Baker’s Dozen: The Secret Cake of the Brown Derby

IMG_1362by Dianne Boate

You should always be ready for surprises. In researching the origin of one of my favorite cakes, chiffon, I discovered it was invented in 1927 by a caterer named Mr. Harry Baker, in the Los Angeles area.

Louella Parsons (left) dining at the Brown Derby.

Louella Parsons (left) dining at the Brown Derby.

He kept the recipe a secret for a long time and finally sold it to General Mills. But before that happened he had the brilliant idea to take a cake to The Brown Derby restaurant in Hollywood, where it became a popular item on the menu with movie stars – and Louella Parsons, one of the leading gossip columnists of the day. Whatever Louella wanted, Louella got, so her idea that grapefruit was nonfattening resulted in a grapefruit-flavored frosting for the popular cake. (Do we want to try that? Maybe…)

Chiffon cake is one of four basic types of cakes, a genius idea of incorporating fat with sugar, flour, leavenings and, especially, eggs, creating a moist and flavorful substance that appears to be light as a feather. While looking fragile, it is sturdy. It can be cut into layers and filled with whipped cream and fruit, covered with rich frostings, sauces, glazes – no end to it.

Betty Crocker coverIn 1947, General Mills bought the recipe from Harry Baker. He agreed to sell the recipe to General Mills so “Betty Crocker could give the secret to the women of the America.” General Mills released the secret recipe for chiffon cake in the May 1948 Better Homes and Gardens Magazine, and it became a nationwide sensation. The secret ingredient, vegetable oil, was then revealed. Better Homes and Garden Magazine advertised the cake as “The first really new cake in 100 years.”  In the 1950s, General Mills sponsored chiffon cake contests. People came up with all flavors of this cake during that time.

Clark Gable, Ava Gardner, Deborah Kerr, Gloria Holden and Adolphe Menjou in The Hucksters.

Clark Gable, Ava Gardner, Deborah Kerr, Gloria Holden and Adolphe Menjou in The Hucksters.

The earliest printed recipe I could find in my cookbook collection is from 1948, from The Cook’s Encyclopedia; no mention at all in the 1959 edition of Pillsbury’s Best 1000 Recipes: Best of the Bake-Off Collection, (well naturally, they would not want to promote something General Mills had!). The most interesting fact about the recipe is this: From 1948 to the present-day KitchenAid Mixer cookbook, the recipe has hardly changed. I also found the references to the creator very wispy, with a variety of dates that seem to be incorrect. Oh well, let us make the cake! Bless Mr. Baker.

Cary Grant and Phyllis Brooks at the Brown Derby (1939).

Cary Grant and Phyllis Brooks at the Brown Derby (1939).

This cake freezes very well. Wrap in plastic wrap, then in a Ziploc-type freezer bag. For a recent commission for an anniversary cake, I made the cake one month ahead. Note: I always make a double batch batter. Each cake cuts into 25 portions, so a double is 50 servings, if that is your inclination. Cake for 100 people means just two double batches. My mixer is a 6-quart KitchenAid. Important to have two mixing bowls for the separate batter parts, and two wire beaters, one for egg whites, one for whipping cream.

Chiffon Cake

Be sure to read recipe through before beginning. Make sure your beaters and bowl are free of grease. Assemble ingredients. Special note: this is one of the rare occasions in baking where I think it important to sift the dry ingredients three times.

  • IMG_11952¼ cups all-purpose flour
  • 1½ cups sugar
  • 1 tbsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp salt
  • ¾ cup cold water
  • ½ cup vegetable oil
  • 5 egg yolks, beaten
  • 2 tsp vanilla
  • 2 tsp grated lemon rind (it uses 2 lemons)
  • 1 cup egg whites (7 or 8; I use 8.)
  • ½ tsp cream of tartar

Sift flour, sugar, baking powder and salt together twice on waxed paper. Sift a third time into bowl. Make a well in center of sifted mixture and add water, oil, egg yolks, vanilla. Attach bowl and wire whip.

menu frontTurn to speed 4, beat 1 minute. Stop and scrape bowl. Return to Speed 4 and beat about 15 seconds. Remove mixture from bowl.

Place egg whites in clean bowl, attach bowl and wire whip. Turn to Speed 8 and whip until whites are foamy, then add cream of tartar and beat about 2 more minutes until whites are stiff, but not dry.

Remove bowl from mixer, gradually add flour mixture and lemon zest to egg whites by folding gently with a spatula. (I like to use a large metal slotted spoon.)

Pour batter into ungreased 10-inch tub pan. Bake at 325 degrees for 60 to 75 minutes.

Using good potholders, invert tube pan on a funnel or soft drink bottle. Cool completely. To remove from pan, I use a regular kitchen table knife, keeping the blade toward the inside of the pan while using a gentle sawing motion.

BrownDerbypostcardHere is an easy lemon glaze if you are not going to go into a more elaborate production:

  • 1 cup powdered sugar
  • 1 tbsp butter, softened
  • 2-3 tbsp lemon juice

Mix the powdered sugar and butter in small bowl, stir in lemon juice until glaze is of a good pouring consistency.

My written comments in the spiral-bound KitchenAid recipes and instructions book that comes with the machine: May 1990: “Absolutely astounding.” August 2015: “Same opinion.”

Read the full entertaining story of Harry Baker and his chiffon cake.

EDF-fancy-horizontal-ruleDianneBoateDianne Boate, a former staff member of the original Dating Game television show, and later, The Renaissance Pleasure Faire, is The Hat Lady, maker of custom millinery, and The Cake Lady, a special events baker for 30 years in the Bay Area.  Between cake assignments, she has had several one-woman photography shows, and participated as a botanical illustrator in group shows benefiting the Conservatory of Flowers, National AIDS Memorial Grove, Marin Cancer Institute, and University of California Alumni Association. Her website can be found at

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