Sweet Tooth: The Heavenly Matter of Angel Food Cake

I hadn’t planned on making any sweet treats until Sunday, but earlier this week my dad asked me to make “that really good cake that doesn’t have any butter”.

He was referring to Angel food cake—a dessert I’ve been tinkering with for years, first because I’d like to expand my baking repertoire beyond cookies, and second because it’s an ideal dessert for those of us who seek to keep our weight in check and satisfy the ever-insatiable sweet tooth.  I also love the cake because it tastes great, and with one cake you have the basis for a number of delicious and satisfying desserts.

If you’re not familiar with Angel food cake, it’s a basic sponge cake that’s made with egg whites—lots of ’em—whipped furiously until they become a stiff-peaked mountain of fluff, then folded with a few other ingredients before being baked into a cake.  It’s  light as air, sweet yet balanced, with a unique texture that makes it feel like a decadent treat.  It serves well with fruit, or topped with a simple glaze, berry sauce, chocolate sauce, flavored whipped cream or  with any kind of custard. Best of all, it’s amazing freshly made, straight from the freezer, or gently toasted—providing a unique texture each time.

Yeah, it takes a little work—but think of it this way: one cake, loads of possibilities. It’s pretty easy to make, and it’s also easy to screw up. But worry not—thanks to my failures and successes over the years, I’ve learned some tips along the way that now make the process painless and worthwhile.

Traditionally, Angel food cake is baked in a tube pan like the one shown below.

See how the pan has straight sides and a high tube in the middle?  That’s necessary because the egg whites need a structure to cling to in order to ensure that the cake rises.  The other factor that ensures good rising is a grease-free pan.  Yes, egg whites are incredibly sticky, but if you grease the pan—if you get even a drop of any fat in the cake batter—the cake is ruined.  (There’s a trick to getting a baked Angel food cake out of the pan completely in tact, but more on that a little later.)

After experimenting with various recipes and methods for making this cake over the years, I’ve come to learn a few crucial yet simple rules for making a beautiful, moist and delicious Angel food cake:

  1. Separate the eggs when they’re cold, but don’t work with the egg whites until they’ve reached room temperature. They should also be yolk-free and shell-free.
  2. Beat the eggs with an electric mixer in a stainless steel bowl. You could also use a copper bowl, but they tend to be expensive and hard to clean.
  3. The proportions of the recipe are exact for a reason—while I recommend improvising with the cake once it’s baked, you can’t really play around with how many egg whites or how much sugar you use here. (You can play around with flavorings, like citrus zest, extracts and so forth, but again, proportions are important.) It’s also important to add ingredients at the appropriate stages in order to evenly distribute all the elements and bake a good-looking cake.
  4. Once the cake is done baking, cool it upside down for an hour before removing it from the pan.  This is hugely helpful for getting the cake out of the pan in tact.

Okay. Now we’re ready to bake an Angel food cake.  Drum roll, please…

Recipe: Angel Food Cake

Adapted from How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman

Servings: 12 – 16

Served with berry sauce and fresh strawberries.

Ingredients:

  • 9 large or extra-large eggs (you’ll only be using the whites)
  • 1 cup cake flour, sifted*
  • 1.5 cups white sugar, divided
  • 1 tsp. cream of tartar
  • 1/4 tsp. salt
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 1/2 tsp. almond extract

Tools:

  • tube pan
  • fine mesh strainer
  • electric beaters, or a standing mixer fitted with a whisk attachment
  • 2 small bowls for separating the eggs, 2 medium bowls for sifting dry ingredients, and a large stainless steel bowl for mixing the cake batter
  • A flat-backed spatula

*I never buy cake flour, so this is what I do: get a 1-cup measuring cup. Put in 2 tablespoons of corn starch, then fill the rest with all-purpose flour, using a knife to even out the top. Pour into a bowl, mix with a fork, then sift with the strainer.

Method:

Remove your eggs from the fridge and separate the whites from the yolks (look here for a quick demo).  Refrigerate the yolks if you want to make something else with them; otherwise discard. Let the bowl of eggs whites rest on the counter until they come to room temperature, about an hour or so.

In the meantime, combine a half cup of the sugar with the cake flour in a medium bowl; stir with a fork or whisk to evenly combine. Using a fine mesh strainer, sift the mixture into another bowl. Repeat, then set aside.

Pre-heat your oven to 325 degrees, making sure the shelves are situated to make plenty of room for the tube pan. Once the egg whites have come to room temperature, pour them into a stainless steel bowl, and beat on high speed for a few minutes. You’ll see they’ve begun to froth.

Beating Egg Whites, Stage I: Froth

Add the cream of tartar and salt, and continue beating on high speed.  You’ll see the whites develop into a foam.

Beating Egg Whites, Stage II: Foam

Keep beating on high for a couple minutes, until the egg whites have soft peaks. How can you tell? They’ll still have an ever so slight translucency, and the when you lift the beaters out of the bowl you’ll notice soft peaks that have a little shape.

Beating egg whites, Stage III: Soft Peaks

Add the remaining half cup of sugar and extracts and continue beating on high until the egg whites hit Stage IV: stiff peaks.  By this point the mixture is a fully opaque bright white, and when you lift the beaters from the bowl, the egg whites have very well defined, stiff peaks, as shown.

Stage IV: Stiff peaks.

Tap the beaters against the bowl to shake any remaining whites back in. Set your beaters in the sink to soak (egg whites are quite sticky), and get your spatula. Gradually and gently, fold the sifted cake flour and sugar mixture into the egg whites. (For a demo, check out this video, at 1:05 in.) Continue folding gently until all elements are combined.

Next, use your spatula to transfer the batter into the tube pan, spreading it out evenly as you go along. Wipe off any excess on the sides with a damp paper towel.

Ready for the oven!

Put the tube pan in the oven and bake for 45-60 minutes (50 minutes did it for mine), until the cake is evenly golden brown, firm and resilient.  How can you tell?  When you remove the cake from the oven, it will not wobble at all, and you can press a finger ever so slightly on the top to test the cake’s resiliency. What you don’t want to do is test its done-ness with a toothpick or knife—if you stab the cake, it will sink.

Perfect!

Have a cooling rack or clean kitchen towel standing by, and very carefully turn the cake pan upside down on top of it.  It should stand up on its own thanks to the tube in the middle.  Then leave it alone for at least an hour.

After the hour or so has passed, carefully run a dull knife along the sides of the pan. You’ll probably have to do this along the underside of the cake as well to fully loosen it.  Remove from the pan and set on a plate, alone or lined with wax paper.

Ta-daa!

Slice the cake gently with a serrated knife to make sure your slices don’t get crushed.  You can serve the cake immediately, on its own or with any of the suggestions I’ve provided below.  If you don’t intend to serve the cake within a day, not to worry—it keeps very well in the freezer.

Weight Watchers Points Plus Information:

  • With 12 even slices of cake, you’re looking at 4 points per serving.
  • With 16 even slices of cake, it’s 3 points per serving.

Serving suggestions:

  • Serve with cut fresh fruit or berries for a really light treat.
  • Spoon some berry sauce or chocolate sauce on top of slices.
  • Make a simple glaze and drizzle it over the cake. A lemon glaze works especially well.
  • If you reserved the egg yolks, make custard and serve it with the cake. Berries make a wonderful addition here.
  • Top with a dollop of gently spiced whipped cream.
  • Top with a generous scoop of really good chocolate or coffee ice cream.

Storing and Serving Angel Food Cake Later On:

Cut the cake into slices or chunks and wrap securely with plastic wrap. Then put them in a gallon-size zip-top bag and freeze, being careful not to crush the cake in your freezer.  You can slice the frozen cake easily and eat it ice cold (I love it this way), or you can toast it until it has browned around the edges. Toasted angel food cake makes the whole house smell wonderful, and the flavors of the vanilla and almond extracts really shine through.

Resources:

I learned how to perfect this cake thanks to one of my favorite television shows (Good Eats) and the book that has become my go-to cooking encyclopedia, How to Cook Everything (2008 edition, page 912).  If you have Good Eats on DVD or catch a re-run, the episode to watch is “The Egg Files III: Let Them Eat Foam”, from Season 4.

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