'The true cook is the perfect blend, the only perfect blend, of artist and philosopher. He knows his worth: he holds in his palm the happiness of mankind, the welfare of generations yet unborn.'

Monday, 15 October 2012

Coffee chiffon cake

I've always found it bewildering that in America 'coffee cake' doesn't mean what it appears to mean. While chocolate cake means... chocolate cake, coffee cake has nothing to do with coffee flavour at all. It's simply a cake eaten with coffee - usually a large, flat cake, and often with loads of crumbs on top - think of New York-style coffee cake. I suppose this usage of the word isn't so outrageous when English teacakes aren't really tea-flavoured either!

I think I'm also justified in saying that coffee-flavoured desserts aren't so common in the West. While vanilla, chocolate, lemon, etc. are dominant flavours that you can find across the board, coffee-flavoured desserts are much rarer - maybe ice cream? When coffee is used in desserts it's mostly for enhancing the flavour of chocolate. Other than that I can't think of many desserts that are purely 'coffee'.

Not so in Asia! Coffee-flavoured desserts are among the most popular, ranging from coffee-flavoured Swiss rolls to coffee shortbread. I find this intriguing because Western people drink a lot more coffee than Asians, so you'd expect that coffee-flavoured desserts would be a staple in the West too (rather than in Asia which is by and large tea-oriented). Maybe they already drink enough coffee as a beverage to want it in anything else? :P

There's a marked differences in the kinds of cakes Asians and Westerners like, too. While butter cakes or pound cakes are the most common in the West, Asians like their cakes soft and light - i.e. sponge cakes. Westerns usually find this kind of cakes too dry and plain, and would slather them with syrups (an idea which might prove abhorrent to Asian cake-lovers...). In fact, most Asian cake recipes centre around génoise and chiffon cakes. While genoise cakes are often used as the base for layered cakes, chiffon cakes have an impressive range of flavours and are usually eaten on their own.

Matcha génoise

Soft, billowy and moist, chiffon cakes are actually an American invention. It was was invented in 1927 by an insurance agent by the name of Harry Baker who baked cakes for the movie stars at Hollywood. Like angel food cakes, chiffon cakes gets their characteristic lightness and volume from beaten egg whites (meringue). With angel food cakes, which is fat-free, a high amount of sugar is needed to keep them moist since any addition of oil would deflate the meringue. Harry Baker got around this problem by mixing a cake batter first (with oil) before mixing in the meringue. With this method the cake has both tenderness and volume without tasting excessively sweet. The large ratio of water in chiffon cakes also means that it's easy to lend other flavours to the cake. What's more, the use of oil rather than butter also makes the cake softer and moister (especially when refrigerated), since butter hardens when cool.

Harry Baker kept the method of making his cakes a secret for 20 years until he he decided to share it to the world in 1947, when he sold the recipe to General Mills. It was then that the name chiffon cake was adopted. You would have thought that such a brilliant cake would have everything going for it, but for reasons unfathomable to me, over time it lost its popularity in American baking. Luckily this low-fat, low-cholesterol and spongy cake is a firm favourite of bakers in Asia and it comes in a staggering range of flavours. In American recipes, chiffon cakes are usually citrus, vanilla or chocolate-flavoured. In Asia they can come in matcha, tofu, milk-tea, red beans, rose and countless other reincarnations. This particular chiffon cake is a coffee-flavoured one that I came up with. It's based on Rose Levy Beranbaum's formula for her lemon-glow chiffon cake with some changes in both quantities of ingredients and and method of preparation to suit my own taste.

Coffee chiffon cake

To get a real kick of coffee flavour, I'm using both brewed espresso and instant coffee granules. If you only use espresso, the flavour is too weak to come through in the final cake. If you only use instant coffee, it will taste like... instant coffee.

250g (2 1/2 cup) cake or all-purpose flour  (sifted before measuring if you're using cup measurement)
1/4 tsp baking soda
150g (3/4 cup) sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp cream of tartar, or 1 tsp white vinegar or lemon juice
100g (1/2 cup) oil
7 large eggs, separated, + 3 additional whites, at room temperature
180ml (3/4 cup) strong coffee or espresso, warm
20g (4 tbsp)  instant coffee granules

A 10-inch two-piece metal tube pan, do not grease!

Set a rack in the bottom third of the oven and preheat to 170C/325F.

1. You'll need a lot of bowls for this cake. Start off by pouring the coffee into a big bowl, and stir in the instant coffee granules to melt. Set aside for at least 10 minutes.

2. In another medium-sized bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda and 2 tablespoons of the sugar. Whisk well to loosen the mixture.

3. You'll need three bowls for separating the eggs. The one to which you added the coffee for the yolks; a small one for each individual egg white you separate from the yolks; and a very large, clean and grease-free bowl which you will use to beat the meringue. Only pour each egg white from the small bowl to the large bowl if you see that there is no trace of egg yolk in that particular egg white. If you dump all the egg whites into the large bowl directly, you will have to start afresh in case any yolk leaks to the egg whites. (If you want to save the three unused yolks, you'll need a fourth bowl too...)

I'm using the small ceramic bowl as the 'test bowl' for each egg white, the metal kitchen aid bowl for beating the meringue, and a small tupperware for storing the three leftover egg yolks.

Only pour each egg white into the big bowl if it's yolk-free.
The different parts of the eggs in their rightful places
 4. Add salt and oil to the bowl containing the yolks and the coffee. Mix well to combine with a whisk.

Doesn't it look... intriguing?

5. Now beat the meringue.

Start on medium speed

When it's frothy, add the cream of tartar/vinegar/lemon juice. Beat until soft peaks form when the beater is raised.

Add the remaining sugar gradually until stiff (but not dry) peaks form when the beater is raised slowly.

6. Now add all the flour at once to the coffee-yolk mixture. Use a wire whisk to mix them just until smooth, starting from the centre and gradually increase your range of motion until you each the sides of the bowl. When it's homogeneous, stop! You don't want to activate too much gluten.

Almost there

7. Add a little of the meringue into the batter, mixing the two mixtures with a big spatula to lighten up the batter before folding in the rest of the meringue.

8. Fold in the rest of the meringue gradually. Be careful not to knock out the precious air bubbles!

9. Pour the lovely batter into the tube pan. Smooth the top with the spatula.

10. Bake in the preheated oven for 55 minutes, or until a skewer inserted in the centre comes out clean and the cake springs back when lightly pressed in the centre. (The timing is pretty accurate though.)

11. When time is up, take the cake pan out from the oven, and immediately invert the pan, placing the tube opening over the neck of a bottle to suspend it well above the counter. Cool the cake completely in the pan, at least 3 hours.

12. When the cake is completely cool, loosen the side with a long knife or metal spatula. Do the same with the inner side. Dislodge the pan and run your knife between the bottom of the pan and the cake. To keep the sides attractive, press the knife against the sides and avoid up-and-down motions. Invert onto a plate and revert again so that it's the right side up.

Outer cake pan removed
Whole cake removed and reinverted.
The cake is ready to eat now! You can also pour a simple chocolate glaze to dress it up, but it's not necessary.

13. Make a shiny ganache glaze by putting 120g dark chocolate and 150ml cream in to a microwave bowl. Heat in the microwave for about 1 1/2 minutes till hot, then whisk with a wire whisk till homogeneous. Be gentle since you don't want too many air bubbles on your shiny glaze. Set aside for about 10 minutes to thicken a little.

How can anyone in his right state of mind not succumb to chocolate?

13. Set the chiffon cake on a wire rack and place it on top of a large baking pan lined with parchment paper.

14. Give the ganache a final whisk, and pour it onto the cake.

15. Don't think about moving the cake until a few hours later - the ganache needs time to set.

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