'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.'

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Earl Grey chiffon cake

The English people are known for their love of tea. Even with the onslaught of coffee chains like Starbucks and Costa in recent years, England is still by and large a tea-drinking nation. Even though it's a terrible stereotype, I did hear the expression 'Would you like some tea?' countless times during the seven years I spent in England (with fond memories, of course). Like coffee, tea refreshes your spirit but doesn't give you the unpleasant jittery attack you get with coffee. It's much more calming and soothing and fits the English national character perfectly - moderation and restraint.

I grew up drinking mainly Chinese tea of course, and I don't think I had heard about the two main types of tea consumed in England, English Breakfast and Earl Grey, until I moved to Wells when I was 16. I remember finding the taste of Earl Grey very intriguing - it had an unmistakable aroma that took me some time getting used to. Its distinctive aroma comes from the addition of oil extracted from the rind of the bergamot orange, a citrus fruit that grows mainly in Italy.

Bergamot orange

Earl Grey tea was named after the second Earl Grey, who served as Prime Minister in the 1830's. He helped push through the Reform Act of 1832, which brought reform to the House of Commons and saw the abolition of slavery throughout the British Empire. Legend has it that Earl Grey received the tea as a gift from a Chinese merchant whose son was saved from drowning by one of Earl Grey's men. Like all anecdotes, this story may be apocryphal, and it’s not certain whether Earl Grey ever drank a cup of the tea named after him. Jacksons of Piccadilly claim to have received the recipe for Earl Grey tea from the Earl himself, thus claiming credit for pioneering Earl Grey tea.

Earl Grey II
Consumed in sensible doses, Earl Grey tea provides numerous health benefits. It is high in antioxidants and can boost your mood, improve digestion and even protect your teeth. However, it is somewhat dangerous if consumed in high quantities - it can induce muscle cramps, involuntary twitches, burning or prickling feelings, and blurred vision, as evidenced by a 44-year-old who drank four litres of Earl Grey tea every day.

I personally prefer tea that hasn't been perfumed with extracts or fragrant oils - Rooibos is horror to me - so I'm not too keen on Earl Grey as a beverage. However I absolutely adore the flavour of Earl Grey tea in desserts, whether in crème brûlée, ice cream, chocolate truffles, or in the following chiffon cake. There's just something very classy about its distinctive aroma and which instantly elevates whatever dessert you're making. Try this cake and see if you are convinced.

Earl Grey Chiffon cake

The method of preparation is basically identical to my coffee chiffon cake - refer to it for step-by-step photos. You can replace Earl Grey with any other types of tea, of course.

250g (2 1/2 cup) cake or all-purpose flour (sifted before measuring if you're using cup measurement)
2 tsp baking powder
130g (1/2 cup plus 2 tbsp) sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp cream of tartar, or 1 tsp white vinegar or lemon juice
80g (1/3 cup) vegetable oil
7 large eggs, separated, + 3 additional whites, at room temperature
195ml (2/3 cup plus 1 tbsp) boiling water
Tea leaves from 5 Earl Grey tea bags

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. Release the tea leaves from their bags, sprinkle them onto a large bowl, and pour in the boiling water. Set aside to steep and let cool completely, at least 30 minutes.

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

3. Now separate the egg yolks and whites: you'll need three bowls. Add the yolks to the bowl which you used to brewed the tea; a small bowl 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. Save the three leftover yolks for another use.

4. Add salt and oil to the bowl containing the yolks and the tea. Mix well to combine with a whisk.

5. Now beat the large bowl containing the egg whites to a meringue. Start on medium speed, when it's frothy, add the cream of tartar/lemon juice/vinegar. Continue beating 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. Add all the flour at once to the tea-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 and you see a smooth batter, stop! You don't want to activate too much gluten.

7. Add a little of the meringue into the tea-flecked 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 with your spatula. Be careful not to knock out the precious air bubbles.

9. Pour the 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.


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