Baking an Angel Food Cake from Scratch -- You Can Do It!
Do Not Be Intimidated By The Egg Whites!
If the only angel food cake you've ever eaten came from a mix, you owe it to yourself to make one from scratch. There is no comparison in flavor! This cake is so tasty it needs no icing or topping, although they are not unwelcome. Many bakers are afraid to try angel food cake, though, because the main ingredient is egg whites. There is a bit of technique to creating one of these culinary delights, but the process is fairly simple. Also, if you keep chickens, it is an awesome way to use some of the over-abundance of eggs you might encounter.
First, find a recipe. Many variations can be found on the Internet and in cookbooks. Some call for cake flour and some for all-purpose flour. Don’t let the lack of cake flour stop you. I’ll show you a work-around shortly. Most angel food recipes call for a dozen egg whites; some call for 1 cup of egg whites. My favorite recipe actually says 18 egg whites! I’ll share that with you at the end of this article, in case you don’t have a recipe you want to try.
Next, assemble your ingredients. This is always a good idea, to ensure that you have everything you need before you start. Also, your egg whites will beat up faster if you bring them to room temperature first. If your recipe calls for cake flour and you don’t have any, grab the box of corn starch along with your flour. This is also a good time to get your pan, bowl, beaters, spatula, etc. out and make sure they are squeaky clean. Seriously, the slightest trace of grease will keep the egg whites from forming the peaks you need, so be sure your pan and utensils are grease-free. A 10” tube pan with a removable bottom is recommended for baking angel food cakes. If you know someone who has one you can borrow, do that before buying one. This is not the type of pan you’ll be using often, unless your cake comes out so good you decide to go into business baking them!
Now it’s time to separate your eggs. If you have an egg separator you can use it. The best separator in the world is your own two clean hands. Do yourself a huge favor, though. Separate your eggs one at a time, putting the yolk in one container and the white in a small bowl. After you have the yolk safely away from the white, unbroken, then dump the white into the measuring cup or mixing bowl. Once in a while, a yolk will break in your hand and the slightest trace will keep the whites from forming peaks. When that happens, you can’t use that egg white. So, it’s better to waste one white than a dozen. Trust me on this; I have learned it the hard way. You can save the yolks for pudding or mayonnaise if you like, or feed them to your critters, or throw them away. That’s up to you.
When your egg whites are ready, wash up and get ready to sift! You don’t need a fancy sifter for this. A wire mesh strainer works just fine. Sifting is important, so don’t skip it. It separates the flour particles, and sugar, too, if you sift the two together, and puts air between them. You’re going to add a lot of air to your egg whites and you don’t want the flour being clumpy and smashing the egg whites back down, so you need plenty of air in the flour. Some recipes say to sift three times; some say five. I like to go with five, just to be sure. Use two small mixing bowls or large cereal bowls, or you can sift onto a sheet of parchment or waxed paper. Put the flour into whatever you’re sifting in, shake it all through, toss any lumps left in the bottom, then do it again.
Now, turn on the oven to preheat. You have your sifted flour patiently waiting its turn. It’s time to beat the eggs. I like to use a stand mixer for this, with the whisk attachment, but you can use a hand mixer. Some brave souls beat their egg whites by hand with a whisk, and that’s fine, too. The stand mixer is the fastest, though, and for me, less messy. If you are not using a stand mixer, be sure you are using a large mixing bowl because those egg whites are really going to expand! Put your egg whites in the mixing bowl if you haven’t already, and start beating on high. When they start getting bubbly, add whatever salt, cream of tartar, and flavoring your recipe calls for. Cream of tartar is not something most people use often, but it really gives egg whites stability, so be sure to use it. Your recipe will probably also call for some sugar to be added while beating. Add about 1/2 cup at a time, sprinkling it on top of the egg whites, rather than dumping it in all at once. When you have everything added except the sifted flour, keep beating until the egg whites are shiny, white, and stiff. When you stop the mixer and pull the beater out of the whites, it should form a peak that maybe falls over just a tiny bit on top. If the peak falls over a lot, beat a little bit more. When the peaks are stiff, take out the beaters and scrape them back into the bowl. Do not bang them on the edge of the bowl! Those air bubbles you just put into the egg whites are fragile and you don’t want to pop them.
Next, you want to fold the sifted flour into the egg whites. You have to do this slowly and gently so as not to flatten the egg whites back down. A rubber or silicone spatula (also called a bowl scraper) works best for this, but if you don’t have one, use a large, metal spoon. I would not use a wooden spoon because it could have traces of grease in the wood that would mess up the egg whites. Sprinkle about 1/3 cup of the sifted flour on the top of the egg whites. Sink the edge of the spatula right down through the middle of the bowl, all the way to the bottom. Turn your wrist, and bring the spatula up the edge of the bowl. It will bring up a big gob of egg whites with it. Turn your wrist to dump the egg whites into the middle of the bowl. Turn the bowl a quarter of a turn and do it again. This is called “folding”. You can see how you are lifting the egg whites and folding them over onto themselves. Fold a few times until you have all that flour covered. Sprinkle on another 1/3 cup of flour and repeat the process. Keep doing this until you have all the flour worked in. It’s important not to stir (move the spatula around in a circle through the egg whites.) That will pop the bubbles and make your egg whites go flat and all this will be a big waste.
When all the flour is in, it’s time to put your batter into the pan. Use the spatula to spoon it in. Smooth it down and around the tube in the middle. I hope you did not grease your pan! Remember, grease is the enemy of angel food cakes! When all the batter is in and the bowl is scraped, take a butter knife or table knife and run it through the batter a few times. Sometimes when the batter is going into the pan, large air bubbles are created between spoonfuls. The knife will break those bubbles, so everyone gets a nice piece of cake with no big holes in it. Put the pan into your hot oven, set the timer, and clean up the mess. I like to peek in the window (but don’t open the oven door!) and watch the cake rise. NOTE: if you live in a mobile home, trailer, off-grade house, or any other dwelling where the floor can shake, this is not the time to dance in the kitchen! Try to keep people from slamming doors or anything else that can shake the floor or you might wind up with a fallen cake. They’re still edible, just not as pretty. When the cake is done, take it out and let it cool. Hanging the cake on the neck of a glass bottle is a good way to cool it. When it’s very cool, remove from the pan and enjoy!
* Cake flour substitution: For each cup of cake flour called for, place 2 tablespoons of cornstarch in 1 Cup measure, then finish filling with flour.
Angel Food Cake
18 egg whites
2 teaspoons cream of tartar
1 pinch of salt
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 1/2 cups white granulated sugar
1 cup cake flour
1/2 cup powdered (confectioner's) sugar
Sift flour and powdered sugar together five (5) times. Set aside. Beat egg whites until foamy. Add cream of tartar and salt. Gradually add the granulated sugar; continue beating until stiff peaks form. Add vanilla. Fold flour/sugar mixture into egg whites, 1/3 cup at a time. Put batter in UNGREASED pan. Bake at 350 degrees, 45 -55 minutes. Top will be brown with cracks. White cake in cracks should be a little dry. Cool completely. Remove from pan. Enjoy!