Angel Food Cake: A simple recipe and a simple story

by: Riyam Kafri AbuLaban

Recipe Taken from: Better Homes and Gardens Cook Book p. 169

Inside me resides a good old southern women who loves her fried chicken, collard greens, mac and cheese and sweet potato pie. Enter Angel Food Cake. My first contact with this cake came in the form of a Betty Crocker box.  I was a hungry and tired college student who was looking for a sugar fix. I whisked the box contents  with two cups of water, poured them into a pan, and in the oven it went. Thirty minutes later, nothing could have prepared me for what happened. Apart from the slightly burnt bottom, the pieces that made it into my mouth were super sweet, melt in your mouth pieces of fluff.  If we could eat clouds, this is what they would taste like.

Ingredients

1 1/2 cups egg whites (8-12 eggs, depending on their size)

1 1/2 cups sifted powdered sugar

1 cup sifted all purpose flour 

1 1/2 tsp cream of tartar

1 tsp vanilla

1 cup of granulated sugar

My obsession with the perfect cake is something I really cannot explain.  I want a cake that is spongy and springy that soaks up my worries with every bite.  And while my first love was chocolate cake, dark, mysterious yet sweet; my relationship with cake evolved in multiple directions, and  I found myself searching for the perfect piece everywhere I went. Angel food cake was many things I loved, it was spongy, springy, airy. It was a cross between cotton candy and cake; simply irresistible.

Fast forward a little over 20 years later.  I had just used 8 egg yolks to make Peter Rabbit Ice-cream Homemade Chocolate (Peter Rabbit) Ice-cream and in my excitement to add a little bit of mastic taste to it, added a bit too much.  My children’s faces were so disappointed, my heart broke.  I had all the dishes from the ice-cream making to wash, and 8 egg whites staring at me, daring me to throw them out.  I poured them into a glass container, closed it and put them in the refrigerator promising myself that tomorrow they will be put to good use and my creative juices will be flowing after the huge ice-cream disappointment. I don’t waste food,  I will serve leftover Mujaddara (lentils and rice pilaf) until I can no longer serve it. Nothing gets thrown out…

In a mixing bowl allow the egg whites to stand at room temperature for thirty minute while you sift the powdered sugar and flour together three times. 

A week later, while cleaning out the refrigerator, I pulled out the egg whites and on the spot made the decision to make angel food cake. It has been a while since we had a spongy cake sitting on the kitchen counter, I had taken a hiatus from baking. Summer was too hot and stuffy, and it was all about ice-cream and salads.

In a stand mixer bowl add cream of tartar, the 1 1/1 cups of egg whites and vanilla. Beat egg whites until soft peaks form. The peaks are foamy. Slowly add 1 cup of sugar, 2 Tbsp at a time. Continue beating until stiff peaks are formed. 

So, I pulled my Better Homes and Gardens cook book, I knew that I could count on it, and followed instructions meticulously.  The end result was a cloud of fluffy sugary crunchy crusted, soft as pillow center cake. The children loved it, and within an hour we had gone through  most of it!

Sift half of your powdered sugar and flour onto the egg whites, and fold them using a plastic or wooden spatula.  Then add half of the remaining amount, fold again, and add the last bit and fold again.  Be gentle, don’t let the egg whites collapse.  I have done this way too many times, and had the whites collapse and the cake was dense and not fluffy and very disappointing 

The origins of angel food cake are not clear, some say that it was first made by African-American slaves.  The earlier recipes were recorded in the 1800s with slight variations, but the signature here is no fats added, no butter, and definitely no egg yolks. One has to wonder why would anyone invent a cake that needed only egg whites.  What did they do with the egg yolks?  Or was this an act of food conservation?

The slightest presence of fat can cause the whites not whip into stiff peaks, however in other versions of the recipe, butter is added to the batter and stiffly beaten egg white are folded into it. I like the silver cake in particular.   Jessie Sheehan author of The Vintage Baker offers a great recipe.

Cakes are fascinating. A direct descendent of bread, with all its pleasures, cakes bring sugar, air, and gluten in an unbeatable mix. My quest for perfect cakes continues, on the other hand my pursuit to creating beautiful cakes from gorgeous Palestinian ingredients has just commenced. So stay tuned!

angelfoodcake1

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