The story about Harry Baker and his famous chiffon cake is the kind of stuff on which legends are built and numerous references can be found in food reference books. According to the legend, the chiffon cake was invented in 1927 by Harry Baker, a California insurance salesman turned caterer. Mr. Baker kept the recipe a secret for 20 years, until he sold it to General Mills for an undisclosed amount of money. At this point the name was changed to “chiffon cake” and was released with a set of 14 recipes and variations in a Betty Crocker pamphlet published in 1948.
But wait! That’s only part of the story!
Yes, a man named Harry Baker did create a chiffon cake that he sold to places like the Brown Derby which had a simple menu in its earliest years. The first dessert to be sold at the Derby was Harry Baker’s cake which was made by Mr. Baker and sold to the restaurant and to other Hollywood notables for their parties. The Brown Derby cookbook published in 1949 provides a brief explanation for the cake but also offers, in its chapter on Desserts, the Basic Chiffon cake recipe, along with recipes for orange chiffon, chocolate chiffon and walnut chiffon cakes. The pamphlet featuring chiffon cake recipes from Betty Crocker also featured Wesson Oil. The pamphlet offers recipes for Golden Chiffon Cake, Fresh Orange Chiffon Cake, Maple Nut Chiffon and Pineapple Chiffon – and even Spicy Chiffon Cake. For those who remember when a leaflet of recipes with some premium offers (General Mills Tru-Heat Iron, Scranton Lace Dinner Cloth) could be found in every bag of Gold Medal Flour, might also have found a leaflet for making Sunny Orange Chiffon Cake.
My question is—WAS the chiffon cake an original idea? Maybe–maybe not.
And before I go any further, I want to mention that—I had never heard of chiffon cake in the 1950s. My introduction to chiffon cake came through the pages of my manuscript cookbook, Helen’s cookbook, that I have written about before on my blog. Written in real India ink and in fine penmanship, Helen wrote at the top of the page “Harry Bakers Secret Ingredient “X” cake”—and underneath that, “Orange Chiffon Cake”. Helen’s handwritten cookbook was started in the 1920s and continued through the 50s and perhaps into the early 60s and she lived in Los Angeles, so she certainly would have been aware of Harry Baker’s cake. Honestly – I was learning to cook in the early 1950s – and chiffon cake was never on my radar.
The website, The Old Foodie, in a post dated March 25, 2011, provided a recipe for Apricot Chiffon Cake, from a South Carolina newspaper dated 1934 (certainly years before Harry sold his cake to General Mills). Another recipe, from a 1947 Nevada newspaper, is a Velvet Chiffon Cake. Which begs the question, of course, how much digging must we do to find out exactly how far back the concept of a chiffon cake might go. According to a Gold Medal Jubilee recipe pamphlet published in 1955, (and noted in “Fashionable Food/Seven Decades of Food Fads” by Sylvia Lovegren) “light and airy chiffon pies were popular under the name of ‘sissy pies’ in the early 1900s. These sissy pies were also called fairy tarts or fluff, sponge or soufflé pies—were based on variously flavored puddings, lightened with beaten egg whites, that were then baked in a pastry crust. They contained no gelatin, the common ingredient of the modern unbaked chiffon pie…” Lovegren writes that the first mention she was able to find of a chiffon pie as we know it, made with gelatin and uncooked beaten egg whites, appeared under the name of coffee soufflé pie in Good Housekeeping’s Book of Menus, Recipes, and Household Discoveries from 1922. Writes Lovegren, “Gelatin and egg white-lightened chiffon pies, which were basically old-fashioned gelatin sponges or “snows” served in a crust—became all the rage in the forties. They were so popular that they rated a separate section in the 1943 edition of Joy of Cooking…virtually any flavor you could come up with went into these confections. Chiffon pie also helped usher in the era of the crumb pie shell based on crushed graham crackers or breakfast cereal…”
And, in the 1942 Modern Family Cook Book by Meta Given – check out the cake recipe on page 364, for Golden Feather Cake–that reads suspiciously like – Chiffon cake!
Patricia Bunning Stevens, in a fascinating little book titled “RARE BITS” provides an assortment of recipes and unusual origins and traces the word “chiffon”—which to the French simply meant “rags.” Eventually the meaning was extended to scraps of lace and ribbon, pretty things a lady might use in her needlework and store in her “chiffoniere”, a small chest of drawers. In the 19th century on both sides of the English Channel, chiffons were dress trimmings of every sort that loaded down Victorian gowns. As the turn of the century approached the meaning of chiffon changed again as the English referred to a type of fabric. In the 1920s, silk chiffon became the rage in the USA and eventually gave its name to chiffon pie. Per Stevens, chiffon pie was the first really new pie of the 20th century. It is said to have been the brainchild of a professional baker who, at his mother’s suggestion, named it for the filmy floating fabric popular at the time. Meantime, in France, chefs began to make chiffonades, vegetables shredded into fine strips to resemble rags used to garnish consomme. (maybe something we would consider “julienned” today).
In an article titled “When Harry Met Betty” author Joseph Hart writes, “One of life’s great truths…is that beneath its surface lies complexity. Our beloved fictions of heroes and villains crumble with scrutiny, leaving only convolution, shifting meanings, and unstable realities. The same is true of things. Even the simplest object has its hidden history of longing, love, and despair. Take, for example, cake. Chiffon cake…”
Hart continues, “Ask someone who lived through the 1950s, to name the icons of that era, and chances are that—along with the ’57 Chevy, Lucy and Ricky, and the cul-de-sac rambler—chiffon cake will make their list. The recipe was introduced by General Mills in 1948 with a major marketing blitz that featured Betty Crocker, another 1950s icon…With Betty’s help, chiffon became a nationwide sensation. Billed as “the first really new cake in a hundred years,” thanks to its “mystery ingredient,” chiffon was light and fluffy like angel food cake, yet also rich and moist like butter cake, and it rapidly became a favorite of housewives from Syracuse to Oceanside…”
The real mystery, says Hart, “Lurking beneath its lemony glaze is not a secret ingredient, but the secret life of its reclusive inventor: the appropriately named Harry Baker…”
Hart continues, “The shorthand version of his history, repeated in a thousand cookbooks, notes that the insurance-salesman-turned-baker invented the cake in Los Angeles in 1927. He baked his chiffon cakes in his apartment kitchen in the Windsor Square neighborhood and sold them to the glamorous Brown Derby restaurant, where they pleased the palates of Hollywood’s studio stars. In 1947, Baker sold his closely guarded recipe to General Mills for an undisclosed sum—‘because,’ as one General Mills publication quotes him, ‘I wanted Betty Crocker to give the secret to the women of America.’”
Hart continues to delve deep into the life of Harry Baker and for the whole story, refer to “When Harry Met Betty” by Joseph Hart, posted on secretsofthecity.com on January 29, 2007. The story behind the creator of chiffon cake is interesting but not uppermost in my mind right now.
Says Hart, although it was wildly popular in the 1950s, the chiffon cake had been figuratively gathering dust for decades by the time he discovered the recipe in the late 1990s. Hart writes that while browsing in a 1956* edition of the Betty Crocker Picture Cook Book, he stumbled upon the recipe for chiffon.
Sandy’s Cooknote: *Betty Crocker’s 1956 edition of the Picture Cook Book notwithstanding, I found the recipe for Chiffon Cake – accompanied by a myriad of variations – in my 1950 limited first edition of Betty Crocker’s Picture Cook Book. In addition to the basic chiffon cake recipe, you will find maple pecan chiffon, butterscotch chiffon, pineapple chiffon, chocolate chip chiffon—and even a Holiday Fruit Chiffon that contains finely chopped candied cherries, finely chopped pecans and some very finely chopped citron.
Hart writes that HIS Betty still falls open to the creased and batter-spattered pages with the step-by-step directions for chiffon cake because, symbolism aside, it makes a truly splendid dessert.
Before chiffon, Hart explains, “there had been but two types of cake. Foam cakes, like angel food, contain no shortening and rely on eggs for leavening, while butter cakes rise with baking powder. Chiffon combines the two, relying on both eggs and baking powder and the clincher, add Harry Baker’s secret ingredient – vegetable oil (or, as it was called in those days, ‘salad oil’—another General Mills product as it happens)….”
Hart says he had been an enthusiastic baker of the cake for some time when one day, as he was going through back issues of Cook’s Illustrated Magazine, he happened to come across an article about chiffon by food writer and Joy of Cooking contributor Stephen Schmidt. If, says Hart, you’ve read Cook’s Illustrated, you already know that Schmidt tinkered exhaustively with the original Betty Crocker recipe to end up with something a little better. Hart says he sticks with the original.
But what caught Hart’s eye was a sidebar article about Harry Baker, repeating the standard biography, insurance salesman, 1927 discovery, service to the stars…but Schmidt had uncovered some new details; for one thing, he noted that Baker during his Hollywood heyday, shared his apartment “with his aging mother” And the sale of the recipe to General Mills took on a new twist in Schmidt’s telling: ‘Having been evicted from his apartment, and fearing memory loss, the usually reclusive Baker trekked uninvited to Minneapolis to sell his recipe,’ he wrote. This information hinted at a story so Hart spent the next five years chasing the elusive Hollywood inventor of his beloved chiffon cake.
Harry Baker arrived in Hollywood in 1923 and began to tinker with cake recipes. Until Joseph Hart’s in depth research, I don’t think anyone knew where Harry came from or what brought him to Southern California (or—maybe no one cared). Baker worked diligently, creating over 400 variations of an angel food cake, trying to create a moister sweeter angel food cake. Nothing satisfied him until he thought to add some salad oil to his recipe. Years later he would tell a reporter at the Minneapolis Tribune that the addition of the salad oil was “a sixth sense, something cosmic” – at any rate, a new Hollywood star was born.
At the same time Harry Baker was treating his neighbors to experimental cakes, another kind of star was being born on Wilshire Blvd. The Brown Derby opened for business in 1926 in a building shaped to go with the name*
*Sandy’s cooknote: I visited the Brown Derby once, in 1961, with a girlfriend and my mother in law—it was a wonderful experience. The walls, I recall, were plastered with framed photographs of many famous movie stars (but then, you can visit almost any place in Burbank—Bob’s Big Boy, the dry cleaners, the shoe repair shop –and you will find framed photographs of movie stars on their walls. It’s a kind of happening thing in greater Los Angeles).
By what Harry Baker might have described as another cosmic twist, two years later he walked into the Brown Derby with a sample of his cake. It became one of the Derby’s signature dishes and as mentioned before, (per the Brown Derby Cook Book) for quite some time it was the ONLY dessert served at the Brown Derby. One of the most popular desserts at the Derby was Harry Baker’s grapefruit chiffon cake** which, according to its creator, he made especially for Hollywood gossip columnist Luella Parsons. “Louella was overweight and she held weekly staff meetings at the Derby,” he explained. “She threatened to move her meeting if they didn’t come up with a less fattening dessert. She told them ‘put grapefruit on something. Everyone knows that grapefruit is less fattening…”
**Sandy’s cooknote see the Grapefruit Chiffon Cake recipe at the end of this article.
Harry Baker’s fortunes rose with the Derby and he began receiving requests for cakes from famous actresses such as Barbara Stanwyck and Dolores del Rio, to be served at their parties. Throughout the 1930s, Baker’s cake reputation spread far and wide and orders came in faster than he could fill them. He mixed batter for each cake individually and baked them separately using twelve tin hot plate ovens set up in a spare bedroom. Finished cakes cooled on the porch where customers retrieved them leaving $2.00 payment in the mail slot. At the height of his business, Baker produced 42 cakes in an 18 hour day from which he grossed in equivalent, in today’s dollars, about $900.00. Joseph Hart began researching the life of Harry Baker and in 2003 wrote a short article for the Larchmont Chronicle, a newspaper that served the Hollywood neighborhood where Harry Baker had lived.
This in turn led eventually to more leads about the life of the elusive Harry Baker. After he sold his recipe to General Mills—the exact amount was kept secret—Harry Baker slipped away from public life. There was speculation about his whereabouts; Hart found, however, a death record for September 27, 1974, at the age of 91, Harry Baker suffered heart failure at the California Convalescent Center in Los Angeles. So, perhaps he never ventured very far from the Hollywood that had given him such a good life in return.
Sandy’s cooknote: For more information about Harry Baker, please DO read Joseph Hart’s in depth article, “When Harry Met Betty” which can be found on http://www.secretsofthecity.com, posted 1/29/07.
** The Brown Derby Grapefruit Cake is not included in the 1949 edition of the Brown Derby Cookbook. However, I DID find the recipe in the Brown Derby Cookbook 50th Anniversary Edition published in 1976, noting it is not called “chiffon”. Here, then, is The BROWN DERBY GRAPEFRUIT CAKE.
To make the Brown Derby Grapefruit cake you will need:
1½ CUPS sifted cake flour**
¾ cup granulated sugar
1½ tsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
¼ cup water
¼ cup vegetable oil
3 eggs, separated
3 TBSP grapefruit juice
½ tsp grated lemon rind
¼ tsp cream of tartar
Sift together flour, sugar, baking powder and salt into mixing bowl. Make a well in center of dry ingredients. Add water, oil, egg yolks, grapefruit juice and lemon rind. Beat until very smooth. Beat egg whites and cream of tartar separately until whites are stiff but not dry. Gradually pour egg yolk mixture over whites, folding gently with a rubber spatula until just blended. DO NOT STIR MIXTURE. Pour into an ungreased pan*. Bake at 350 for 25 to 30 minutes or until cake springs back when lightly touched with finger. Invert pan on cake rack until cool. Run spatula around edge of cake. Carefully remove from pan. With a serrated knife, gently cut layer in half.
GRAPEFRUIT CREAM CHEESE FROSTING
12 ounces cream cheese (1½ package of 8 ounce size cream cheese)
2 tsp lemon juice
1 tsp grated lemon rind
¾ cup powdered sugar, sifted
6 to 8 drops yellow food coloring
1 lb can grapefruit sections, well drained*
Let cream cheese come to room temperature. Beat cheese until fluffy. Add lemon juice and rind. Gradually blend in sugar. Beat until well blended. Add food coloring. Crush several grapefruit sections to measure 2 teaspoons. Blend into frosting. Spread frosting on bottom half of cake. Top with several grapefruit sections. Cover with second layer. Frost top and sides; garnish with remaining grapefruit sections.
*Sandy’s cooknote Can you even buy grapefruit in a can? I’m fairly certain that the only grapefruit sections I have seen in my supermarket are in a jar.
**Sandy’s cooknote: Don’t have any cake flour? To convert regular flour into cake flour: Measure out the all purpose flour that you will need for your recipe. This recipe calls for 1 ½ cups of cake flour. Measure 1 ½ cups of regular flour. For every cup of flour, remove two tablespoons of flour. For this recipe, remove three tablespoons of flour (put it back into the flour canister). Put remaining flour into a sifter set over a bowl. Replace the three tablespoons of flour with three tablespoons of cornstarch. Sift and sift the flour and cornstarch about five times. You now have cake flour.
To make Meta Given’s Golden Feather Cake you will need:
1 2/3 cups cake flour
2 tsp baking powder
¼ tsp salt
1/3 cup shortening
1 cup sugar
2 eggs, separated
¾ tsp vanilla
2/3 cup milk
Sift flour, measure and resift 3 times with baking powder and salt. Cream shortening until smooth and soft. Blend in ¾ cup of the sugar. Add beaten egg yolks and beat until smooth and fluffy. Stir in vanilla. Add flour mixture and milk in alternate portions, beginning and ending with flour and beating until smooth after each addition. Beat egg whites until just stiff: add remaining sugar gradually and continue beating until very stiff. Fold lightly but thoroughly into batter. Turn into two 8” pans which have been buttered and lined with waxed paper in the bottom. Bake in a moderate 350 degree oven for 25 to 30 minutes or until cake is springy when touched with finger tips. Turn out on cake coolers (racks) and cool before removing waxed paper. Spread any desired frosting or broken up jelly between layers and on top and sides of cake. Makes10 servings.
TO MAKE HELEN’S X INGREDIENT ORANGE CHIFFON CAKE
Set out but do not grease a 10” tube (angel food cake) pan
Sift together in a mixing bowl:
2¼ cups sifted cake flour
1 ½ cups granulated sugar
3 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
Make a well in the center of the flour mixture and add in order given:
½ cup cooking oil
5 egg yolks, unbeaten
¾ cup orange juice
3 TBSP grated orange rind
Beat with a spoon until smooth. Set aside.
In a large mixing bowl mix together:
1 cup egg whites (7 or 8 eggs)
½ tsp cream of tartar
Beat the egg white mixture at high speed until very stiff peaks form. Pour egg yolk mixture gradually over whipped whites, gently folding with rubber scraper just until blended. Pour into ungreased tube cake pan. Bake at 325 degrees for 55 minutes, then at 350 degrees for 10 to 15 minutes. When cake tests done, remove from oven, invert and let hang upside down until cold.
Sandy’s cooknote: I keep a bottle on hand to put my angel food cakes on after they are baked. A wine bottle is usually the right size.
I would be remiss if I didn’t share with you the chiffon cake recipe sent to me by my niece Stephanie, who has perfected a coconut chiffon cake. Here, then, is Stephanie’s recipe exactly as directed:
STEPHANIE’S COCONUT CHIFFON CAKE WITH ADJUSTMENTS
By Stephanie Swetland
2 large eggs, separated
1 1/2 cups sugar, divided
2 1/4 cups all purpose flour
3 teaspoons salt
1/3 cup vegetable oil
1 cup milk, divided (I use silk coconut vanilla milk)
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 teaspoons coconut extract
2 1/4 cups sugar
1/2 cup water
3 tablespoons light corn syrup
3 large egg whites
2 tablespoons powdered sugar
1 fresh coconut
I also used some cream of coconut when building the cake (you will see how at the bottom) It’s the kind you get near where the ingredients for mixed drinks is sold.
To make the cake:
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour three 8″ cake pans. Set aside. In small bowl beat the egg whites with an electric mixer until soft peaks begin to form. Gradually add 1/2 cup of the sugar and continue to beat for 1 minute. In a medium bowl sift the remaining 1 cup sugar, flour, baking powder, and salt. Add the oil and 1/2 cup of the milk. Beat for 1 minute. Add the remaining 1/2 cup milk, egg yolks, and vanilla (this is also where I add the coconut extract.) Beat 1 more minute. (I found that you really need to scrape the bowl down and beat a little more to make sure you get to the bottom of the bowl when scraping.) After it is thoroughly mixed, add the egg whites and gently fold in.
Divide the batter among the 3 pans (it’s about 2 cups each pan). Bake for 20 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center of each cake comes out clean. Let the cakes cool in the pans for 10 minutes. Remove the cakes from the pans and place on wax paper to continue to cool (they are kind of sticky cakes and very light. I put them directly onto my cooling racks and they stick a bit so it is best to use waxed paper.) Allow the cakes to cool completely.
To Make the Icing:
In a large saucepan mix the sugar, water, and light corn syrup together. Place over medium heat and cook until a soft ball forms, stirring occasionally, until it reaches a temp of 238 degrees. This should take 4-6 minutes.
While the sugar mixture cooks, add the egg whites to the bowl of a stand mixer and beat till soft peaks form. When the sugar mixture has reached the desired temp, with the mixer running at a medium speed, gradually add sugar mixture to egg whites.
Continue to beat until all the syrup is incorporated into the egg whites. Continue to mix for 6-8 minutes until the icing is creamy and soft peaks form. Add the powdered sugar and mix for 1 minute.
Here’s the hard part
Pierce the eye of the coconut with an ice pick and drain the coconut water into a small bowl. I do not have an ice pick so I used the drill and drilled out 2 of the eyes and poured the water out.
Crack the coconut shell, pry out the meat, and peel with a vegetable peeler. I did not know how to crack open the shell so I went out to the back porch and threw it against the concrete*. It worked, then it took a lot of work and pulling and prying to get the meat out and to peel the coconut. I DO NOT recommend using your vegetable peeler, I completely dulled mine by doing this Just use a knife to get the peel off and then put it in your food processor and grind it up till it’s fine.
Sandy’s cooknote *to make the job a little easier, try putting the coconut inside two plastic bags before cracking it against the concrete.
To assemble the cake:
Place one layer on the cake plate. prick the layers with a fork and drizzle 1/3 of the coconut water over the layer (this is where I also drizzle a bit of the cream of coconut over); place 1/3 of the icing on the first layer and frost the top and sides, sprinkle 1/3 of the grated coconut over the icing, repeat the layers until finished. I made sure to have enough coconut to cover top and sides with it. Cool in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours before serving.
Stephanie says this cake is a lot of work but oh-so-worth it!
My only final question is – did Harry Baker name his cake “chiffon” or was that the idea of someone at General Mills? – Maybe—maybe not!
Happy Cooking and Happy Cookbook collecting!