Grammy’s Old-Fashioned Burnt Sugar Chiffon Cake Recipe is an original made-from-scratch family recipe that was legend in our house growing up. The subtle crème brûlée burnt sugar flavor is incorporated into both the cake and icing. This chiffon cake is light and moist.
The burnt sugar flavor of this cake reminds me of caramel, but has a lighter, delicate and more complex flavor. This cake is tender, delicious and addictive. It’s nearly impossible to stop at one slice!
My paternal Grammy was a Mainer and an excellent baker at that. For a time she and my Grampy set the alarm for 3 a.m. every day to make fresh doughnuts they delivered by wagon a few hours later in the neighborhood to help make ends meet. While my Grammy was never rich in dollars, she had many gifts.
She was kind. She had an incredible green thumb and could arrange flowers like a blue ribbon florist. She nosed out the best deal at a yard sale like nobody’s business. And she was an excellent baker. We still make some of her favorite recipes today: hermit cookies from the Maine bakery where she worked, and this Old Fashioned Burnt Sugar Chiffon Cake Recipe.
My Grammy requested this Burnt Sugar Chiffon Cake for her birthday and often made it for my dad’s because it was his favorite too. A few weeks ago my mom and I were talking about my dad’s upcoming 78th birthday, and before I knew it, I’d opened my big mouth and offered to make him this cake for the party.
The truth is, I’d never made the cake before. It always fell to my Grammy or Mom to make it. There’s a first time for everything and I really did enjoy the process of baking this cake. (And I have new respect for the baking skills of my mom and grandmother.) I’m also grateful that my mom carefully preserved my Grammy’s original recipe for many decades so I can share it here with you today.
I want to be very clear about this recipe. It’s not for inexperienced bakers. It has a number of sequenced steps and is not a quick cake to whip together. That being said, it is has an amazingly delicate burnt sugar flavor that’s nearly impossible to replicate. It’s worth every bit of time and effort but you’ll definitely need to pay close attention to each step. If you are planning to make this cake for a special event, I highly recommend doing a test run first. It’s the burnt sugar syrup that can be tricky.
The first, most critical step is making the burnt sugar syrup on the stovetop. (And not burning it.) The burnt sugar syrup takes a total of 10-15 minutes to make. You are slowly melting sugar over low heat on the stovetop. After all the sugar is melted, it looks like the picture above. It should be a medium golden brown color.
After you (very carefully) slowly whisk in the boiling water, the burnt sugar syrup should become smooth and amber colored, without lumps. (See above.) Set it aside and cool completely for use in the cake batter and icing. The syrup will thicken as it cools to nearly the consistency of honey.
Preheat oven to 325°. Then sift flour, 1 1/2 cups sugar, baking powder and salt into a medium sized mixing bowl. Make a “well” in the center of the flour mixture and add, in order: cooking oil, unbeaten egg yolks, 1/3 cup cooled burnt sugar syrup, cold water and 1 teaspoon vanilla extract.
Mix egg yolk batter, stirring by hand until just combined and set aside.
Separately, in a larger mixing bowl, beat egg whites and cream of tartar on high speed until stiff peaks form. (Do not under beat!)
Gently pour egg yolk batter over the stiffly beaten egg whites.
Very gently combine the stiffly beaten egg whites with the egg yolk batter, using a rubber spatula. The idea is to keep the batter very light and airy and break as few of the air bubbles in the stiffly beaten egg whites as possible.
When your batter is just combined and looks light and airy like this, transfer it to an ungreased 10″ x 4″ tube cake pan and bake immediately.
I use a two piece tube pan, because it’s so much easier to remove from the pan later.
Bake cake for 60-70 minutes at 325°, ’til cake is golden brown and cracked on top and a cake tester comes out clean. (Be careful not to check the cake too early, you don’t want it to fall while baking.)
Remove cake from oven, and immediately hang upside down on the top of a glass vinegar or mineral water bottle to cool. (It’s a good idea to find a glass bottle in your pantry ahead of time to insure that the hole of your cake pan will fit onto it.)
Mix together burnt sugar frosting with an electric mixer until smooth.
When chiffon cake is completely cooled, remove from glass bottle. Using a very sharp knife, carefully separate the cake from the cake pan on the sides, around the center tube and the bottom. Turn cake out onto a cake platter. Brush the crumbs off, then frost with a very thin coat of icing to capture any remaining crumbs. Let set. Then frost with a regular layer of the Burnt Sugar Icing.
Important steps to make an Old-Fashioned Burnt Sugar Chiffon Cake Recipe:
- Make the burnt sugar syrup on the stovetop first. Do not walk away from the stove during this process. Allow about 15-2o minutes total for this process, then set aside to cool.
- Sift together the dry ingredients, than hand mix together with the egg yolks and wet ingredients.
- Separately, beat the egg whites and cream of tartar with an electric mixer on high speed until very stiff. (For great tips from my baking friend Liz on separating eggs and beating egg whites, click here.)
- Gently incorporate the egg yolk cake batter into the stiff egg whites and bake immediately.
- Remove the cake from the oven and turn upside down onto a glass bottle to cool. (A glass vinegar or perrier bottle works well.)
- When cake is completely cool, remove from the glass bottle and loosen all edges with a sharp knife. Remove from the pan.
- Frost with Burnt Sugar Icing.
- Use an electric knife or a metal tined angel food cake cutter to slice. (This will keep the cake from getting crushed while serving.)
- 1 1/2 cups white sugar
- 3/4 cup boiling water
- 2 cups sifted flour
- 1 1/2 cups white sugar
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 cup vegetable oil
- 7 large egg yolks, unbeaten
- 1/3 cup cooled burnt sugar syrup
- 1/4 cup cold water
- 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- 7 large egg whites
- 1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
- 3 1/2 cups powdered (confectioner's) sugar
- 1/2 cup butter, softened
- 7-8 tablespoons burnt sugar syrup
- 1 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1-2 tablespoons half and half or cream, or as much as needed for spreading consistency
- Please allow about 15-20 minutes to make the burnt sugar syrup. Do not hurry the process and don't walk away from the stove.
- In a heavy saucepan with high sides (not a frying pan and not cast iron), melt 1 1/2 cups sugar over low heat on the stovetop until melted completely, stirring often.
- The mixture will be thick and a medium brown color when all the sugar is melted.
- The goal is a thick syrup without any hard sugar lumps in it.
- (I had a few stubborn lumps that absolutely refused to melt and I finally removed them with a slotted spoon.)
- Remove mixture from the heat.
- Very very slowly, whisk in 3/4 cup boiling water.
- The mixture will bubble up a lot and may spatter as you add the boiling water. (Be very careful, the mixture is extremely hot.)
- Whisk all the boiling water in until the mixture is as smooth as you can get it. You don't want any lumps in it.
- If it has lumps at this point, strain them out with a slotted spoon.
- Set aside the mixture to cool completely and reserve for later use in the cake and icing.
- The burnt sugar syrup will thicken to nearly the consistency of honey as it cools.
- Preheat oven to 325°.
- Sift together flour, 1 1/2 cups sugar, baking powder and salt in a large mixing bowl.
- Make a well in the flour mixture and add these ingredients to the well in this order:
- Cooking oil, unbeaten egg yolks, 1/3 cup burnt sugar syrup, 1/4 cup cold water and 1 teaspoon vanilla extract.
- Stir ingredients together until just mixed and set aside.
- Separately, in a large mixing bowl, with an electric beater, beat 7 large egg whites and 1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar until egg whites form very stiff peaks.
- VERY IMPORTANT: Do not underbeat.
- Pour egg yolk batter gradually over whipped egg whites, very gently folding it in with a rubber scraper. The idea is not to break the delicate bubbles of the egg whites.
- Immediately pour into an ungreased 10" X 4" tube pan and bake at 325° for 60-70 minutes.
- Remove cake from oven, and turn tube pan upside down over a glass bottle to cool completely. (A glass vinegar or perrier bottle does the trick.)
- When cake is completely cooled, loosen all edges including around the center tube with a sharp knife and turn cake out of the pan onto a cake platter.
- Ice with Burnt Sugar Icing.
- Cream softened butter with electric mixer until it's creamy and there are no lumps.
- Beat in 1 cup powdered sugar until smooth and creamy.
- Beat in a second cup of powdered sugar until smooth and creamy.
- Stir in 7-8 tablespoons Burnt Sugar Syrup.
- Beat in remaining 1 1/2 cups of powdered sugar.
- Stir in 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract and 1-2 tablespoons half and half or cream.
- Add more or less cream if needed for spreading consistency.
- Frost cake.
- Cut with a serrated or electric knife or use a metal tined angel food cake cutter.
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