December 24, 2010

Not Under 7 Eggs

One realizes that human relationships are the tragic necessity of human life — that they can never be wholly satisfactory, that every ego is half the time greedily seeking them, and half the time pulling away from them. In those simple relationships of loving husband and wife, affectionate sisters...there are innumerable shades of sweetness and anguish which make up the pattern of our lives.
--Not Under 40, Willa Cather
What a wonderful passage; it is also the epigraph to Nancy Milford's biography of Edna St. Vincent Millay, Savage Beauty.

This Christmas Eve, my affectionate sister and I celebrated with sweetness rather than anguish — by baking a lovely chiffon cake. And thanks to my shiny new hand mixer, it was a breeze!

The cake calls for 7 eggs and tastes very similar to a steamed Cantonese sponge cake (馬拉糕) served at some dim sum places. If you're a fan of egg-flavored desserts (custard buns, egg tarts, etc.), you'll adore this cake.

Chiffon Cake
adapted from America's Test Kitchen
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 1/3 cups flour
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
5 egg whites
5 egg yolks + 2 whole eggs
3/4 cup water
1/2 cup oil
1 tbsp vanilla extract
1/2 tsp almond extract

Preheat oven to 325°F. Adjust oven rack to lower-middle position and grease a tube pan (preferably one with a removable bottom).

Whisk the sugar, flour, baking powder, and salt together in a large bowl. In a medium bowl, whisk the 5 egg yolks, 2 eggs, water, oil, and extracts together. Slowly whisk the yolk mixture into the flour mixture until smooth.

In a large bowl with high sides, beat the 5 separated egg whites with an electric mixer on medium-low speed (I used #2 setting) until foamy, about one minute. Increase speed to medium-high (#4 setting) and whip to stiff peaks, another 3–4 minutes. "Stiff peaks" mean that when you lift the beaters from the egg whites, the peaks stand up straight, without curling at all. Fun fact: By the time it reaches this point, you could hold the bowl upside down over your head and the egg whites still wouldn't budge.

Gently fold the whipped egg whites into the batter with a rubber spatula until combined. Transfer the batter to the prepared pan and tap the pan gently on the counter a few times to settle the batter. Bake 50–60 minutes (mine only took 45 minutes, though), until the cake is golden brown and the top springs back when pressed firmly.

Note: If you want to prevent the finished cake from deflating as much as possible, invert the tube pan over the neck of a sturdy bottle (such as a champagne bottle), or devise some other method of letting it cool upside down.

December 7, 2010

The Cake I Want to Marry

"Liver," he answered. "Let's have liver and mashed potato, like Mrs. Brigstock used to make."
Veronica crossed to him and bent down and put a kiss on his springy hair.
"You have to let go of the past, darling," she said.
"Why?" he said. "I like it there."
--Trespass, Rose Tremain
I know how it feels to like it there, snuggled under the cover of one's memories, still warm from the last time you dropped by. Yet I see Veronica's point — you can't have liver and mashed potatoes every day. And, if you're anything like me, you can't eat the same cake every day, nor can you follow a recipe two times in a row without wanting to make an edit or two (after all, delicious as that cake turned out last time, what if experimentation leads to an even better version?).

But I'm a changed girl; I've become a certain cake recipe that has me swooning for its incredible fluffiness. I'm not the slightest bit tempted to replace the granulated sugar with brown sugar, nor do I harbor fantasies of sneaking in a sprinkle of cinnamon or orange zest...that's how perfect this cake is.

The Perfect Buttermilk Cake
Wet Ingredients
2 tbsp melted unsalted butter
1 cup sugar
1 tsp vanilla
1/4 tsp almond extract
1 egg

Dry Ingredients
1 1/3 c. flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt

Final ingredients
1 cup buttermilk
Granulated sugar, for sprinkling

Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease an 8x8 square baking pan.

Mix wet ingredients (excluding buttermilk) in a large bowl and add half of the dry mixture until fully incorporated. Then add all of the buttermilk and mix thoroughly. Add the rest of the dry mixture, and stir the batter until smooth. Pour into the prepared pan. Sprinkle the top evenly with lots of sugar; the resulting crinkly crust is key to this cake's simple allure. Bake for 20-25 minutes.