Exotic cakes may be alluring but in terms of stolid, delicious, classic comfort, few things can beat a vanilla chiffon cake. It’s simple, has just the right blend of ingredients and is both sweet and light at the same time. The best thing about vanilla chiffon cakes, though, are their versatility – they can be chopped up into bread-and-butter puddings, paired with fruit, layered in trifles or smothered in pretty much any kind of frosting and still hold their own. In fact, they make a perfect base for slightly more experimental or quirky desserts. The other day, we had some family over brunch and I was trying to decide what dessert to make (my new-found enthusiasm in the kitchen has given me an almost permanent access to this department). I knew I wanted something classic, but I also knew I wanted a fun twist to it; two hours of baking, creaming and garnishing later, I had this pretty cake platter and I couldn’t have been happier. A cake or pastry platter is a great way to make desserts more interesting. The individual pieces are small and light, and you can incorporate all kinds of variations into the platter based on the tastes of the people eating it. Oddly enough, I chose my platter ingredients based on color: I wanted the palette to have elements of cream and apricot. In terms of flavor, I decided that the safe base of vanilla chiffon would lend itself well both to fruitiness as well as a subtle spice: which is why I decided to incorporate a marmalade-almond cream, pineapple, cinnamon and clove into the platter.
A lot of people prefer boxed vanilla cakes to homemade recipes, mostly because they’re pumped with enough soda and preservatives to retain their fluffiness long after they’re sealed in plastic packets and shipped hundreds of miles. But the cake recipe I used for this platter (which I dug out of one of my mother’s old cook books) not only produces a fine, fluffy cake but is also remarkably easy to make. Vanilla Chiffon Cake: Basic Recipe
4 eggs, separated
3/4 cup sugar
1 cup flour
1/2 cup olive oil
3/4 cup milk
1 tsp vanilla essence
Method Note: The key to getting a fluffier chiffon cake is to sift the flour multiple times before adding it into the mixture. I passed mine through a sieve three times before I lost patience (the ideal, I think, is supposed to be four).
Beat the sugar into the egg whites in 3 batches until it forms a glossy meringue with stiff peaks and keep aside.
Beat the egg yolks until they turn pale, then pour in the olive oil and milk and beat again till well incorporated. Stir in the vanilla essence.
Sift the flour (for the fourth time) into the egg yolk mixture and make sure it’s combined. This recipe doesn’t use a lot of flour so the batter should still be velvety and fluid.
Pour the egg yolk mixture into the meringue in two batches, folding it in gently till it’s incorporated. Don’t over-beat it.
Bake it at 150 C for around 25-30 minutes. When you think it’s done, stick a toothpick into it to make sure the insides are cooked.
(I read online that after you take a chiffon cake out the oven, you’re supposed to let it cool upside down. I haven’t tried that but it sounds like fun, no?)
Once you’ve got your cake out of the oven, let it cool and then stick it in the refrigerator for about half an hour. This will make it easier to cut and the individual pieces will hold their shape. You can work on the cream while it’s chilling.
Marmalade Almond Cream
Okay, so this is something I’m insanely proud of. I went with the ingredients on a hunch and they worked out beautifully together; a slight tartness, subtle spiciness and refreshing booziness, all folded into the goodness of whipped cream. Seriously, even if you’re not thinking of making a cake, put together a batch of this and spend a day licking the bowl clean – it’ll be well worth it.
250 ml fresh cream
3 tbsp marmalade (if you have the kind with scotch in it, so much the better)
2 tbsp Amaretto almond liquor/toasted, ground almonds and any alcohol of your choice
1/2 cup sugar 1 tsp cinnamon
Method Whip the sugar into the fresh cream in two batches. You have to keep at the cream till it becomes light and fluffy. Add all the other ingredients and simple whip till well incorporated (as simple as that).
Assembling the Platter
Now comes the fun part – actually putting the platter together. The first step is to decide what elements you want in it. Generally, try and incorporate some fruit, some spice and some nuts. If you like, you can even opt for a dash of some other form of liquor. Like I mentioned, I opted for a particular color palette (it sounds weird, I know, but it actually worked). So my platter had cashew nuts, raisins, figs, cinnamon, cloves, pineapple and papaya (which I got out of one of those fruit cocktail cans). Chop the cake up into squares/rectangles and then do whatever the hell you want. Frankly, there are no rules to assembling the platter. You can make cake ‘sandwiches’ or simple pile toppings on to a single slice. Try making sure that every slice has a generous dose of the cream, because it’s the perfect complement for the vanilla flavor of the cake. Fruits will lend tartness and juiciness, while nuts and spices will add texture and an unexpected punch. You can also spruce up your platter with whole fruits and flowers. Again, I flung a few frangipani and whole pomegranates in there, only because I thought they went well with the color scheme. Serve the platter for dessert and you’re guaranteed to get some appreciation.