|Once you know how to make a meringue, you might as well have a super power|
I became obsessed.
I read every recipe, memorized every tip and trick… I watched every video, and practiced every technique. I bought new oven thermometers, triple checked my measurements, and danced around a bonfire chanting hakuna matata… but still, the cake was a flop.
All I wanted was a soft as down, light as air, halo-wearing, beaming-with-inner-light angel food cake. Was that too much to ask?
I hate to admit stuff like this. It isn’t like me to fail over, and over, and over, and over… it just isn’t my style. If something goes wrong, I find what it is and I fix it. Simple as that. But not this time, it seemed. I was stumped. Beat. Confounded. More than that, I was ashamed – I mean, come on! How hard can it be?
“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” – Thomas Edison
Finally I got up the nerve to revisit my arch nemesis, The Angel Food, determined to conquer it once and for all. I strapped on my apron, pulled up my oven mitts, and adorned myself with the flour-dusted war paint of my peoples. What I discovered that day in the kitchen was nothing short of a revelation – the problem I faced was not with a cake, but with myself. Somewhere along the way, I had made a mistake, an oversight, and convinced myself so thoroughly that I knew what I was doing it became impossible to see. My failure, as it turns out, was in trying too damn hard.
(If you must know, a trusted source gave the wrong amount of flour, which I was convinced was correct – too little flour in an angel food cake will cause it to rise in the oven, then collapse back on itself because there isn’t enough structure to support the meringue).
Did I mention I hate to admit these things? It took me a year and a half, and countless test cakes to realize this one simple mistake. So why do I bother telling you? Because I don’t regret a thing. There’s an important lesson to be found here, and that is the ability to better recognize my own blind spots. Sometimes you stare at something long enough, you get tunnel vision. I also embarked on a journey I never would have otherwise gone on to learn everything I could about how to make the perfect angel food. And you know what? It’s not that hard!
It’s FAK Friday (Feeding my Appetite for Knowledge), and this week I want to share everything I know about Angel Food Cake. Last week I talked about how to leaven baked goods with baking soda, baking powder, and yeast… unlike other cakes, Angel Foods are leavened entirely by air! I made some rookie mistakes when first attempting this cake, and in my quest to figure out what I was doing wrong I became familiar with every aspect of what makes an Angel Food great. Now I’m a meringue-making master! Hopefully the tips and tricks I’ve learned along the way will provide the answers for anyone else struggling with these light and airy cakes, and make the whole process a little easier for those attempting them for the first time. Though it may seem complicated at first, perfect Angel Food is well worth the effort. I’ve tried to be as detailed as I can, but if something is missing or you have any questions, please leave them in the comments below!
I’ve included just about everything I know, but if you have any questions don’t hesitation to ask. At the bottom of the post you’ll find the recipe – who knows, tonight you could be dining with angels!
Angel Foods are baked in something called a ‘tube pan’, or sometimes even called an ‘angel food pan’. These have a hollow tube running through the middle which allows the cake to rise and bake evenly. Whatever you do, do not buy a non-stick tube pan, and do not grease your pan. For an angel food cake to rise, it literally needs to climb the sides of the pan. Greasing the pan would make that impossible, and would also deflate your delicate meringue.
You’ll also need a hand or stand mixer (whisking manually is possible, but I don’t recommend it), and a large metal mixing bowl. I prefer a hand mixer because it’s easy to get down to the bottom of the bowl, where some stand mixers can’t reach.
It is extremely important when whipping egg whites that there be no fat, grease, oil, or yolks anywhere! Before making your angel food, make sure all of your bowls, beaters, and utensils are thoroughly cleaned. After a quick wash, I like to put my whisk and everything into my mixing bowl, then fill it with warm water and a splash of white vinegar and swish everything around. The vinegar will help remove any traces of grease, and after a quick rinse and dry everything is ready to use.
Angel food cakes are made with a special kind of flour called cake flour. Cake flour is very finely milled, and is made from something called soft wheat, which contains less gluten than regular wheat. Less gluten means the flour won’t become tough or chewy, which is important for delicate cakes, and the lighter texture makes it easier to incorporate into a meringue.
To properly measure the flour, spoon it lightly into a measuring cup, then level the surface – do not pack the flour into the cup, as this will result in too much flour and a dense, heavier cake. Alternatively, measure the flour by weight using a kitchen scale. This is the most accurate method.
When making angel food, your flour should be sifted multiple times to incorporate air and make it even lighter. Some recipes will tell you to sift upwards of ten times, but at some point you have to say enough is enough. I find you only really need to sift 2-3 times to get good results.
I like to sift my flour over a sheet of parchment paper, which makes it easy to funnel back into my sifter without making a mess.
Angel Food Cakes are made up primarily of egg whites, which are whipped with sugar (and a little cream of tartar or other acid) to make a meringue. The most important thing when whipping egg whites is that there be no fat, grease, or oil anywhere near them – be extra careful when separating your eggs to not break the yolks. The best way to do this is to use three separate (and clean) bowls. Separate your white into bowl A., deposit the yolk in bowl B., and then dump the cleanly separated white into bowl C., and repeat. This way if a bit of yolk gets into bowl A., you’ll have contaminated one egg white instead of the whole batch. If a yolk breaks, discard the white (or set it aside and make an omelet), clean the bowl, and try again.
Egg whites can also be frozen in ice cube trays and then stored in the freezer in zip-top baggies for up to a few months. Whenever I make ice cream or custards which use a lot of egg yolks, I save the whites in the freezer. If you plan to use frozen egg whites, thaw them at room temperature well in advance. Whether fresh or frozen, egg whites whip best at room temperature or slightly above – you can set them out in a sealed container to warm up slowly, or you can set your eggs in a bowl of warm water for 10-15 minutes prior to separating them.
(There’s a debate about whether or not pasteurized, cartoned egg whites can be used. Some say they work like a charm, others say not at all. In my experience they make decent meringues, but not as good as freshly separated whites. If you choose to try pasteurized egg whites, be certain to read the list of ingredients – avoid anything that contains water, egg ‘product’ or other additives. Look for 100% egg whites.)
There are three stages to whipping egg whites – they are called soft peaks, medium peaks, and stiff peaks. You can recognize these by stopping the beaters, and lifting them slowly out of the meringue. If the whites fall back on themselves, they are soft peaks. If they hold their shape but droop at the tip, they are medium peaks. If they stand straight up without drooping, they are stiff peaks. If whipped too long, the whites will lose their glossy sheen, begin to deflate, and eventually turn into an almost styrofoam consistency – this is called ‘over whipped’ and is not good! To help prevent your whites from over whipping, keep a close eye on them and beat at medium (not full) speed. If your whites become over whipped, discard them and start again. See the photo below for a visual of soft, medium, and stiff peaks.
When egg whites are whipped, air forms tiny bubbles trapped within a structure of proteins. You can think of them like the expanding ball in the photos above. These proteins stretch and expand around the air to create a fluffy, cloud-like meringue. The proteins in egg whites are most flexible when they’re at room temperature, so be sure to take them out of the fridge at least an hour or two before you’re ready to make your meringue. And remember, if even a single drop of fat or yolk is present, the oil will grease the proteins and they will collapse. Imagine a pyramid of cheerleaders trying to hold each other up… now imagine them all slippery with grease. See? Wait, don’t get too carried away with that thought!
When making an angel food cake, medium peaks are best. When the cake goes into the oven, all those bubbles of air will expand, causing the cake to rise… but if the meringue is taken all the way to stiff peaks, the proteins will have already stretched to their maximum, and they won’t be able to make way for the expanding bubbles, resulting in a denser, chewier cake. The photo at the top of this post shows a good level of medium peaks for making angel foods.
The sugar is separated into two parts – half is added to the meringue, and half is sifted with the flour. Adding the sugar to the meringue helps to stabilize the protein structure, and sifting the rest with the flour helps to lighten the flour mixture and make it easier to incorporate. Because angel food cakes contain no fat at all, sugar also acts as a tenderizer, making the cake soft and delicate instead of rubbery like, well… scrambled egg whites!
Many recipes (including the one given below) suggest spinning regular granulated sugar in a food processor to create super-fine sugar. This will help the sugar incorporate quickly into the meringue, but is not absolutely necessary. Plain granulated sugar will work in a pinch. (Some recipes suggest using confectioner’s sugar, which contains corn starch. Corn starch can help stabilize a meringue even further, but I find I prefer the texture of a cake made with regular granulated sugar).
Once the flour is sifted and the meringue is whipped, the two need to come together. This is done by lightly sifting or spooning the flour over the meringue, and folding gently with a flexible spatula. To fold, cut through the middle of the meringue with the edge of the spatula, then bring the spatula towards you up the side of the bowl, literally folding the meringue up and over itself. Give the bowl a turn, and repeat the motion. Down the middle, up the side. Once you have a fresh surface of meringue, sift more flour over the top and repeat. The goal of folding is to incorporate the flour as gently as possible, so as not to pop all those delicate air bubbles and deflate the meringue. Try to do this in as few motions as possible, and do not stir! As soon as all of the flour is incorporated, stop. Don’t worry if it looks lumpy or rough, it’s okay.
|Check it out – I made an upside-down cake!|
The temperature at which an angel food is baked is very important – if it’s too low, the cake won’t rise like it should. If it’s too high, the top of the cake will set before the cake has fully risen, and it will stifle itself. Either way, the result is a less-than-airy angel food.
The temperature that works best for me is right around 350° F, but I’ve seen recipes ranging anywhere from 325° F – 375° F – what works for some might not work for others, especially if you’re in a humid climate or at high altitude. If you’re doing everything else right and your cake is still failing, try changing the temperature.
After baking, angel foods are immediately inverted (turned completely upside-down) to cool. This can be done by balancing the center tube of the pan over a bottle of wine or vinegar (see the photo below), or some angel food pans come with little metal feet which will hold the cake upside down right on the counter. My pan has those little feet, but I still prefer the old-fashioned bottle trick. Suspending the cake upside down while it cools helps the cake hold on to its height, and makes for a lighter, airier texture.
Altitude & Humidity:
Angel food can be somewhat sensitive to external conditions. If you live in a particularly humid area it may be necessary to add a dash more flour, or a touch of corn starch, to help stabilize your meringue. If you live at high altitudes you may find it necessary to increase the temperature slightly, or reduce the amount of sugar. Unfortunately, I don’t have much experience baking in these conditions, so I can’t give any exact instructions!
Heavenly Angel Food Cake
Adapted from the gods… and Alton Brown
Makes one 10″ angel food cake
1 cup cake flour (112g.), sifted after measuring
1 3/4 cups granulated sugar (about 12.5oz. by weight)
1/4 tsp. table salt
1 1/2 cups egg whites (about 12 ounces by weight, or about 9-10 large eggs), room temperature*
1 1/2 tsp. cream of tartar
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1/2 tsp. almond extract (or other flavoring, such as orange, lemon, or more vanilla)
*Many recipes call for “12 large egg whites”, but I find that to be almost half a cup too much liquid. Perhaps I have ginormous chickens, but either way I always prefer to measure by volume because size can vary so greatly.
1. Preheat your oven to 350° F. Clean your mixing bowl, beaters, and utensils thoroughly, and rinse with warm water and a splash of white vinegar to remove any grease. Separate your egg whites and bring them to room temperature.
2. Spin the sugar in a blender or food processor for 30-60 seconds, or until finely ground (not powdered). Add half of the sugar to the cake flour, and set the other half aside.
3. Sift together the flour, half of the sugar, and salt. Sift at least 2-3 times to make sure everything is evenly mixed and thoroughly aerated. I like to do this over a sheet of parchment paper so I can easily funnel the flour back into my sifter again and again.
4. Begin whipping your egg whites at low to medium speed. Once they start to become frothy, add the cream of tartar and increase the speed of your mixer to medium-high. I prefer to mix at medium speed, to ensure my egg whites don’t become over whipped.
5. Once the egg whites start to look fluffy and white, sprinkle in the reserved sugar 1-2 TBSP at a time, while mixing. Once all of the sugar is added, the meringue should look glossy and billowy. Continue to whip until medium peaks form (see above notes and photos for how to tell when you have medium peaks). In the last couple minutes of whipping, add your extracts.
6. Sift about 1/3rd of the flour/sugar/salt mixture over the top of the meringue, and fold gently with a flexible rubber spatula. Fold with a light hand so as not to deflate the meringue (see above notes on how to fold). Once the flour is just barely incorporated, stop folding – it’s okay if it still looks a little shaggy. Repeat two more times with the remaining flour, folding until just barely incorporated.
7. Gently pour your angel food batter into a clean, ungreased angel food or tube pan. Gently twist the pan back and forth to settle the batter – this will get rid of any large pockets of air, and will also ensure that the batter is in full contact with the sides of the pan, which will help it rise. Whatever you do, do not drop the pan against the counter, as this will pop the tiny air bubbles in the meringue!
8. Bake the cake on the middle-lower rack for about 35 minutes, or until the top is evenly golden brown. Do not open the oven door during the first 30 minutes of baking, as the gust of cool air may deflate your cake!
9. Once done, immediately invert the entire pan over a bottle of wine or vinegar (some angel food pans come with little metal feet, and can be flipped upside down right on the counter). Let the cake cool completely while suspsended.
10. Once cool, use a thin knife to cut around the edges of the pan. Remove the cake from the sides of the pan, then cut underneath to separate it from the bottom/tube part. Slice the cake with a serrated knife, and serve as is or with fresh fruit and whipped cream. Enjoy!
Once completely cooled, angel food cake can be wrapped in plastic and stored at room temperature for up to a few days.