May 17, 2009
Beat your chiffon with care
Many of you have written in recently about baking egg foam cakes such as chiffon and sponge cake.
Cookbook authors often have the same problem with recipes as doctors have with prescriptions and advice - namely, compliance.
Baking is a discipline that requires precision, and so the first thing to ensure is that you follow the recipe to the letter. In a well-formulated recipe, every ingredient, ratio and method step should have a specific reason for being there.
Check that your oven reaches the right temperatures, that your ingredients are fresh and measured correctly and that your cake pans are the right ones.
For example, you cannot willy-nilly bake a chiffon cake batter in a non-chiffon pan, or a loaf pound cake formula in a shallow round tin, or batter for a 20cm cake in a 28cm cake tin, and expect it to come out right. Similarly, you can't substitute ingredients at will without flavour and texture repercussions.
If you've followed a recipe strictly and the results still bomb, ditch it in favour of a more detailed one with troubleshooting tips or explanations of the ingredients and method. Search out authors known for demystifying baking recipes, such as Sherry Yard, Rose Levy Beranbaum and Alice Medrich.
For many sponge cakes, you need to beat whole eggs or egg yolks until they are 'ribboning'. This means that the egg foam should be so thick that when you lift the whisk out of it, it leaves a ribbon-like trail which keeps its shape for several seconds on the foam's surface. Whether you're beating by hand or machine, it always seems to take a bit longer than you think to reach the ribbon stage, so just keep at it. It helps to set the mixing bowl over a pan of hot water to warm up the eggs a little before you start beating.
Probably the single most common chiffon cake mistake is overbeating the egg whites. Stop beating as soon as the whisk leaves behind a peak when you lift it - slowly - out of the bowl. If the peak tip curves slightly, that is fine. The beaten whites should still look glossy and moist. Beating them as stiff as a socialite's hairdo will cause them to weep liquid and deflate when you then fold them into the batter.
When folding ingredients together, always fold the lighter mixture into the heavier. Sweep your spatula right to the bottom of the bowl. A large but thin-edged spatula and a large, wide mixing bowl make this easier.
Lastly, virtually all cakes naturally sink or contract slightly as they cool. Cake tops should settle down into flatness or slight domes.
If made properly, no cake should sink and form a crater, apart from the few species of chocolate cakes and souffle cakes that are engineered specifically to do that.
It is perfectly fine to let cakes cool completely in their pans, as long as you have lined them to make removal easier. Or even if you haven't, in the specific case of chiffon cakes, which are so riddled with air holes they must 'hang' from their inverted, unlined, ungreased pans while cooling, in order to set their fluffy structure.