Food Guy Greg Patent writes about angel food cake: "If you want to create pure baking magic, and have an air-raising experience, make an angel food cake. Air, and air alone raises it to cloud-like puffiness. How to manage that? Read on to find out!
My granny’s magic with egg whites hooked me on angel food cake. As a young boy, I’d stare wide-eyed as she used a mere table fork to attack the gloppy mass in a large platter nestled on her lap. After a few minutes of vigorous beating, the whites turned fluffy and grew in volume. As she sprinkled in sugar and beat with even more vigor, the whites mounted higher and became so stiff that they didn’t budge. I still wonder at how Granny managed to perform her magic time and time again. The sweetness of her feathery light cakes lingered in my mouth then and in my memories now.
My obsession with light and fluffy angel food cake has not abated with time, and I’ve experimented over and over again, striving to create the lightest, fluffiest cake possible. Now I’d like to share what I’ve discovered with you.
Angel food cake rises entirely by the air beaten into the whites. And for maximum volume, the eggs should be fresh. Frozen thawed whites or bottled refrigerated egg whites will work, but the height of the baked cake will be compromised. So, buy fresh eggs, preferably organic, and separate the whites from the yolks while the eggs are cold. That way there’s less chance that the yolks will break and contaminate the whites. The whites must be yolk-free or they won’t beat up properly because the fats in the yolk interfere with the formation of air cells by the proteins in the egg whites.
Egg whites do not need to be at room temperature before beating. In fact, they’ll incorporate more air if they’re on the cool side, about 60 degrees F. Starting with cold eggs, the whites will warm up to this temperature in 30 minutes to an hour in your kitchen.
A stand mixer is a real plus when making angel food cake. But you can also make the whole cake by hand, and I show how to do just that in the following shots. But I’m not as brave as Granny, so I use flat whips instead of a fork. My Granny would have loved one of those!
As the whites lose their chill in a large wide grease-free bowl—mine is stainless steel— sift and measure the flour, and resift the flour with the salt and half the sugar four or five times to aerate the dry ingredients well.
Have the cake pan ready, a two-piece aluminum tube pan that is not greased. Do not use a nonstick pan. Mine has three little “feet” that rise upward from the pan. Some pans lack the feet but have an extra long tube. Either one is fine. Just make sure the pan is grease-free, too.
Set an oven rack in the lower third position but do not turn the oven on. I like to bake angel food cakes and other foam cakes in an unpreheated oven. I’ll explain why a bit later.
Start whipping the whites with slow strokes to break them up. Beat a bit faster until the whites become frothy. The more you beat the whites the more air bubbles form. To make sure the stiffening whites will not collapse on you, add cream of tartar, a white acidic powder, at the frothy stage, before the whites become stiff. The acidity of the cream of tartar firms up the protein coating around the air bubbles and also helps the cake maintain its pure white color.
Once the whites are beaten to the point where they hold a soft shape, you gradually beat in the remainder of the sugar until the whites form stiff peaks. Here the whites look like an escarpment—nice and thick with peaks that stay put.
Now beat in the vanilla. At this point, you’re ready to fold in the dry ingredients.
Sift one-fourth to one-fifth of the dry ingredients over the whites. Cut through the center of the whites with an edge of a large rubber spatula. Rotate the bowl as you go, sweep the spatula across the bottom of the bowl towards you, and bring the spatula up with a mound of whites.
Work quickly but gently. Repeat with the remaining dry ingredients, folding until the batter looks smooth.
When the batter is ready, spoon it into the pan and run a table knife in concentric circles to break any large bubbles. Smooth the top with a metal spatula and put the pan in a cold oven.
Why a cold oven? Air bubbles expand with heat. If they’re exposed to a sudden jolt of heat, there’s a chance that the bubbles will expand too rapidly, before the protein network around them has had a chance to set; the result is that the bubbles might burst. By putting the cake into a cold oven and then turning on the heat, the bubbles will expand gradually and the protein network around them will set at about the same time as the bubbles attain their greatest volume. The result: A tall, light-textured cake.
The cake is done when it’s nicely browned on top, shows a few moist cracks, and springs back when pressed gently between the tube and side of the pan.
To cool the cake, hang it upside down on the neck of a wine bottle or inverted metal funnel. If your pan’s tube is taller than the rim, just turn the pan upside down and let it rest on the tube’s edge. If you cool the cake upright, its airy texture will be lost. Don’t worry about the cake falling out of the pan while your back is turned. If you’ve beaten the whites and sugar properly—to the stiff peak stage—the cake will stay put.
When completely cool, in about 3 hours, use a thin-bladed knife to release the cake from the side of the pan.
Run the blade between the cake and the edge of the pan slowly to release the cake. Lift the cake out of the pan by the tube, turn the cake sideways, and tap the edge of the pan bottom on your countertop, rotating it as you go, to free the cake. If the cake sticks, which happens sometimes, use the same knife to release it from the pan bottom. Set the cake upright on a cake plate and it’s ready to serve. Cut into slices with a serrated knife. The cake is light and airy and full of tiny bubbles.
Angel food cake may be served plain or with whipped cream, some fruit, or ice cream. In the photo here, I’ve stirred a little lemon curd into plain yogurt and scattered some fresh strawberries and raspberries next to the cake. A sprig of mint adds color. Feel free to nibble on a leaf.
Cover leftover cake tightly and keep at room temperature. The cake will stay fresh for 2 or 3 days.
Making angel food cake is a real achievement, one you’ll be proud of. And the oohs and ahs you’ll receive will make you smile."
Angel Food Cake
(The instructions here are for making the cake with a stand mixer.)
1 ½ cups fresh egg whites (from about 12 large eggs)
1 cup (4 ounces) cake flour (measure by dipping dry measure into flour container, filling to overflowing, and sweeping off excess)
1 ½ cups ultra-found bakers' sugar (roasted or not), divided
¼ teaspoon salt
1 ½ teaspoons cream of tartar
1 ½ teaspoons vanilla extract
Adjust an oven rack to the lower third position but do not turn the oven on.
Put the whites into the bowl of a stand mixer. If whites are refrigerator temperature, let them wait at room temperature for 30 minutes to 1 hour until they’re about 60 degrees F. Sift the flour with ¾ cup of the sugar and the salt 4 or 5 times to aerate thoroughly.
Beat the whites on medium speed with the whip attachment for about thirty seconds to one minute, until frothy. Entire surface will be bubbly. Stop the machine. Pass the cream of tartar (which tends to be lumpy) through a small fine strainer into the whites and resume beating on medium speed. Gradually add ¾ cup of the sugar to the whites, about 1 tablespoon at a time, waiting about 10 seconds between additions. Add the vanilla and increase the speed to medium high. Continue beating only until the whites barely form the softest of peaks that droop at their tips.
Scrape the whites into a large wide bowl and sift one-fourth to one-fifth of the dry ingredients over the whites. Fold together with the rubber spatula just until the dry ingredients are almost incorporated. Rotate the bowl as you cut down through the whites with the edge of the rubber spatula, sweep the spatula across the bottom of the bowl towards you, and bring the spatula up with a mound of whites. Work quickly but gently. Repeat with the remaining dry ingredients, folding until the batter looks smooth.
Spoon the batter into the prepared pan, use a table knife to cut through the batter in concentric circles to cut large air bubbles, and smooth the top of the batter with the rubber spatula.
Put the cake in the oven and turn the oven on to 375 degrees. Bake the cake about 35 minutes, until top is nicely browned with a few cracks and cake springs back when gently pressed.
Immediately turn the cake pan upside down over the neck of a wine bottle and let stand until completely cool, about 3 hours. Remove cake from pan as described in the text. Cut into portions with a serrated knife.
Makes 12 to 16 servings.