Light and Airy as a Spring Day
Angel cake is a great way to use up fresh egg whites.
Spring is a beautiful time of year in New England. Easter is a big part of that, offering all of us new beginnings, growth and hope. When I was a child Easter was my favorite holiday. It was a new day and it also meant summer was on the way. Nothing brings me back to that time more than angel cake, sometimes called angelfood cake or angel food cake. Named because of its airy, puffy lightness, it is “the food of angels.”
As the story goes, angel cake was invented to use egg whites that were leftover from making pasta at the turn of the 19th century. But it became popular in the early 20th century when mixers were all the rage. Mixing egg whites to stiff peaks by hand can be quite the chore, even today. White, light and fluffy angel cake has no fat, no cholesterol and is considered a “foam” cake. Made with whipped egg whites, caster sugar (super-fine granular sugar) and low-gluten, high-starch flour. Egg whites are acidic when fresh, but you will always see a touch of cream of tartar (natural acid in grapes) added to increase acidity because that’s when egg whites whip the best. As egg whites age they turn alkaline, so never keep egg whites around too long after separating from the yolks. Use them for something soon, hence angel cake.
Devil’s food cake is classified as a “butter cake,” while the reverse is the “foam cake” angel food. Homemade angel cake has no resemblance to the store-bought “Styrofoam” cake by the same name. As with most cake recipes, the recipe must be in balance. Change one ingredient and you must change the others. Angel cake is easy to make but care must be taken. Attention to detail is crucial but well worth the effort. Try the recipe below and I’ll make notes to walk you through the process of this standard universal recipe. Happy Easter!
1 1/2 cups fresh egg whites
1 1/2 cups super-fine sugar, divided
1 cup cake flour (sifted four or five times)
1 teaspoon cream of tartar
Pinch of salt
2 teaspoons vanilla extract or 1 teaspoon
On a sheet of parchment paper or waxed paper, sift together 3/4 cup sugar with the one cup cake flour. Sift four or five times then set aside while whites whip.
In a spotlessly clean and dry stainless steel mixing bowl using a whip attachment, whip the egg whites till frothy. Once frothy, add the cream of tartar and salt. Increase the mixing speed to medium high and start adding the sugar one tablespoon at a time.
Beat egg whites to soft peaks. Most recipes say whip to stiff peaks, but that’s too much. The egg whites have no room for expansion in the oven and the cakes will fall.
Remove egg whites mixture from mixer and fold in the sifted cake flour/sugar mixture. Fold flour gently in five stages, folding from the sides down into egg whites and back up through the middle. Move quickly but gently.
Deposit batter into two bread loaf pans. The standard pan is a bundt pan but I’ve had great success using bread pans. Pans need to be clean and dry — do not grease these pans.
Bake at 325 degrees for about 45 to 55 minutes. The cake is done when it springs back in the center. Remove from the oven and cool upside down on a screen or baking rack till cooled thoroughly. Once cool, slide a thin knife around the edges and tap the pans on the table to remove cake.
Traditionally, we were told to cut the cake using two forks to tear apart, but I’ve had great success using a long serrated slicing knife. Cut with a back and forth motion and never pushing down.
When using a flavoring, use one or the other, like vanilla extract or almond extract, not both. One overpowers
Grated lemon zest works nice for a fresh lemon angel cake.
For chocolate angel cake, replace 1/4 cup flour for 1/4 cup natural cocoa powder.
This recipe makes two loaf pans but also will make one standard bundt pan.
I prefer angel cake plain but it’s also very nice with fresh fruit and/or a sauce like caramel, chocolate or strawberry sauce.