Devil in disguise
One baker's tortuous odyssey to mastering angel food cake
A finished dish of the Charlotte J. Crocker Angel No-Fool cake. (Bill Hogan/ Chicago Tribune / June 16, 2011)
It looks so innocent, and it tastes so heavenly, and it is such a demon — the baking equivalent of those cute little kids in the movies who turn out to be Satan.
The first demonic truth: Angel food bliss cannot be achieved unless the cake is baked from scratch. Today's box mixes and most bakery versions are pale pretenders, which many bakers understandably fall back on after they've washed their hands of angel food disasters, and which are the reason a lot of people don't like angel food cake to begin with.
Of course I sound bitter. My own experience with this cake comes with a lesson for any baker foolish enough to ask her beloved what cake he wants her to make for his birthday.
The lesson being: If you're going to the trouble of baking someone a cake, just bake something you're good at. Or something with chocolate. Anything with chocolate invariably fools your audience into thinking you've suffered for your craft.
The angel food cake, on the contrary, looks easy and people think you have been coasting. (Note: Writer has just left the room to scream.)
OK, I'm back. In my case, the lesson was learned too late. Sadly, the gentleman topped the angel food request with this nugget: "My mother used to bake it for my birthday every year."
I shuddered when I heard this. Now I had to compete with his mother.
As an experienced home baker, I was well aware of the travails of this cake: It rises (and falls, oh, yeah) on the expertise of beating 12 egg whites into submission, with some help from cream of tartar. There's no butter. No oil. No baking powder. (And God knows there's no chocolate.) In other words: There is no safety net.
The beaten whites give this cake its lift, its fine crumb and — dieters, rejoice — its low fat and calorie content. The flavor of a well-made angel food cake is indeed heavenly — it's Mozart instead of Muzak — especially with whipped cream frosting and fruit.
But I am getting ahead of myself. The road to nirvana is riddled with trashed tube pans. (For those who are scoffing, who mastered this monster from the get-go, it's a good idea to stop here, grab a cup of empathy and go make your puff pastry from scratch. I have nothing to offer you.)
It took me many years. I used recipes from many vaunted cookbooks and baking experts, and my stupid cake never came out right. It came out sunken. It came out soggy. One cake managed both. True, the gentleman in question happily consumed all of those bad cakes (I thought he was being nice), and each time I insisted he take the entire cake home with him (he thought I was being nice).
This is a cake that can take you down.
The turning point came when, in desperation of having tried so many recipes from so many experts with so little success, I turned to the People's Cookbook. As in, the Internet. I might trust the Internet for financial advice or where to find a heart surgeon, but grabbing recipes off it has always made me nervous. Obviously, the situation was dire. I typed these words into Google: "angel food cake best."
And there it was. I may have heard a harp. A recipe from a woman named Charlotte J. who said it came from a "neighbor lady" and that it always worked.
I have since discovered that the recipe in my trusty Betty Crocker "Picture Cook Book" is nearly identical but offers very little in the way of Charlotte J.'s hand-holding directions. In any case, Charlotte J.'s and Betty's recipes buck many "don'ts" in the annals of angel food cakedom.
But I assure you, this cake has not failed me yet. What's more, I was able to apply a lot of the tips I'd learned along the way, which I will share here.
The most important lesson? I had spent a lot of time blaming myself for those flopped cakes, when all it took was finding the right recipe.