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We should all have a solid command of the ABCs of baking. Thankfully, Food52's Test Kitchen Manager Erin McDowell -- alongside photographer Sarah Stone, who both blog at The Shutter Oven -- is here, with tips and tricks to help you master the most essential desserts and the simplest breads.
Today: Store-bought angel food cake is now a thing of the past. Bake it at home, easily -- just heed these tips.
Welcome to Baking Basics! In this column, we'll help you understand and perfect those pastry staples you want to get down pat. Today we’re starting with a summer favorite, something that begs for berries and a whole mess of whipped cream: angel food cake.
Angel food is one of the simplest cakes to make -- all you do is whip egg whites, then fold in just enough flour to set its structure. The result is an airy, light cake with a gorgeous, white, tender crumb.
There’s something about angel food that tends to steer folks away, even if they have mastered plenty of other cakes. Admit it: You’ve bought a store-bought angel food cake at least once or twice. But you shouldn't be afraid to make it on your own. Armed with a few basic tips, you're only about 90 minutes away from a homemade slice of cake on your plate.
Here’s what you need to know:
- Start with a clean bowl and clean tools. Angel food cake is made using the foaming method, which means that the base of the cake is essentially meringue. Any fat or grease clinging to the surface of the mixing bowl or mixer can prevent the egg whites from whipping up. The same goes for separating your eggs -- there can’t be a speck of yolk in your whites! So be thorough.
- Angel food cake uses cake flour to ensure an especially tender crumb structure. Sift the cake flour onto parchment paper to remove any lumps -- it’s important to do this before you begin to whip the egg whites, because once the meringue is at full volume, you want to work quickly.
- When you whip the egg whites, start on a low speed; this breaks up the proteins in the eggs and starts to create the foam. Once the mixture appears foamy, raise the speed to medium and begin to add the mixture of sugar, cream of tartar, and salt gradually. Pour the sugar mixture gently in a slow stream (don’t dump it all in at once -- this will crush the beautiful foam you’ve made). The cream of tartar lowers the pH of the albumen in the egg whites and introduces low levels of hydrogen into the mixture. This makes the whites more prone to denaturing and also prevents proteins from bonding to the whites while they whip, which makes for the most even and stable foam.
- Your meringue should be strong but not overly stiff -- if it’s too stiff, the mixture will be clumpy and dry. (This makes it very difficult to add the flour.)
- Adding the flour must be done quickly -- but carefully! -- to maintain the integrity of the meringue. First, add about a third of the flour and fold it in using a rubber spatula. This first addition can be mixed slightly more vigorously, because it serves to “temper” the egg whites: Adding a little flour at first makes it easier to incorporate the remaining flour. Once the first addition is fully incorporated, add the remaining flour in two to three more additions, folding very gently but ensuring it’s fully incorporated (you don't want any floury lumps in the batter).
- Pour the batter gently into an ungreased tube pan. The most important thing to note when choosing a pan for angel food cake is that the center tube should be higher than the walls of the cake pan. This is important for cooling and unmolding the finished cake.
- Smooth the surface of the cake carefully with an offset spatula. Unlike most cake batters that have lots of liquifiers (like oil or butter) inside, angel food batter won’t “even itself out” in the oven. So if you want the top to look pretty, you’ve got to do it yourself.
Before you serve your cake, be sure to have some berries and plenty of whipped cream on hand. Then slice away.
Makes one 9-inch cake
12 large egg whites, at room temperature
2 tablespoons water, at room temperature
1 1/4 cups superfine sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons cream of tartar
2 tablespoons lemon zest (from one large lemon)
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup cake flour, sifted
Whipped cream, as needed for serving
Berries, as needed for serving
Photos by Sarah Stone