The Mystery of the Philly Fluff Cake

"Where exactly in Philly did this cake come from? Who named it Philly Fluff? And why wasn't it the least bit fluffy in texture?"

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Mmmm...enigmatic. [Photographs: Liz Gutman]

I had a cake not too long ago that I'd never heard of before. It was at a big holiday dinner, and it had been purchased specifically for one person who didn't like dessert. Not even a little. Wouldn't go near the stuff. Except for this cake.

All I knew is that it was called Philly Fluff, and there's this one bakery that specializes in making it (though it seems there are always several "this one" type bakeries when a signature item is involved...) When I saw it, I can't say I was super impressed. It looked like an angel food cake with powdered sugar dusted on top. Big deal, right?

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The flavor? It wasn't bold or assertive at all; or really even a flavor (besides vanilla). But it was sweet, moist, squishy, and buttery, with drifts of powdered sugar on top. A big loaf of comfort, more or less.

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The moistness made me think there was oil involved, but from the taste it was pretty clear that a heavy dose of butter had been on the scene as well. I could see how this might appeal to someone who's not into shi-shi or overly complicated sweets. I was intrigued. Where exactly in Philly did this cake come from? Who named it Philly Fluff? And why wasn't it the least bit fluffy in texture?

I forgot about it until my mom attempted a recreation a month or two later. It was really good—but it wasn't a Philly Fluff. It was a plain ol' delicious pound cake. I figured it must have been the wrong recipe. So I did some research of my own, and settled on a chocolate-swirled version that popped up the most often.

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Philly, I can only assume, refers to the cream cheese in the recipe. The cake apparently originated in Long Island, and I wonder if we'll ever know where the "fluff" came from. But the cream cheese does lend it a faint tang, and keeps the crumb tender and moist. Well, that, and the shortening.

Now, I don't use shortening that often when I bake. I know it can have a place in a pie crust but I prefer the flavor of butter. If I want moistness in a cake or something, I use oil or applesauce or a combination of the two. Shelf-stable fat kind of creeps me out. But here's the thing: shortening makes baked goods reeeeeally delicious in a grocery-store muffin kind of way, or like those little pound cake slices that come individually wrapped.

So this Philly Fluff, while still falling short of the one baked by the pros, came out richly flavored yet not heavy with a delightfully crispy brown crust on the outside.

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In Conclusion...

1. Philly Fluff is not actually that fluffy.

2. A little shortening can have its place.

3. For the love of Pete, invite some friends over if you make this. It's a lot of cake.

About the author: Liz Gutman co-owns the Brooklyn-based candy business Liddabit Sweets, which means she spends a lot of time around chocolate (and a lot of time eating it). She moved to New York in 2001 to go to, wait for it, acting school. But when the acting life wasn't for her, she wound up in the French Culinary Institute's pastry program while working at Roni-Sue's Chocolates in Manhattan's Lower East Side. She befriended Jen King, aka the other half of Liddabit, at FCI and founded Liddabit in May of 2009.

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