FAMILY RECIPES: Etelka’s Cocoa Chiffon Cake

I’ve come to realize that many of us have been bequeathed a cherished family recipe. Be it simple or elaborate to prepare, it’s a dish so fiendishly delicious that it is the unmistakable star of the family meal, whether celebrating triumphs, comforting woes, or keeping family traditions alive. Withholding such heirloom recipes from the world seems almost cruel. Hence, I am championing the family recipe. I will entice the people in my universe to share favourite, nostalgia-infused family recipes, and I will give one of them centre stage in this very space on a monthly basis. In the end, we are all family, and these recipes represent the legacies of our shared passions. This month’s post is written by my good friend Eva. Enjoy!


Etelka’s Cocoa Chiffon Cake
By Eva

The grand finale of every family birthday dinner was THE CAKE.  My mother, Etelka, always served her signature Chocolate Chiffon Cake. Festooned with  tiny, lit candles, it was ceremoniously placed before the celebrated one as the room broke into a full-throated, charmingly off-key rendition of “Happy Birthday.” (We are not a family of gifted singers.)  A hasty, silent wish, a quick whoosh to blow out the candles, and then bliss ensued as the cake was sliced, handed around and savoured.

The cake’s appearance underwent a few metamorphoses over the decades.  Sometimes it was rectangular, at other times round, depending on the baking pans my mother had on hand.  The cake’s magic lies in its ratios rather than its aesthetics. It has just enough cocoa and sugar to give chocolate lovers their fix without overpowering its rich texture, a combination of moist, delicate cake and silky icing.

Since I don’t remember my mother ever referring to a recipe to make this cake, my teenaged self sometimes mused that the knowledge of how to make it must have been among the repertoire of recipes embroidered into her mitochondrial DNA.  How else could my mother so fearlessly combine ingredients as a seasoned alchemist might, without consulting a higher power, such as a cookbook or the almighty Chatelaine Magazine? It was a flight of fancy I employed to amuse myself during the many times I participated in the cake’s creation, ignoring the obvious answer to my question.

Now, many decades later, I continue the tradition and still serve this cake to celebrate family birthdays—and sometimes to just enjoy it and celebrate nothing at all.  So, here’s the recipe gleaned from the collective DNA of generations of Hungarian moms in my mother’s family.  Enjoy!



Chocolate Chiffon Cake

10-11 eggs, separated

1/2 cup sugar

1/3 cup cake & pastry flour

1/3 cup cocoa


Pre-heat oven to 350F.  Very lightly spray with Pam and then coat with flour two, 9-inch, round baking pans.  Line pan bottoms with parchment paper by cutting circles to fit.

Using an electric mixer, beat egg whites until stiff peaks form.  Set aside.

Beat egg yolks and sugar until light and fluffy. Sift flour and cocoa together, then stir well into the beaten yolks.

Using a rubber spatula, gently fold egg yolk mixture into the stiffly beaten egg whites, being careful not to over mix the batter. It’s okay if the batter looks a little lumpy.

Pour the batter into the prepared pans. Bake 40 minutes.

After baking, let the cakes cool in their pans.  Trim any cake edges that have risen above the rims of the pans, using a serrated knife. (I always have willing volunteers on hand to devour these scraps.) Run a knife around the sides of the cakes to loosen.  It’s a delicate cake, and this step prevents rips and tears while removing cakes from the pans when it’s time to ice them.  Don’t be alarmed if the cake centres fall a little as they cool.  Remember to peel off the parchment paper from the cake bottoms gently.


Custard Icing:

4-5 eggs

1/2 cup sugar

1/2 tablespoon vanilla

1/4 cup cocoa, sifted

1 1/2 cups unsalted butter, at room temperature


Mix eggs, sugar and vanilla in the top of a double boiler.  Cook for 20 minutes whisking constantly.  (I prefer to use a glass bowl over boiling water instead of a metal pot so the eggs won’t cook too quickly and end up resembling chocolate scrambled eggs—not ideal.)

Add cocoa and keep whisking for another 3-5 minutes until mixture becomes creamy.  Remove from heat.  When mixture cools, add butter and cream thoroughly.  (An electric beater works best.)

Assemble and ice the cake.



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