The First Thing I Ever Cooked: Coffee Chiffon Cake
coffee chiffon cake
As a new cookbook author (and food writer with a cooking column), the question I get asked most often is: “Where did you learn how to cook?”
My answer has always been: “From my mom.” At a Thanksgiving dinner a few years ago, my mom overheard me telling a friend I attribute my love of cooking to her. She interrupted with a humble laugh: “I don’t know why my daughter always says that. I did not teach her. I don’t know where she learned how to cook all these things!” she said, waving her hand over a wedge of pumpkin bread pudding, pooling with hot maple caramel.
Mom, you didn’t have to teach me. I’ve been watching.
It’s true my mom never held my hand as I stirred soffrito on the stove. It is true she never taught me the difference between challah and brioche dough, nor how to make a veal demi glace. These are things I taught myself out of curiosity, after a childhood filled with incredible home-cooked Shanghainese and Cantonese food. But all loves have their geneses. My love for food was borne out of watching my mother make the same cake every week.
I got my sweet tooth from my mom. She has a particular soft spot for chiffon cakes, which remind her of the airy cakes sold in Chinese bakeries. A well-made chiffon has a cotton-soft crumb. To her, they are perfect in their unfrosted simplicity.
My mom has always enjoyed being in the kitchen. After a full day’s work, she’d change into a comfortable pair of pants, tie her apron ‘round her waist, and get started on no fewer than three or four dishes (not including the soup) for our family dinner. When the dishes were washed, my sister and I would pull up our chairs to the kitchen counter. We’d chat and laugh and she would make a cake. Oh, how good it smelled during that long hour it spent in the oven. Sometimes, I would sit cross-legged in front of the oven to watch the transformation. My sister and I would stack the plates and pour glasses of milk in anticipation.
By the time I was about 10 years old, my mother started to bake with less frequency. With a full-time job, daily dinner prep, and three children, she understandably wanted to retreat into the living room with some tea in the evening. At the kitchen table, I’d swing my legs listlessly as I did my homework, and look up every so often to see my dad on his old blue Lazy-Boy, my mother on the couch, watching Chinese soaps. I’d glance at the Five Roses cookbook shelved high, more dog-eared and forlorn than I remembered. One night, I brought it down out of curiosity.
With cookbook in hand, I careened into the living room. “I am going to bake something!” I announced grandly, hopping from one foot to the other. My mom leapt from the couch. She followed me into the kitchen with rapid steps. “Aiya! Be careful, be careful!” she said, as she watched me speed around the kitchen, pushing the kitchen chair up to the cupboard so I could hoist the electric beater down. “You want some cake? I can make it for you…” she said, somewhat surprised by this sudden burst of interest on my part. With all my might, I dragged the heavy bag of flour across the kitchen floor, and heaved it onto the counter. I stood on tip-toes to reach the mixing bowls, the vanilla extract. With ingredients gathered, I slowly began to mimic my mother’s actions. Over the years, I’d seen her beat the egg whites to a certain, shiny stiffness. She’d fold each foamy mound into the batter with delicate flicks of her wrist. She didn’t have to say: “Do it this way; be gentle, Lorna. Don’t deflate the batter.” She simply did.
That night, I cracked the eggs and clumsily tossed the yolk from shell to shell, dripping the whites into a separate bowl. My mom stepped back, said nothing, and took another sip of tea.
I beat and then folded the egg whites in thirds, slowly turning the mixing bowl with one hand. My mother watched as I poured the batter into the funneled cake pan, and set it in the oven. Much depended on the result. I knelt down in front of the oven as I always did, face pressed against the window, to watch the transformation.
Higher and higher the cake rose. Slowly, slowly, the minutes ticked down.
Finally, the cake was ready. I ran a knife along the side of the pan to loosen. It landed with a satisfying phhhwwooooop! on the awaiting platter.
“Here mom,” I said, handing her the first slice. I tried to look nonchalant. Inside, I was quivering. I’ve always hated failing, and if the cake hadn’t turned out, I would’ve probably given up on cooking right then and there.
She inspected the crumb. It was light and airy, dotted with a million suspended bubbles.
She took a bite.
“Very good,” she said with a bewildered smile.“How did you know? I didn’t even teach you.”
Coffee Chiffon Cake, adapted from the Five Roses Cookbook
The original recipe for this cake was a Mocha Chiffon, but because my parents never bought much chocolate when we were growing up, we always left the chocolate out.3/4 cup brewed coffee, cooled 1 cup all-purpose flour 1 tbsp baking powder 1 cup granulated sugar 1/2 tsp kosher salt 5 large eggs, separated 1/2 cup vegetable oil (or other neutral flavored oil, like canola or peanut)
1 tbsp vanilla extract 1/2 tsp cream of tartar
Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
1. Brew the coffee, and allow it to cool. In a large bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, sugar and salt.
2. Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients, and add in egg yolks, vegetable oil, brewed coffee, and vanilla. Stir til combined.
3. In a separate bowl, add cream of tartar to egg whites. With an electric beater (or stand-mixer), beat until medium-firm peaks.
4. Pour 1/3 of the coffee batter into the whipped egg whites, and gently fold the batter in until combined. Add another 1/3 of the batter in, and repeat until the batter is completely incorporated into the egg whites, taking care not to over-mix. (Try not to deflate the egg whites–the air is what keeps this cake light.)
5. Pour batter into an ungreased angel food cake pan and bake for 45 minutes at 325 degrees. Turn up the temperature up to 350 degrees and continue to bake for about 10 minutes more.
6. Invert the cake until cool. Run a knife along the edge of the pan to release, and serve plain or with whipped cream.
Posted: June 14th, 2010 under Uncategorized.