Last year for his birthday, Aidan requested an angel food cake. This wasn’t actually the first time he made the request, but I managed to talk him out of it in past years, partly because angel food cake seemed boring and bland to me and partly because I was kind of intimidated by the prospect of making the cake. As a rule, anything that involves beating egg whites to various states of stiffness makes me extremely nervous. When I’m dealing with egg whites, I feel like I’m constantly standing on the edge of failure, and I am not a thrill-seeker. Still, Aidan was pretty insistent about angel food being the only kind of cake he wanted, so I got to work.
My first big decision involved buying a pan, which proved to be more complicated than I would have liked. See, angel food is one of those things that bakers seem to have very strong opinions about. And by strong, I mean that there are many angel food enthusiasts who have very specific ideas about the equipment and process one should use to make angel food and who are equally certain that deviating from these methods will result in a really crappy cake. The strongest of this contingent’s opinions revolve around the choice of a pan and the consensus seems to be that the ideal pan should be non-stick, slightly abused/well-loved from years of use, and have a releasable bottom. Basically, if you spend enough time reading about angel food cake best-practices, you will probably walk away from your research feeling like if you haven’t been fortunate enough to inherit a pan from your great-grandmother, you’re screwed.
The argument behind this ideal pan is that an abrasive surface on the sides of the pan will allow the cake to “climb” higher while baking, resulting in a lofty cake and tender crumb. This makes good sense to me, but the material reality of the situation was that the only pan I could find locally was a non-stick, single-piece tube pan. I thought pretty seriously about ordering a more ideal pan for upwards of $40 and then remembered that I am a broke grad student. So I decided that my cake would have to be motivated enough to climb non-stick pan walls. Having a releasable bottom still would have been preferable, but in lieu of that feature, I put a piece of buttered parchment paper at the bottom of the pan. (I can’t locate an exact source, but I’m pretty sure Martha Stewart told me this was an acceptable thing to do.) Once I ran a knife around the edges of the cooled cake, the parchment paper allowed the cake to slide right out of the pan without and problems and the finished cake seemed plenty lofty and light.
My second big decision was to use Ina Garten’s Lemon Angel Food Cake recipe because I generally trust Ina in high-stakes baking situations. The recipe was a very, very good decision and I would highly recommend it. The cake gets it’s lemony flavor from the addition of lemon zest, but I think you could just leave the zest out for a very good traditional angel food cake. Because I was nervous about the cake turning out, I was especially meticulous about following the recipe instructions. If it said to sift something together over and over, I did it. If it said to add something in half-cup increments, you better believe I measured that shit. If it said to beat something for a minute, I timed it. I don’t actually have a sifter, so I sifted everything by passing it through a fine-mesh strainer, which worked out really well. I’m not kidding when I say dealing with egg whites makes me nervous. But my care was rewarded. The resulting cake was awesome. The crumb was just right and the cake had great flavor—I couldn’t believe that I remembered angel food cake as boring and bland. Most importantly, Aidan was pleased. We ended up sharing this cake with four other friends and it received rave reviews from each one.
I also made up a lemon honey yogurt sauce from this Giada de Laurentis recipe to go with the cake—I left it on the side and let people add it if they wanted it. Honestly, I wasn’t the biggest fan of the sauce. The sauce itself was perfectly good but it reminded me of something you might put on top of pancakes or waffles, and I really didn’t think the cake needed anything else. However, everyone else (including Aidan) really liked the sauce and eagerly drizzled it over their cake slices. So when I make this again, I’d probably consider making the sauce as well to have on hand as an option for people.
Lemon Angel Food Cake (from Ina Garten, original recipe available on Food Network)
- 2 c sifted superfine sugar, divided
- 1 1/3 c sifted cake flour
- 1 1/2 c egg whites (10 to 12 eggs), at room temperature
- 3/4 tsp salt
- 1 1/2 tsp cream of tartar
- 3/4 tsp vanilla extract
- 1 1/2 tsp lemon zest (from 2 lemons)
- Preheat oven to 350F degrees.
- Sift 1/2 c of the sugar together with the flour. Sift the mixture 3 more times.
- Beat the egg whites, salt, and cream of tartar in an electric mixer using a whisk attachment. Beat on high speed until medium-firm peaks form. Reduce mixer speed to medium and add remaining 1 1/2 c of sugar by sprinkling it over the egg whites. Continue whisking until the mixture is thick and shiny. Add in vanilla and lemon zest and continue whisking for another minute or so until the mixture is very thick.
- Sift a quarter of the flour mixture over the egg white mixture and use a rubber spatula to fold it into the mixture. Continue this process, adding a fourth of the mixture each time, until the flour mixture has been completely incorporated.
- Pour the batter evenly into a 10” tube pan (ungreased) and bake for 35 to 40 minutes. It will spring back to the touch when finished baking. Take it out of the oven and invert the cake pan on a cooling rack until completely cool. When cool, gently run a knife around the edge of the cake to help release it from the pan.
Lemon Honey Yogurt Sauce (from Giada deLaurentis, original recipe available on Food Network)
- 1 c plain yogurt
- 1/4 c honey
- 1 tbsp lemon juice
Directions: Whisk ingredients together until smooth. Drizzle over slices of cake before serving.