File this under “posts where Shannon makes something you can easily purchase at the store and subsequently gets underwear-bunchy trying to figure out why you would ever want the store-bought version when the scratch version is so much better.” What; you don’t have a folder for that? You should. Let’s talk about angel cake. Why, as a human race, are we so willing to grab store-bought angel cake when the homemade variety is incredibly delicious? I blame our current relationship with egg whites.
It wasn’t always this way: look in any vintage cookbook, especially the ones from the 50’s and 60’s (the heyday of baking, in my opinion) and you will find page after page of recipes for angel cakes, chiffon cakes, souffles, and tons of other things involving the whipping of egg whites. Bakers all but lived for the moment they were to fold their perfectly peaked egg whites into batter and watch the magic happen. Flash forward to today, and chiffon cakes are all but extinct, everyone is inexplicably terrified of souffle-making, and we have been reduced to grabbing the sticky, flavorless round of angel cake from our nearest grocery store.
Come closer; let me whisper something in your ear.
If you are terrified of whipping egg whites into peaks, or folding them into batter, or live in fear that everything you try to make involving these steps will go from poofy to fallen if you even so much as drop a spoon on the floor near your oven, you have been misled.
Because eggs are a wonderful thing. There’s absolutely nothing scary about them. And cakes with whipped egg whites are heavenly, so long as you simply do your steps correctly. It’s not hard, and I would bet that almost every one of you has all the ingredients needed to make this glorious thing in your kitchen right now.
Keys to a magnificent angel cake:
Room temperature egg whites – because they matter in recipes like this. Am I going to tell you that you need to warm the one egg you’re using in a cookie recipe? No. But angel food cakes rely on volume, and air has an easier time getting into warm egg whites versus cold.
The right equipment – always use a tube pan, ungreased, and preferably with a removable bottom. It’s a great pan to have in your arsenal, and usually quite affordable. Additionally, I believe wholeheartedly that peak-whipping happens best if you do it by hand; not “by hand” like mad rotations of the arm, but rather by using an electric handheld mixer. It could be superstition on my part, but I have much better results using a handheld mixer than I do with my stand mixer.
Knowing your peaks – too often, one man’s “stiff peaks” are another man’s “soft mounds,” which can be confusing. Everyone should have at least one cookbook which shows the various states of egg white; if you don’t, grab your internet and go searching. I describe stiff peaks as peaks where when you pull your beaters upward, the peaks come with and remain standing at attention.
Sifting (even if you don’t want to) – I don’t always like to admit this, because it is very unprofessional of me, but I am not a sifter of flour, or dry ingredients in general. I will, however, do it if I know it benefits the recipe. Lumps happen to dry ingredients, and this is a case where you’re not going to get the opportunity to beat them into submission; sifting will make your product lump-free.
Not rushing the fold – a no-no for anything which requires folding. Folding something in to a batter is always going to be a slow, steady process where each stroke counts. Rushing it will mean more strokes and a bigger chance of deflating your mixture; going slowly and watching the process will keep everything lofty.
Paying attention – which you should do every time you bake something, egg whites or no, unless you have it so incredibly mastered you could actually do it in your sleep. You don’t want to do inadvertent things like, say, rapping the spatula against the bowl to remove the excess, or knocking the bowl around, because all of those things can lessen the poof.
Me talking may or may not convince you to make your angel cakes at home rather than buying them, but tasting it will. I guarantee you will taste the difference, both in texture and in flavor. If you’re concerned about what to do with all those extra yolks, save them: I’ll post a recipe for a grapefruit curd later this week which uses the exact same amount of yolks as you’ll use in whites for this recipe. And it just so happens that they taste perfect together.
Speaking of dependable cookbooks which show examples of peak stages, this recipe is adapted from The Complete America’s Test Kitchen TV Show Cookbook 2001-2010. A fantastic resource for sweet and savory items alike, especially for those of us who like to use solid base recipes to mess with.
- 1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
- 3/4 cup cake flour
- 12 large egg whites, yolks reserved for another use (like my grapefruit curd)
- 1 teaspoon cream of tartar
- 1/4 teaspoon table salt
- 2 teaspoons lemon juice
- 2 1/2 teaspoons clear vanilla extract (to preserve the intense whiteness; feel free to use regular pure vanilla extract, but your cake will be the lightest shade of ivory)
- 3/4 teaspoon almond extract
Make that cake:
Adjust the oven rack to the lower-middle portion of the oven and preheat to 325˚F. Do absolutely nothing to a removable bottom tube pan; no greasing!
In a medium bowl, combine 3/4 cup of the granulated sugar with the cake flour and whisk together. Set aside.
In a large bowl using an electric mixer, whip the egg whites and cream of tartar together on medium speed until foamy, about 1 minute. Increase the mixer to medium-high speed and whip the whites until they form very soft peaks, 1-2 minutes. Slowly add the salt, the remaining 3/4 cup of granulated sugar, 1 tablespoon at a time so it can dissolve evenly into the egg white mixture, until the whites are shiny and form soft-medium peaks, which should take another 2 minutes. Add the lemon juice and extracts and whisk for a few seconds more to distribute.
Sift the flour mixture, 1/4 cup at a time, over the egg white mixture and gently fold in using a rubber spatula. Work with each 1/4 cup of flour mixture and fold it in gently and purposefully, making sure each addition is fully incorporated before adding the next. Lightness is the key to angel food cake, so make each fold count. Avoid smacking your spatula up against the side of the bowl to clean it off.
Once everything is combined, scrape the batter gently into your tube pan and lightly tap the pan on the countertop a few times to settle the batter. Smooth the top gently using the spatula, but avoid pushing downward on the batter. Place in the oven and bake until golden brown, most likely a little crackly on top, and springy, 45-50 minutes, checking at the 40-minute mark for doneness.
Immediately upon oven removal, invert your cake pan over a sturdy bottle neck. You don’t want to defy the law of gravity? Cool, neither do I: do what I did and position 4 flat-bottomed cereal-like bowls on your cooling rack, then place the tube pan, inverted, on top. Your cake should balance on the four bowls easily. Cool the cake completely in this position, 2-3 hours.
Once cooled, run the thinnest, longest knife you have carefully along the edge of the cake to loosen from the sides; do the same for the inner ring. Position your hands and fingers in such a way that you can ease the bottom up and away from the rest of the pan, until you can invert it safely onto a cake plate. Flip it back right-side up and serve.
Angel cake is just one of those things that you want to eat right away, and you should: it’s best on day 1 or 2, but it will keep well stored in an airtight container for up to 5 days. Evidently you can make french toast out of the leftover pieces, should you have any. I haven’t tried this but I can only imagine that it would be delightful.