Thursday, February 15, 2007

The proof of the cake is in the eating: At one time or another, we've all relied on Betty Crocker's lemon chiffon cake. It's delicious, and, as long as you have a stand mixer, pretty easy. It's also a delicious slice of '50s nostalgia. But I didn't know that, until 1948, the recipe was a complete secret, invented by Harry Baker, a mostly closeted gay man living in Los Angeles, who sold his cakes to the Brown Derby. Holy cow. From Minneapolis' The Rake magazine, the (slightly over-written) account of the cake:

Harry [Baker] also began to tinker with cake recipes, and he would have put Cook’s Illustrated’s Stephen Schmidt to shame. He devised more than four hundred different recipes in his quest to bake a sweeter, moister angel food cake. He varied ingredients, measurements, and the baking time and temperature. Nothing satisfied. In later years, he described the eureka moment that led him to salad oil in almost mystical terms: It was, he told a reporter at the Minneapolis Tribune, a “sixth sense—something cosmic” that revealed his secret ingredient. And it worked.

During the time that Harry Baker was handing out experimental cakes to his neighbors, a handful of entrepreneurs pooled resources to launch a restaurant on Wilshire Boulevard. The Brown Derby opened for business in 1926, in a building shaped to match its name. Two years later—call it another cosmic twist—Harry Baker walked in with a sample of his unbelievable cake. It became one of the Derby’s signature dishes.


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