Most people wouldn’t think of strawberry shortcake as a divisive dessert. But it is.
The debate centers on the base: biscuit or cake, and then it can delve into what kind of cake, angel food or pound, shortbread or sponge. A story I wrote last spring left out one cake that many consider the best pedestal for strawberries and whipped cream: chiffon cake.
Chiffon cake is one of the few cakes to have originated in America. Chapel Hill, N.C., cookbook author Jean Anderson shares its history in “The American Century Cookbook.”
It seems a Los Angeles insurance salesman named Harry Baker developed the recipe, a cross between an airy angel food cake and a sumptuous butter cake. Baker, a hobby cook, began making the cakes for celebrity functions and the famous Brown Derby restaurants and, finally, sold the recipe to General Mills in 1947. Chiffon cake became popular in the 1950s after appearing in a Betty Crocker cookbook.
One of the most vocal fans of chiffon cake was April McGreger, a former pastry chef at Lantern in Chapel Hill who now owns Farmer’s Daughter brand pickles and preserves.
McGreger discovered chiffon cake while working at Lantern. She had cooked her way through the cake canon, but nothing had the texture she wanted for strawberry shortcake: Genoise was too dry, angel food too “cottony.” Chiffon was different. The whipped egg whites gave it a fluffiness like angel food, egg yolks gave it a richness like a butter cake and vegetable oil gave it softness .
McGreger uses chiffon cake to re-create her childhood birthday treat: a strawberry tall cake that her mother made using yellow cake mix.
McGreger’s version requires two chiffon cakes, baked in springform pans, cut in half to create four layers. She macerates fresh strawberries with honey and either lemon juice or orange flower water, and lets that sit for a couple of hours. She then makes barely sweetened fresh whipped cream. She takes a layer of cake and tops it with strawberries, a thin cap of whipped cream, and the next cake layer. She repeats that twice more, tops it with the final cake layer and covers the entire cake with whipped cream. The cake should sit in the refrigerator for several hours before serving.
You can follow McGreger’s instructions for a strawberry tall cake or you can go simple: a slice of cake, a dollop of whipped cream and sliced fresh strawberries.