I’ll never forget my first (and last) trip to Disney World. Does anyone? Walt Disney World — a child’s dream, the most whimsical place on earth, the meringue topping on the above cake. The place where kids can be kids and adults can soak up the magic of satisfying the wittle apple(s) of their eye.
And I have no desire to go again.
I spent the months preceding the trip — and this was when I was in elementary school, mind you — hitting the books, charting a path, mapping the hours, and planning, down to the minute, which soul-sucking line we’d need to wait in to get to every stop on my list. There were very small time slots allotted to bathroom breaks and sustenance catchers (let’s face it, there is no real “dining” in Orlando).
Was it worth it? Did I have fun? Was the alarming authoritarian schedule barked by the 10-year-old general worth it? Well I got to every single scheduled ride (without throwing up), parade (the festival of lights was decent), and attraction except for one: Pirates of the Caribbean, a Disney classic. I’d call it a success.
But did I cherish any of the moments and look back on them as a time that brought me closer to my family?
When I finally got to the Magic Kindgom — the pillow of meringue — I felt little. Smile. Snap. Photograph. Move on. I later stood in awe at the castle’s foundation during an evening fireworks show that sent the most colorful plumes of light over the tall towers; but in daylight, its magic was obscured by the fact that my notebook dictated that we had to hustle along.
No, the real child utopias are in the backyards and the local parks, the pebbly beaches, and the tiny spots that children carve out as their own. The special moments are found in the tea parties and the attic explorations. The acts of careless excitement take place at the ballet bars and on the basketball courts, where little legs can dance and run free without tackling crowds and giant mice.
I will always be a planner, a calculator, an organizer; but, I will never again plan a trip around what I have to do. I make it a point to seek out the unique. I try to let go and linger. I dream of seeing real places with history and culture, not Epcot’s overdramatized and, sometimes, culturally insensitive installations modeled after Mexico, and Morocco, and Japan.
I haven’t felt the childhood lightness one is supposed to feel at Disney World for a while, and a fluffy, sweet (the recipe looked sweeter than I tend to lean in my desserts) meringue-topped cake — my own magic kingdom — seemed like just the thing to conjure up that feeling of uninhibited youth that I, apparently, didn’t even possess during my Disney days. A light chiffon cake soaked with lemon syrup and filled with thin stripes of outrageously buttery and bracingly tart lemon cream and dark, tawny caramel. Well, that was before I spent the past three weekends making it. Here’s what I learned about myself through this “journey”:
My name is Sacha and I can make chiffon cake at 5am, drunk and with my eyes closed. I can make chiffon cake with a killer migraine. I can make chiffon cake on the roof of a burning building. I can make chiffon cake after eating six chiffon cakes. I can make chiffon cake in tube pans; jelly roll pans; 8-inch, short-sided springform pans; 9-inch cake pans; 9-inch, tall-sided springform pans; and 10-inch cake rings with 3-inch sides. I can make chiffon cake with the help of a stand mixer or with nothing more than a simple balloon whisk and some muscle. And, 72 eggs later, that’s pretty damn annoying.
This gorgeous take on the Tartine Bakery Lemon Meringue Cake is supposed to be a monstrous dessert. The chiffon is made in a 10-inch round pan with 3-inch sides, torted into four layers, and meant to serve 12 to 16. When you’re making a cake for someone who has just a few to share it with, it’s impractical. And, for chiffon, it’s not necessarily the best choice. Chiffon cake was originally developed for a tube pan for a reason. The egg white–leavened cake needs that central core of evenly distributed heat to get high and stay that way. Chiffon cakes can be modified to be layer cakes made in round pans. But the operative word is modify. The Tartine recipe is inflated by a whopping 10 egg whites — perfect for a tube pan, but when the batter is spread across a 10-inch expanse, only those with the most sophisticated of ovens (and the best luck) will find that their cakes can hold their own weight without creating a cavernous dip in the middle. If the cake is made correctly, the dip is small, but who wants a dip at all? Yes, this sinkage can be the result of user error — underbaked cake, overwhipped whites, underwhipped whites, improper folding, a too-short pan, a nonstick pan — but it’s not always the baker’s fault.
I wanted a chiffon cake recipe to add to my arsenal that could be used for a layer cake, as the texture of this all-American cake makes it super-versatile. After trying countless fussy tricks, I ended up just making the tweaks that I thought were necessary. The standard amount of all-purpose flour is swapped for cake flour, which can better carry sugar and water and sets faster; the egg whites are taken down a bit and a small amount of extra baking powder is added to make up the difference; cream of tartar goes up as a safety net, and salt goes up for flavor.
This chiffon is light as a cloud and spongy yet wonderfully moist and sturdy enough to hold up fillings like lemon cream and caramel (here) or berries and whipped marscarpone and the like. It remains downy-soft for days both at room temperature and out of the fridge. Of course, oil-based chiffon cakes don’t have the same depth of flavor as butter cakes, but their fillings and toppings typically make up for the difference. This cake is a workhorse.
Though more petite than the one sold at the San Francisco institution, this cake is a showstopper, especially once torched so deeply that it doesn’t feel too too sweet (though I also held back on the meringue a bit, because I’m not usually a fan). And it captures the exact flavors of lemon meringue pie, yet with a more sophisticated edge from the grown-up and very French lemon cream and mature caramel. Armed with the perfect chiffon layer cake recipe, you can make this cake and feel like a real kid again.
**I have provided my chiffon cake recipe as well as the caramel I used to fill the cake, as I did not follow the Tartine cookbook on these recipes. I did not deviate from the other recipes (though I did make smaller yields to match my smaller cake), and cannot provide them. You can find the lemon cream recipe here, though, and the meringue is standard. Have fun!**
Your vegetable oil must be 100% pure and silicate-free as silicates inhibit foaming. Use a cake pan with at least 2-inch sides. Be sure not to use a nonstick cake pan. To make more layers (or thicker ones), you can double this recipe and bake it in two 9-inch cake pans.
124 grams (1 cup plus 2 tablespoons) cake flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
150 grams (3/4 cup) sugar
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
85 grams (6 tablespoons) water
45 grams (about 2-3) egg yolks plus 120 grams (about 4) egg whites
50 grams (1/4 cup) vegetable oil
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon lemon zest
1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
Adjust oven rack to lower-middle position and heat oven to 325 degrees. Line bottom of 9-inch cake pan with parchment paper.
Sift flour and baking powder together into very large bowl. Add 125 grams (1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons) sugar and salt to bowl and whisk to combine. Whisk water, egg yolks, oil, vanilla, and lemon zest together in bowl to combine. Make well in center of flour mixture and whisk vigorously until mixture is combined and free of lumps, 1 minute. Set aside. In bowl of stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, whip egg whites on medium speed until frothy. Add cream of tartar, increase speed to medium-high and whip until soft peaks form. Slowly and gradually pour in remaining 25 grams (2 tablespoons) sugar and whip until stiff, shiny peaks form.
Gently but quickly fold one-third egg white mixture into flour mixture to lighten batter. (Streaks and some lumps should remain.) Add remaining white mixture and fold gently but quickly just until combined.
Pour batter into prepared pan, smooth top with offset spatula, and immediately transfer to oven. Bake until cake is golden, springs back to the touch, and toothpick inserted in center of cake comes out clean, 40 to 50 minutes.
Let cake cool in cake pan on wire rack for 1 1/2 hours. Run thin knife around sides of cake pan and invert on wire rack, removing parchment. Invert right side up and let cool completely on wire rack. Use as directed in your recipe.
Caramel for Cake Layers
Makes about 1 1/2 cups
This caramel is made specifically for filling cakes. It’s stiff enough that it doesn’t squirt out readily, but it is easy to spread and not-at-all chewy or candylike.
250 grams (1 1/4 cups) sugar
58 grams water (about 1/4 cup) water
38 grams (about 2 tablespoons) corn syrup
½ teaspoon kosher salt
152 grams (about 2/3 cup) heavy cream
3/4 teaspoon lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
56 grams (4 tablespoons) unsalted butter
Combine sugar, water, corn syrup, and salt in medium saucepan. Place over medium-high heat and stir until sugar is mostly dissolved. Cook without stirring until mixture is very dark amber (for a sweeter cake like this one, I prefer it dangerously dark). Remove from heat and carefully whisk in heavy cream until combined. Whisk in lemon juice and vanilla extract. Whisk in 14 grams (1 tablespoon) butter until completely melted and repeat with remaining butter. Transfer to container, let cool completely, and use immediately or store in refrigerator. (If refrigerating, bring caramel to room temperature before using.)