The Layer Cake Challenge: Making the Perfect Chiffon Cake

IMG_0512Layer cakes are one of those things that historically I’ve never had any luck with.  I remember making one with an Italian meringue,   the cakes were all domed (the recipe didn’t say to trim them) I’d never made Italian meringue before (it look right) and the whole thing was just a catastrophe with the meringue acting as lubricate to help the tectonic discs of cake to continually keep shifting.  I thought refrigeration would help: it did not. The upside of a layer cake catastrophe is: trifle.  Throw it all into a nice glass bowl add some custard, a layer of fruit, smile and pretend like it was intentional.

When I think about it I’m not even sure what the appeal to layer cakes is, other than they can look very grand and festive.  The perfect cake for a large party, of say 16 to 20 people, to make for a dinner of 6 is going to give you a lot to give your guest to take home and for you and your family to nibble on for the rest of the week.

Maybe it’s of combination of chronic unemployment mixed with the success of 20 years of therapy, but more and more, especially with cooking, I’m taking on the recipes that have miffed me before and have resolved to conquer them.

What I have learned about layer cakes: never rush them. Always start the day before.  If you are icing them, they need to be cold.  Once the layers are assembled chill to set, preferably over night, then coat the outside of the cake early the day you serve it so it can set.

Layer cakes with folded in beaten egg white tend to not dome so when looking at a recipe keep this in mind.

My new interest in layer cake came from reading and trying to cook a chiffon cake in the  Tartine bakery‘s book.  All their layer cakes are variations on a basic chiffon cake recipe which is adapted to the specific cake you are making.  Chiffon cake isn’t so different from Angel Food cake, the biggest difference is that eggs yolks are used in chiffon cake.  Both are mostly cooking in tube pans.

In Tartine’s recipe the cake is made in a 10″ spring form pan and when cooled cut into three disks.  I tried to make this recipe twice, followed the recipe exactly and both time the cake was a disaster.  Cracked on top, the first time not done in the center (even though time was up and a tester came out clean), second time not as crack on time, seemed more done (I cooked it at a higher heat for the last 15 and cooked it 15 minutes longer than the recipe called for).  Cutting it into three I noticed that bottom third of the cake was dense and heavy and somehow not cooked properly. So what I did was what any cook would do:  I made Julia Child’s Gênoise Cake.  It turned out perfectly first try.

In the end I was able to finish what I had started now that I had a cake (actually 2, 8″ cakes) which was to make a lemon meringue layer cake.IMG_0463Three layers of caramel and lemon curd topped with Italian meringue then torched with my handy (and almost never used) kitchen torch.

Still, it plagued me that I couldn’t get this chiffon cake recipe to work.  So I made it again, only this time the coconut variation (see below)  and in 3 8″ round pans.  This seemed to do the trick!   Before I get to the recipe I have to say after all this layer cake making I think a simple elegant single cake cut in half and filled is way more elegant, requires less tools and is, well more reasonable for the type of dinner party I have which is usually 4-10 people. You can still garnish it in whatever show stopper way you want, when you cut it you will still see 2 distinct layers and a wonderful center of filling.

Here is my challenge to you dear reader:  has anyone ever made a 10″ chiffon cake successfully from Tartine’s book? It’s a great book everything I have made from it turns out …except this recipe.  I’d be really curious to her what you think I did wrong or what is wrong with the recipe.  I think 10″ is too big for a layer cake (tho when I tree a different recipe at 9″ it worked fine) and the reason it cracks and is so unstable cooking is because it is too dense which is why most chiffon are baked in a tube pan, they don’t have a center, they are tall narrow cakes.  Also there is no instruction to turn the cake over when it comes out of the oven, all the other dozens of recipes I have read say to get it out of the pan ASAP or the cake will fall.  It’s hard to know with the internet what information is actually true and helpful and what is just bad advice 😉

So here is the recipe made with coconut milk, that I layered with coconut syrup, pineapple and pastry cream then covered in slightly sweetened whipped cream and toasted coconut flakes.

Coconut Chiffon Cake

In advance get 11 large eggs at room. Separate them. reserve 5 eggs yolks for another purpose (Ice cream!)

Preheat the oven to 325 F.

Line the bottom and sides of a 10″ x 3″ spring form pan with parchment paper or if you don’t want to take the challenge 3  – 8″ pans, which worked far better, which is to say they worked unlike my 2 attempts with the 10″ IMG_0437In a large mixing bowl whisk: 2 1/4 cups of All Purpose flour, 2 Tsp of Baking Powder, 1 1/4 cups of Sugar and 3/4 teaspoon of Salt. 

In a small bowl, whisk together : 1/2 cup of unflavored vegetable oil, 6 large Egg Yolks, 1 cup unsweetened coconut milk, 2 teaspoons amber Rum.

Make a well in the dry ingredients and pour the wet ingredients into it. Whisk thoroughly until very smooth.IMG_0632With a the whisk attachment beat the 11 large egg whites with 1/2 teaspoon of Cream of Tartar until they hold soft peaks, then gradually add 1/4 cup of sugar  beat on medium high-speed until the whites hold firm shiny peaks.IMG_0637These are mid way.

Mix one-third of the whites into flour mixture to loosen, then very carefully fold in the rest of the egg whites into the batter until just combined. Pour batter into the prepared pan (s) place in the center of a preheated oven and bake for 45-55 minutes (I found 40-45 was perfect for the 8″ pans) or until a cake tester comes out clean.

Remove from the oven and place on a wire rack.  For the 10″ the instructions are:

Let the pan cool on a wire rack. To un-mold, run a knife around the pan and the release and remove the parchment and invert.

Most other recipes I have read tell you to invert the cake immediately out of the oven and cook for 15 minutes then remove the pan and parchment and cool to room temperature.

Use a serrated knife to split the 8″ cakes in half or the 10″ cake into thirds.  I find this tricky it’s a bit of an art form to get all three sections even.

For the cake pictured at the very top, each layer is coated with a coconut syrup, caramel, fresh pineapple pie filling (cooked and thickened with tapioca starch and pastry cream stabilized with gelatin.  After a night in the fridge remove it to a serving plate, covered in slight sweet whipped cream and garnished in toasted coconut flakes.

The next post will be my no fail single cake chiffon cake recipe, for my idea of the perfect coconut cake which I call Coconut Joy.  Stayed tuned and please post your results if you try to make this recipe in the original 10″ format.


About urbanfoodguy

I'm a self taught cook with a dedication to buying and eating food that is as humanely and sustainably raised as possible. Which is why in addition to recipes you will see a lot of environmental/political reporting here. I started cooking when I was about 6, it's something I always loved to do. Watching Graham Kerr - aka "The Galloping Gourmet" - was what got me started and I have never really looked back. Over the years I've been a private chef, a caterer, and a food stylist for magazines such as Bon Appétit, Food & Wine, Real Simple, Oprah, Martha Stewart's Everyday Food and many more. I've also worked in the prep kitchen for the Food Network on the Bobby Flay and Paula Deen shows. Now I work at home in my kitchen sharing with you here recipes that I create or that other people have created that inspire me and I think you will like. I love my neighborhood (the Lower East Side of Manhattan) and I love to travel. Because NYC is such a big place I tend to focus mostly on my 'hood and the ones that are close by: The East Village, Bowery, Chinatown and Williamsburg. My love of travel has no limits really, I'm always ready to get on a plane. I was lucky enough to have a business for many years that allowed me to spend a lot of time in South East Asia. These days I've been spending time in Mexico, Germany, Canada and the West Coast of the U.S., but check back you never know where I might end up. I do consulting, cooking classes, and freelance lifestyle writing so if you are interested please send me a note:
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