Or, as I presented it to my friends and coworkers, the spice cloud cake.
I pulled out all the stops for this cake. First, it’s a chiffon cake. These fuckers are impossibly fussy, and that is why I love them. Second, there was a bake off at work. If you want me to go above and beyond, tell me there’s a prize. Tell me that someone else wants it. Then maybe hire someone to clean up in my wake.
In theory, the spice cloud tastes like falling gently through a feather pillow made of chai masala. In practice, it is a mildly spiced, very light, very fluffy four-layer cake with whipped cream frosting. This cake was three days and two rounds of test baking in the making. I used two recipes, three cameras, and every baking pan I own.
I won! Which was super gratifying. But, for me, the recipe isn’t finished. The flavor isn’t strong enough. It needs to be paired with a stiffer icing. There has to be a simpler way to bring in the spices. On the other hand–lots of people liked this cake. I had a lot of fun making it. And maybe this recipe is right for someone reading the blog.
When I describe my baking to other people, most of them say, “I could never do that.” Bullshit. None of this is particularly difficult. I can figure it out. They can do it. They don’t want to.
They don’t have to want to.
None of this is an obligation.
I don’t know why you bake, or why you read this blog, but I’m telling you right now: you do not owe anyone fancy baked goods. You just don’t. (Unless they pay you a fair and equitable wage and offer comprehensive health insurance.) Never, ever, ever make a cake so fussy that it stops being fun. Don’t ever feel obligated to turn a hobby or a favor or a gift into an ordeal because you feel like you ought to work harder. Does baking challenge you? Does it soothe you? Do you feel better while you’re baking than before you started?
Good. That is enough. If you want to go further, you can—but no force in the universe other than your own genuine desire should push you into a project that makes you feel overwhelmed instead of fulfilled. Especially not a sense that you aren’t good enough. The cake that you enjoy making is the best fucking cake in the world. Making a fancy cake won’t make you more worthy. You don’t need to be more worthy. You are enough.
For me, the fussiness is the point. I adore all those steps. I love to tinker. Creating something new is the whole point for me. (Other than yelling on the Internet. I really like yelling on the Internet.) So I’m going to keep playing with this recipe, because that is what I want to do. This brings me joy. I hope that reading about it brings you joy. Read and create in ways that feel right. You deserve that freedom, and you sure as hell deserve that happiness.
On to the actual cake making.
I started with concept: a delicate, light, fluffy cake with an unexpected flavor. I decided on spices because of the season, but in theory I could use any non-chocolate flavors with this recipe. My first attempt was this recipe, using a thickened milk tea made of heavy cream in place of the melted chocolate.
The result was not a cake. It was a sad, spicy omelette. So sad that I forgot to take a picture.
Artist’s Rendering (L.E., 2014)
I decided to try a chiffon cake instead. They’re less obscenely, deliciously delicate than that chocolate cake, but they’re also a known quantity. I’ve made chiffon cakes before. I know what makes those divas tick.
I infused the spices into the cake through two channels. First, the oil, which is used instead of butter in chiffon cakes. I spent some time on the Internet trying to figure out what makes chai masala so goddamn delicious. Then I went and bought fresh ginger, cinnamon sticks, green cardamom pods, and star anise. I dumped those into a pot, put about a cup of oil on top of them, and let that simmer for ten minutes.
I didn’t write any of this down, because of course I didn’t, but based on the picture, I used two cinnamon sticks, about three inches of peeled and sliced fresh ginger, a handful of green cardamom pods, and one sad, lonely star anise. All the oil and spices went into a jar and then into the fridge overnight.
The cinnamon sees you. It knows what you did.
The second method of chai-ing is a chai tea concentrate to replace the cold water used in chiffon cakes. Three tea bags, four cups of boiling water, ten minutes of brewing, and Bob’s your uncle. That goes in the fridge, too.
Actually Fucking Baking Oh My God
Here is my chiffon cake base recipe.
The ingredients below will make a four-layer cake. I believe strongly in a Personal Cake, so I made half again as much batter. In this case, I actually don’t recommend that! Chiffon cake layers are supposed to rest upside down for a long ass time after coming out of the oven, so the personal cake adds a lot more time in the kitchen. My actual recommendation is to use the quantities listed below, make a three layer Normal Cake, and then use the fourth layer to make the Personal Cake. You can multiply everything by 1.5x to make six layers.
2 1/4 cups cake flour
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup cold chai masala concentrate
1/2 cup vegetable oil (infused with spices as above)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
5 large egg yolks at room temperature
8 large egg whites at room temperature
1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
1 cup brandy
1 cup water
2/3 cup sugar
Some chai concentrate (whatever’s left)
2 cups heavy cream
6 tbsp powdered sugar
1 tbsp vanilla extract
SO MANY BOWLS. I used five. You might be able to get away with less. The bare minimum is three–one ENORMOUS bowl, one large bowl, and one whatever-is-left-but-at-least-medium-sized bowl
Sifter (ACTUALLY NECESSARY)
8″ baking pans
Frosting spatula (optional)
Preheat the oven to 325F.
Here is the first obscenely fussy step. Cut out 8″ circles of parchment paper. Yes, you have to. Here’s why. Chiffon cakes rise by sticking to the sides of the pan as they bake. If you grease the pans, they won’t stick, and they won’t rise. However, you really don’t want the layer to stick to the bottom of the pan. So the pans need to be lined with parchment paper. You’ll need one round for each pan in service. They can be reused between layers. Just trace around the bottom of your baking pans. I can’t get a pen to work on parchment paper, and my pencils are always fucking broken, so I used a Sharpie.
As long as I trim the green bits off, I won’t get cancer. Right?
Next step is to take your two largest bowls and sift some goddamned cake flour. We are sifting everything today. Together. Sift approximately 2 1/2 cups of flour into the enormous bowl. I don’t have a hand sifter, so I used a strainer. Everything goes in, and then I shake it back and forth until I hate myself. Do not make this cake if anyone in the vicinity is even vaguely sensitive to gluten. The flour will get in the air and contaminate everything.
Flour angels are an optional, but satisfying step..
Then put your sifter/strainer/thing over the large bowl, and measure out 2 1/4 cups of the flour into the strainer/sifter/thing. You might have some extra left. Chuck it. It’s fine. Pop 1 1/4 cups of the sugar, the baking powder, the cinnamon, and the salt into the sifter and get going. Sift it all together into the large bowl. Then move the sifter to the enormous bowl and do it again. YES, WE ARE SIFTING THE DRY INGREDIENTS TWICE.
look into my dry ingredients and know despair.
You want all the dry ingredients in the enormous bowl. Wipe out the large bowl and grab your medium bowl. Time for the eggs.
Eggs are important for chiffon cakes. They need to be at room temperature. If you, like me, never fucking remember to take everything out of the fridge ahead of time, put the eggs in a warm water bath until they hit room temperature ish.
You know the cake is serious when I give my goddamn eggs a bath.
Now you need to separate out the whites from the yolks. The whites will go in the large bowl, and the yolks in the medium bowl. Separating out eggs is delicate, but doable. I expect this explanation will be about as clear as mud, but there will be illustrations. Luckily, my camera has a timer and a tripod.
First, crack the egg in the middle (horizontally), hold it vertically above the whites bowl, and open it into two halves. The egg itself will hopefully stay in the bottom half of the shell. Try and keep the eggshell pieces about evenly sized. Then pour the yolk from one half of the egg to the other. Great globs of egg whites will sort of slough off into the bowl beneath. This is why we do this over the whites bowl. Continue to transfer the yolk back and forth until the whites have mostly fallen off. Drop the yolk into the yolk bowl.
Do this a lot. If you have a use for egg yolks, you can save the extras. Now, for those of you who are making six layers, you may have noticed a slight problem. Eight egg whites times 1.5 is twelve egg whites, but five egg yolks times 1.5… is seven and a half yolks. Consider cutting one of the yolks in half-ish.
I did my best.
Set aside your whites. Pour the vanilla, spice oil, and chai concentrate into the yolks. Beat them. They will look less like a judgmental yolky brood once they’re mixed. I promise.
We know what you did. We’ve been waiting.
You’ll have some chai concentrate left over. Put that aside. Pour the yolk mixture into the flour mixture, and stir until everything is combined.
At this point I was huffing vanilla extract to try and stay calm. Don’t do this to yourself. Take a nice break. Have a beer. Maybe construct an altar to the gods of spice cake. Whatever works.
I was going to write up an egg whipping tutorial, but then I remembered that Joe Pastry did it better. So go read his and then come back. Just one tip from me: turn off the mixer before testing to see whether you’ve reached a peak stage.
You want to whip the whites to soft peaks, add in the cream of tartar and the rest of the sugar, and then finish whipping them to stiff peaks.
Now, grab that whisk, the spatula, and your yolk-flour mixture. Divide the egg whites into fourths. Push one-fourth of them into the enormous bowl full of Other Stuff. Mix it in gently, but don’t worry too much about deflating those whites.The point of this step is to make the yolk-flour mix lighter and more pliable. Dump the rest of the egg whites in and fold them into the batter. Carefully. With the whisk, if you can. Use the spatula to scrape up from the bottom, but use the whisk to mix. That way you won’t pop all the teeny tiny air bubbles in the whites. Stop folding when the batter is a uniform color.
Remember that prep work you did with the parchment paper? Hours ago? Before the dark gods of the spice cake made themselves known in their true and terrible forms? Yeah, go get those pans. Scoop out 1/4 or 1/6 of the batter into each, as appropriate to the number of layers you’re making. Smooth the batter out with the spatula, then smack the side of the pan into your counter to break any enormous air bubbles. Pop the pans in the oven for 15-18 minutes. Start checking after the 15 minute mark. The layers are ready when they spring back after being poked, and when a fork comes out clean.
Chiffon cake layers need to rest upside down in the pans until cool, ideally for an hour. No, I am not fucking with you. If you have a cooling rack, use that. If not, improvise.
We’re all doing the best that we can.
Once the layers are cooled down and you have used all your fucking patience (may not be a full hour), take the pans off their resting places, run the rubber spatula along the inside edge of the pan to break the cake layer away from the edges, and then flip the layer out onto a plate. Peel off the parchment paper and re-use pan and parchment paper until all your layers are done.
While all that is baking, you’ll want to make the glaze and the frosting. For the glaze, put all the ingredients in a pot. Put the pot on the stove. Simmer until sugar dissolves, and reduce until you are bored. For the frosting, put all the ingredients in (another) big bowl. Whip them with your electric mixer until stiff peaks form. Done.
Get all your shit together before starting to construct the cake. That means whatever surface you’re serving the cake on, your glaze-in-a-bowl, the whipped cream frosting, the icing spatula/knife/whatever you’re using, and the pastry brush. You can start this part before all the layers are ready–just make sure that your layers and glaze are cool before beginning.
Transfer one layer to your serving surface, still upside down. (That is the gold cardboard thing for me. I asked for one at the bakery counter, and they gave it to me for free.) Paint down that nice flat bottom with syrup using the pastry brush. Plop some icing on, then spread it flat with the spatula. If the cake layer is uneven, try and compensate with extra piles of whipped cream. Put the next layer on, and repeat until you have a stack of layers.
One of my layers came out with a dent, so I sacrificed some of my Personal Cake in order to do a transplant. Icing is magic. It covers all mistakes.
No unholy experimentation here!
I… look. At this point, you have a stack of layers. If you feel so inclined to make a crumb coat, God bless you. I did. I had a contest to win. But don’t feel obligated. Whipped cream is pretty forgiving. Just try not to introduce any crumbs into the frosting bowl. Put on your first or final layer of frosting, and collapse. Quietly. You don’t want the cake to see your weakness.
At this point, it is appropriate to fling your hands up to the heavens.
You have made a cake.
You have made This Cake.
You may be forgiven in time.
The Mess Report