Welcome to Grandma’s Notebook, a series unearthing the hand-written recipes of Mary Woo, the late grandmother of fashion designer Peter Som. Follow along as we dive into 20 years of recipes that trace her Chinese American immigrant experience. Along the way, we’ll discover hidden family secrets, new and enticing flavors, and priceless hand-me-down dishes that deserve a second life in your kitchen.
At Grandma’s, any problem could be solved over a slice of chiffon cake. But to understand why it was always on the table, you have to know about her besties and their afternoon teas. When I was little, Auntie Violet and Auntie Bernie frequently stopped by Grandma’s to say hello. Of course, neither of them were my actual aunts—in Chinese culture, any elderly family friend is affectionately called auntie or uncle.
Afternoon gatherings at Grandma’s were decidedly more casual than British high tea, but they still had certain unspoken rules. First, the aunties showered Grandma with compliments about her African violets, and only after that could everybody sit down at the dinner table to commiserate and chatter over slices of chiffon cake and hot Oolong tea. I can still picture my grandma there twisting her rings, as she often did when in deep thought, dispensing sage advice and juicy gossip in equal measure.
Me? I listened intently, eating my slice with a glass of milk, certain that I was privy to top-secret information. It never occurred to me to wonder whether chiffon cake was Chinese or American (or both), and it was only when I found my grandma’s recipe book that I learned that her version came from Auntie Violet.
In fact, it was Auntie Violet who counseled my grandma on which American names to give her kids (my mom, born Yung Fong, became Helen). While I can’t be sure, my hunch is that those conversations happened over chiffon cake and tea.
Cake and tea weren’t foreign to Grandma when she moved to America. Back in British Hong Kong, she and Grandpa sometimes took the kids out for high tea in Repulse Bay, in the southern part of the island. But the myriad cookie and cake recipes in her arsenal were perfected in the U.S.
American in origin, chiffon cake is similar to angel food cake, only it uses the egg yolks in addition to the whites, lending it a richer crumb. The dessert is so beloved by Chinese Americans (who often frost it with whipped cream and top it with fruit) that it also goes by the name Chinese sponge cake.
Whenever I make Grandma’s chiffon cake, enlivened with orange juice and zest, I’m celebrating that heritage. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t taken a liberty or two, like adding a touch of orange blossom water, which both heightens and smoothes the citrus. Grandma served her cake with a touch of powdered sugar; I like mine with an easy orange glaze and a sprinkling of quick-candied orange peel.
When I eat a slice as an afternoon snack, I’m suddenly a kid again, back at that table. With every bite, I think about how I’ve made my own culinary traditions that I can share with my chosen family. And even if wine is the beverage of choice for my crew, the gossip—just like the good old days—is always served piping hot.