cake needs to be baked in a pan that gives the batter plenty of room to rise and is designed to allow the cake to cool upside down. For these reasons, it's often baked in a two-piece aluminum tube pan. But as long as those two needs are met, it can actually be baked in classic round layers, as well—another reason I love baking with eight- by three-inch anodized aluminum cake pans, which are tall enough to support even the most delicate chiffon cake as it bakes and cools (a feat that could never be accomplished in the shallow, tapered, non-stick pans that tragically dominate American kitchens. For more info, check out our cake pan review).
Chiffon is traditionally made much like an angel food cake, with sugar added to the egg whites in careful additions to make an extra-foamy meringue, while the egg yolks are whisked into a thick batter with water, oil, and flour. The two batters are then combined and baked. It's hard to improve on such a modern technique, but a few subtle tweaks make the process a little easier.
To start, I make the meringue with the same left-of-center technique I call for in my recipe for angel food. I start by combining plain or toasted sugar with the egg whites and vanilla extract up front. Then I whip the meringue in stages, adding salt and lemon juice along the way.
Instead of whipping the meringue to stiff peaks, I stop when the mixture is relatively soft and loose, but still thick enough to run off the whisk and mound up on itself like soft serve in the bowl. It's a fast and foolproof method that streamlines the process and creates a foam that's more about stability than fluff. This eliminates the risk of over-whipping, a state of affairs that can cause the cake to collapse, and gives the meringue the elasticity that fluffier foams lack, helping it to rise in the oven like a hot air balloon.
While the meringue is whipping, I prepare the second batter by whisking the egg yolks with water, oil, and flour. But instead of plain water, I use club soda to further lighten and aerate the batter. If you're feeling fancy, sparkling liquids like champagne, ginger ale, and beer can be used to add a subtle layer of flavor to the cake. Just be forewarned: that nuanced flavor can sometimes turn a little tangy or weird in the oven, so it's best to start with club soda and save experimental options for a low-stakes occasion.
Because of the batter's high moisture content, it's essential to use a low-protein all-purpose flour. My favorite all-purpose flour is Gold Medal, a blend of soft white wheat and hard red wheat that strikes the perfect balance of protein and starch for a light and tender cake. That said, any brand with a similar formula will work well, too. Just steer clear of those made from 100% hard red wheat, a protein-heavy style that will readily form gluten in a high-moisture batter, making the cake dense and tough (this is why most no-knead breads call for lots of water and a hard red wheat flour; those conditions are so beneficial to gluten development, a baker barely needs to stir).
Once the batter is smooth, add a third of the soft meringue and use a balloon whisk to gently combine—other whisk styles may deflate the batter, so use the right tool for the job! Starting with a little meringue will loosen the comparatively stiff yolk-batter, and make it easier to fold in the remaining meringue. For that, you'll want to use a flexible spatula to scrape and fold the batter. Use a gentle hand and keep at it until the batter has a uniform color, but don't keep folding more than needed to meet that goal.
Pour the batter into one 10-inch aluminum tube pan, or divide it between two eight- by three-inch anodized aluminum cake pans. Do not grease or line the pans in any way! The cake needs traction to both rise and cool, so we don't want to do anything that would help it slip free, which would cause it to lose volume as it bakes and when it cools.
Bake at 350°F until the cakes are puffed, golden brown, and firm to the touch, but with an outer crust that's still a little soft and puffy rather than dry; about 55 minutes for the tube pan, or 40 minutes for the eight-inch layers.
In either case, flip the pan(s) upside down to cool. That's why it's essential the layer cake pans are at least three inches deep—shallower pans will allow the batter to dome above the rim and prevent this essential cooling technique. Tube pans should have little stilts to support this cooling procedure, or else an extra-long tube that can be fit over a bottle to loft it up instead.
Once the chiffon has fully cooled, removing it from the pan takes a little care. For a tube cake, you'll want to run an offset spatula around the edge of the pan to loosen the cake, and then lift it out by the center tube. You can loosen the cake from the bottom of the pan in the same way, then invert it onto a serving platter and free it from the center tube with a gentle tug.
To remove layer cakes from their pans, use an offset spatula to gently pry the cake away from the bottom of the pan, working bit by bit to loosen small sections at a time. Once you've made your way around the pan, the whole thing will fall out on its own when inverted; if it's stubborn, you can gently pull it out by hand.
Because chiffon is so soft and delicate, it's best served plain, à la mode, or with a simple whipped cream frosting. Merely trying to apply a heavier buttercream style can crush the cake flat—chiffon is just that delicate.
Whatever the presentation, I like to keep things simple and serve chiffon with nothing more than a pile of fresh fruit, a handful of sprinkles, or a scattering of candied citrus or crystallized violets.
Chiffon cake is best served at room temperature soon after assembly, and should be cut with a serrated knife. If you use a gentle sawing motion and almost no downward pressure, it will be as if the weight of the blade itself is causing it to fall through the cake. Applying strong downward pressure can crush and compress the cake, especially if the knife is even slightly dull.
But with a sharp knife and a gentle touch, you'll be cutting and serving the dreamiest pieces of airy chiffon.
Wrapped in plastic, leftovers can be kept a day or two in the fridge, but be sure to let the chiffon cake come to room temperature before serving, or it may seem dry and dense. Better yet, seize the day and don't let the sun set on your chiffon—devour it before bed.