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Angel Food Cake

Angel food cake is a classic American cake. It is a white sponge cake made with stiffly beaten egg whites and no butter. Only a small amount of finely sifted soft flour and sugar is added. My mother regularly made them and back then she had no electric mixer to do the hardest work, whipping the egg whites to a soft peak.

Julian's Angel Food Cake with Fresh Berries
She used either a hand crank mixer or a wire whisk for this purpose, and of course hers came out perfect every time. My mother always said the key to baking was baking often. I think that is a very true phrase. She baked pies, cakes and cookies every week.

Use the KitchenAid Mixer Wisk Attachment if You Can
The first recipe in a cookbook for a white sponge cake is in Lettice Bryan's The Kentucky Housewife of 1839. The Home Messenger Book of Tested Recipes, 2d ed., 1878, by Isabella Stewart contained the first recipe for Angel's Food Cake. Stewart's detailed recipe called for eleven egg whites, sugar, flour, vanilla extract and cream of tartar, not much different than the recipe I use below, which came from Cooks Illustrated.

I make my cake snowy white and as such don't use a toasted sugar, but I have a friend that insists toasting the sugar really improves the flavor making it more complex. If you need instruction how to toast sugar, see this blog entry.

The key to a successful angel food cake comes from two things. First, a good tube pan is required.

Ideally it should be a non-stick pan with a removable bottom. Even though it is non-stick, the cake will adhere to the sides of the pan so it doesn't collapse while baking. I use Chicago Metallic Angel Food cake pan which I got on Amazon. I strongly recommend a pan of this design. The prong around the rim and the taller center tube mean it is easy to turn the pan upside down straight from the oven to cool. Otherwise you're looking for a bottle to achieve this with other pans. Further the removable bottom means it's easier to get out of the pan, which can always be a challenge for this cake. However, it means most other cakes won't work in this pan, as it will leak standard batter.

Julian's Cake Upside Down on Prongs Cooling
Second, patience is the key to success. To build a complex structure that will not collapse, the egg whites are slowly worked up to a soft peak, with the speed of the mixer increased slowly as you proceed. Where the recipe says 'one tablespoon at a time' it really does mean that, and not rushing them together. You sift the flower and sugar once, and then you sift it again into the cake. You gently fold in the flour/sugar mixture a few tablespoons at a time. All of this requires a patience.

Julian's Angel Food Cake Ready for the Oven
Berry Topping: While the cake cools, I'd suggest you macerate some berries with sugar and a little Grand Marnier. If you're feeling ambitious, pour the juice into a small pot after an hour or so of maceration. Toss in a 1/2 cup or more of berries and slowly cook down to thicken. Press the mixture through a fine sieve and discard the solids. Stir in any addition juice from the berries may have released and then stir the thickened sauce onto the berries. Your berry topping is now ready for the cake.

Julian's Angel Food Cake

Ingredients (serves 10 to 12)
1 cup sifted cake flour (3 ounces)
1 1/2 cups sifted granulated sugar (10 1/2 ounces)
12 large egg whites (1 3/4 cups plus 2 tablespoons)
1 teaspoon cream of tartar
1/4 teaspoon table salt
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 1/2 teaspoons lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon almond extract

Instructions
Sift both the cake flour and the granulated sugar before measuring to eliminate any lumps and ensure the lightest possible texture.

Adjust oven rack to the lower-middle position and heat oven to 325F degrees. Have ready an ungreased large tube pan (9-inch diameter, 16-cup capacity), preferably with a removable bottom. If the pan bottom is not removable, line it with parchment or wax paper.

In a small bowl, whisk the flour with 3/4 cup sugar. Place remaining 3/4 cup sugar in another small bowl next to the mixer.

In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, or with a handheld mixer, beat egg whites at low speed until just broken up and froth bubble size has reduced to small bubbles. Add cream of tartar and salt and beat at medium speed until whites form very soft, billowy mounds. With the mixer still at medium speed, beat in 3/4 cup sugar, 1 tablespoon at a time, until all sugar is added and whites are shiny and form soft peaks. Add vanilla, lemon juice, and almond extract and beat until just blended.

Place flour-sugar mixture in a sifter or fine sieve set over a bowl or waxed paper. Sift flour-sugar mixture over egg whites about 3 tablespoons at a time, and gently fold it in, using a large rubber spatula until it is all combined. (Sift any flour-sugar mixture that falls into the bowl or onto the paper back into the bowl with the whites and fold in.)

Gently scrape batter into the tube pan. Drag a butter knife through the cake mixture to release air bubbles without touching bottom or sides, then give pan a couple of taps on the counter. Smooth the top.

Bake until the cake is golden brown and the top springs back when pressed firmly, 50 to 60 minutes.

If cake pan has prongs around the rim for elevating the cake, invert pan onto them. If not, invert pan over the neck of a bottle or funnel so that air can circulate all around it. Let the cake cool completely, 2 to 3 hours.

To unmold, run a knife around edges, being careful not to separate the golden crust from the cake. Slide cake out of pan and cut the same way around removable bottom to release, or peel off parchment or wax paper, if used.

Place the cake, bottom-side up, on a platter. Cut slices by sawing gently with a serrated knife. Serve the cake the day it is made with a berry compote (discussed above).

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