As summer dinner parties go, it was darned near ideal.
A dozen of us were gathered around a big backyard table, enjoying a menu dictated by the host’s New Orleans roots: bite-size crawfish tarts, a robust shrimp gumbo, hearty jambalaya and a red beans and rice combination that transported my taste buds directly to humid, languid Louisiana.
All impressive, and delicious. But what sticks in my mind, all these weeks later, was dessert. It was a snowy-white angel food cake, a reflection of the hostess’ small-town Minnesota background.
She’d gleaned the recipe from years of watching her grandmother and father, both professional bakers, at work. She served it with a rhubarb compote, made from stalks harvested from her garden.
One bite in, and a forgotten obsession had been renewed. My mind started plotting. I’d have to dig out the long-neglected tube pan from the basement, add a few dozen eggs to my grocery cart and start baking.
I quickly discovered that others shared my affection for the cotton candy of cakes.
Michelle Gayer, for starters. When she was growing up in Iowa, the baker/owner of the Salty Tart in Minneapolis asked her mother, Janice, to bake an angel food cake for her birthday.
“Every single year,” said Gayer with a laugh. “Because it was so fancy, you know what I mean?”
That’s the beauty of angel food cake. It radiates a “deluxe” aura, yet its formula is simplicity itself, just egg whites, sugar, flour and flavorings.
“It’s super-simple to make, yes, but you do need some skills to do it,” said Gayer. This high-rising cake is something of a baking high-wire act, which is why I’ve added a few helpful tips, below.
One of its many miracles is how its impressive volume is achieved minus the benefit of an all-important leavening agent like baking powder or baking soda.
Instead, it’s just the egg whites – and air, and heat – that do the work of making the batter ascend in the pan, creating that delicate crumb that sets angel food apart from its leavened cake brethren.
Although humidity is not its friend (when dew points go high, this is a cake that should be made and enjoyed on the same day), angel food truly shines when the weather turns warm. Anyone who shows up at a picnic armed with an angel food cake earns automatic star status.
“It just screams summertime, right?” said Gayer. “It goes so well with ice cream, or whipped cream, something creamy. You can put any fruit on it. Think about angel food cake with fresh. That’s just heaven on Earth.”
TIPS FOR ANGEL FOOD CAKE
Superfine is essential: Plain-old granulated sugar can result in a heavy-ish cake. Superfine sugar is the way to go because it dissolves much more quickly, which helps keep the egg whites from deflating. It’s easy to make. Using a food processor fitted with a metal blade, process granulated sugar, a cup or two at a time. Give it a few pulses until it’s powdery, and, ta da: homemade superfine sugar.
Separate carefully: Don’t allow even a shred of egg yolk to sneak into the egg whites; yolks impede and can downright prevent whites from forming the peaks essential to angel food cake success. Separate the whites and yolks while the eggs are refrigerated, then allow the whites to warm to room temperature.
Keep it clean: All bowls (metal are best), whisks, spatulas and other kitchen tools that come into contact with egg whites must be completely fat-free. Best to wipe all equipment with a white-vinegar-dampened paper towel.
Go with the bean: Instead of using vanilla extract, Gayer prefers the flavor jolt of vanilla beans. She splits a vanilla bean and scrapes the seeds from half of the bean into the sugar-flour mixture at the beginning of the sifting process. “So it all goes together evenly,” she said. “Vanilla beans are really expensive these days – they’ve tripled in price. But if you’re rich, use the whole dang bean.”
Flip it: Skip the cooling-upside-down portion of the recipe at your peril. The cake’s weight can pull it down, reducing its showy height and compressing its impressively spongy texture.
Be patient: Yes, the sugar-flour mixture must be carefully incorporated into the egg whites, in stages. If done at all once, the weight will cause the egg whites to deflate.
Make an investment: Shop carefully, because well-treated chickens produce superior eggs, which lead to a more voluptuous and resilient meringue (that’s a two-dollar word for the engineering miracle that occurs when egg whites are whipped with sugar). Sure, the price can be $2 to $3 more per dozen, but when eggs are a recipe’s primary ingredient, it’s worth it.
Don’t toss the yolks: Save them for a lemon curd, or ice cream, or custard, or pudding; just use them within two days. Or freeze them; just whisk a small amount of salt or sugar (1/8 teaspoon salt, for savory uses, or 1 1/2 teaspoons sugar, for sweet uses, per 1/4 cup yolks) before freezing.
Add a finishing touch: For those in search of a glaze recipe, Lela chef Stewart Woodman has a total keeper in his 2011 cookbook, “Shefzilla: Conquering Haute Cuisine at Home” (Borealis Books).
Its secret ingredient requires some planning, but the effort pays off. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper, then evenly scatter the freshly grated zest from two oranges. Set it aside in a cool area for 24 to 48 hours, then crush (using a mortar and pestle) the flavor-concentrated dried zest into a fine powder.
The rest is easy. Once the cake has cooled, place a wire rack over a sheet of parchment or wax paper. Remove the cake from the pan and place it on the prepared wire rack.
In a medium bowl, whisk together 1/3 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice (from about two lemons), 2 cups powdered sugar and 1/2 teaspoon dried orange powder. (If mixture seems thick, add a little water). Slowly pour the glaze evenly over the top of the cake, guiding it with a spoon and letting some drip down the sides.
Classic Angel Food Cake
Note: Adapted from “Barefoot Contessa Family Style,” by Ina Garten.
2 cups superfine sugar, divided
1 1/3 cups cake flour (not self-rising)
1 1/2 cups egg whites (about 12 large eggs), at roomtemperature
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1 1/2 teaspoons cream of tartar
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 teaspoons freshly grated lemon zest (about 2 lemons)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a medium bowl, combine 1/2 cup sugar with flour, and sift 4 times. Reserve.
In a bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a whisk attachment, combine egg whites and salt. Add cream of tartar by sifting it over the egg whites. Whisk on low speed until foamy, about 1 minute. Increase to medium-high speed and whisk until eggs begin to form soft peaks, about 2 to 3 minutes.
Reduce speed to medium and gradually add remaining 1 1/2 cups sugar (sprinkling it over egg whites, 2 tablespoons at a time) and continue whisking until egg whites are thick, fluffy and glossy but not dry, about 2 to 4 minutes. Add vanilla extract and lemon zest and continue to whisk until very thick, about 30 additional seconds.
Transfer mixture to a large, shallow bowl. Evenly sift about 1/4 of the reserved sugar-flour mixture over the egg whites and, using a rubber spatula, gently fold it into the batter. Repeat with remaining sugar-flour mixture, adding and folding in fourths until all is incorporated.
Gently transfer batter into an ungreased 10-inch tube pan with a removable bottom. Run a thin-bladed knife through the batter (to release any air bubbles) and, using a rubber spatula, smooth the top. Bake until cake is lightly browned and springs back from a light touch, about 35 to 40 minutes.
Remove from the oven, and immediately turn pan upside down on a wire rack (if pan doesn’t have legs, invert it over the neck of a wine or other long-necked bottle). Cool cake, upside down, for at least 2 hours.
When ready to serve, turn pan right side up and run a long, sharp, thin-bladed knife along the edges and the center tube. Give cake a gentle shake to loosen it from the pan, and invert to a plate or rack. Using a small metal spatula, separate the cake from the pan’s bottom and center core, then invert again so cake is right side up. Slice, using a serrated knife, and serve with fresh berries (or a fruit compote) and freshly whipped cream. The cake can be kept in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 3 days.
Serves 8 to 10.