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American desserts don’t have a reputation for understated elegance, yet somehow we managed to invent angel’s food cake, the very portrait of restraint. No butter. No egg yolks. No nuts. No chocolate. Just sweetness and vanilla, magicked into a billowy cloud.
Europeans started making sponge cake back in the 1600s—always with whole eggs, often with a drizzle of butter, and generally spiked with sherry or rum. As lovers of both cake and rum, colonial Americans had a natural appreciation for the stuff, but they didn’t appreciate its tendency to collapse. Ever the innovators, they improvised a solution by sticking a glass bottle into the middle of the pan in order to conduct heat to the center of the cake so that it would bake in an even ring.
After centuries of European tradition, the first truly American sponge cake came from a Kentucky kitchen in 1839. In The Kentucky Housewife, Lettice Bryan introduced readers to an unusual cake made from egg whites whipped with sugar and lemon and orange juice, then folded with just a touch of flour. This clever recipe for “White Sponge” effectively stabilized the meringue with citric acid, and leaned on a high proportion of sugar, not yolks, to tenderize the otherwise lean cake.
White sponge gained wider recognition in 1864 with the publication of The Practical Cook Book in New York. Helen Robinson stripped the recipe down to sugar, egg whites, and flour. Despite its clinical name, white sponge captured the imagination of bakers in the 1870s, appearing frequently in cookbooks of the era, often with added cream of tartar and almond extract to make up for the loss of stability and flavor.
But it wasn’t angel’s food yet. That phrase originated way back in the sixteenth century with The Book of Common Prayer, referencing manna from heaven. It often turned up as a figure of speech in nineteenth-century cookbooks, describing anything sweet but wholesome, including earthly delights such as stewed apples and fruit salad. With its featherlight crumb, gleaming white hue, and fat-free formula, white sponge finally gave believers a dessert that lived up to such a heavenly name.
The first recipe to dub an egg white sponge “Angel’s Food” was The Home Messenger, an 1878 fund-raising cookbook for Detroit’s Home of the Friendless. The cookbook was littered with advertisements from donors, including the Dover Stamping Company—owners of the newly patented Dover Egg Beater. With a proper name and the right tool for the job, angel’s food exploded in popularity through the 1880s and beyond.
With every improvement to hand mixers, particularly as electric mixers took hold, angel’s food has enjoyed a resurgence of popularity. Yet despite our ever-increasing horsepower, we still make our recipes the exact same way, adding the sugar in small, painstaking increments. It’s the same method used for French meringue. The egg whites are brought to room temperature, beaten until foamy, stabilized with cream of tartar, and then carefully whipped with sugar, one spoonful at a time.
Problem is, angel’s food requires more sugar than a French meringue can handle, so the rest has to be sifted into the flour and folded in at the end. The sheer volume of dry ingredients makes that last step tricky, as over-mixing will deflate the fragile meringue (hence, many bakers are intimidated by angel’s food).
That approach, however difficult, was once a baker’s best bet, and the easiest method if whipping by hand. But with the horsepower of a modern stand mixer, it’s needlessly fussy, so I don’t fret over angel’s food. I throw the cold egg whites in a bowl, add my sugar all at once, and beat it. Just beat it.
This is probably the easiest meringue you’ll ever make. Just put some cold egg whites and sugar in a bowl, start whipping, and then stop before they’re stiff. With a squeeze of lemon for stability, this seemingly under-whipped meringue puffs the angel’s food until it’s as light as cotton candy. The lemon disappears in the oven, leaving behind a soft, tender vanilla cake.
While my angel’s food method won’t ever reach the lofty heights of a properly made French meringue (or a properly made Swiss one, for that matter), the truth is that it doesn’t have to—recipes for angel’s food universally call for a softly whipped meringue.
Whereas a stiff meringue has gained all the air it can hold, taxing the whites’ ability to stretch and expand, a softly-whipped meringue hasn’t reached its full potential, so it has plenty of strength and elasticity to inflate in the oven like a hot air balloon.
Since I know that’s the kind of meringue I need, I can dispense with all the unnecessary precautions, effectively trading potential volume for actual stability, eliminating the risk of collapse, and making angel’s food dead easy to prepare.
- 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons (5 ounces) bleached caked flour, such as Swans Down
- 2 cups (15 ounces) egg whites (from a dozen large eggs), straight from the fridge
- 2 cups (15 ounces) sugar
- 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
- 2 tablespoons (1 ounce) freshly squeezed lemon juice
- 1/4 teaspoon Diamond Crystal kosher salt (half as much if iodized)
How to Mix It Up
The success of this angel’s food hinges on bleached cake flour. It has a super-low protein content that can’t be faked with cornstarch or replaced by pastry flour. Look for brands like Swans Down or Softasilk in the baking aisle, and avoid anything marked self-rising or unbleached.
Because this recipe may present a couple of new techniques for the uninitiated, give yourself room to learn. Like a kiss, angel’s food only gets better with experience. That’s not to say your first time won’t be deliciously sweet, only that half the fun is in perfecting your technique.
And once you've mastered the recipe, you can switch it up with new flavors (and colors!):
Brown Sugar Cinnamon: A cozy flavor for fall, or to end a heavy holiday meal. Sift the cake flour with 4 teaspoons ground cinnamon, and replace the sugar with an equal amount of light brown sugar (dark will not work as well).
Chocolate: However angelic its texture, this variation turns out as dark as devil’s food. Reduce the cake flour to 3 ounces (2/3 cup), sifted with 2 ounces (2/3 cup) Dutch-process cocoa powder, such as Cacao Barry Extra Brute. After cooling the cake, use a slender knife or bamboo skewer to loosen it from the center tube too, as this version tends to stick.
Creamsicle: Pulse the cake flour with 2 tablespoons orange zest in a food processor for 1 minute. Replace the vanilla extract with 2 teaspoons orange flower water and the seeds from 1 Tahitian vanilla bean (split and scraped). Trade the lemon juice for 1 1/2 ounces (3 tablespoons) freshly squeezed orange juice.
Green Tea: The sweetness of angel’s food mellows the bitterness of Japanese matcha, for a mossy-green cake with an earthy but aromatic flavor. Sift the cake flour with 2 tablespoons matcha. I love to serve slices alongside Whipped Chocolate Crémeux (on page 263 of my book) with a scattering of Cocoa Nib Crunch (page 321).
Lemonade: Grinding lemon zest into the flour helps to release its essential oil, making this variation particularly aromatic. Pulse the cake flour with 2 tablespoons lemon zest in a food processor for about 1 minute. Omit the vanilla extract and salt. Increase the lemon juice to 1 1/2 ounces (3 tablespoons). Also lovely with lime juice and zest instead.
Roasted Sugar and Vanilla Bean: This is, without a doubt, my favorite way to make Angel’s Food. It’s not my “basic” recipe, because the process of roasting sugar is time-consuming, and not everyone keeps a vanilla bean on hand, but these two upgrades make the cake even more extraordinary. Replace the sugar with 15 ounces (2 cups) Roasted Sugar. Along with the vanilla extract, use the seeds from 1 Mexican vanilla bean, split and scraped.
Gluten-Free: Sift 2 ounces (1/2 cup) arrowroot, 1 1/2 ounces (1/3 cup) white rice flour, 1 1/2 ounces (1/3 cup) cornstarch, 1 ounce (1/4 cup) coconut flour, and 1 teaspoon baking powder into a medium bowl, then whisk to combine.
This piece was excerpted and amended from Stella Parks’ new book BraveTart: Iconic American Desserts. Reprinted with permission of W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.