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.
The recipe that, in fact, finally gave me the courage to tell his mother that I had baked her son an angel food cake from scratch for his birthday. Just as she used to do.
Her eyebrows slightly rose upon hearing that.
Then she gently laughed and shook her head: "Honey, I used a box mix."
I married him anyway.
Charlotte J. Crocker angel no-fool cake
Prep: 40 minutes
Cook: 30 minutes
Note: This recipe combines the best of Betty Crocker and Charlotte J. recipes with a few choice words of my own. My tips are offered to repudiate many of the "don'ts" that continue to be published with angel food cake recipes. Ignore me at your peril.
1 cup cake flour
7/8 cup sugar plus 3/4 cup sugar
12 egg whites
1 1/2 teaspoons cream of tartar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
1. Heat oven to 375 degrees. Measure the cake flour and 7/8 cup sugar into a bowl (for 7/8 cup, measure a cup, then remove 2 tablespoons); sift together. Set aside.
2. Combine the egg whites, cream of tartar, salt, vanilla and almond extract into the bowl of an electric mixer; beat on medium speed with electric mixer until soft peaks form. Slowly add the 3/4 cup sugar, beating on medium-high speed until combined.
3. Reduce speed to low; slowly mix in the flour-sugar mixture just until incorporated.
4. Gently spoon batter into a 10-inch aluminum tube pan. Gently cut through batter with a butter knife.
5. Bake until top of cake is golden brown and crusty, and top springs back when lightly touched, 30 to 40 minutes. Remove cake from oven; turn pan upside down. Let stand until completely cool, about 1 1/2 hours.
6. To remove cake from pan, carefully loosen all pan edges including the tube's with a butter knife. Invert onto your serving platter. To frost and fill, halve cake horizontally with a serrated knife, using a gentle sawing motion. Fill center and frost cake with whipped cream frosting.
Per serving (with frosting): 324 calories, 36% of calories from fat, 13 g fat, 8 g saturated fat, 49 mg cholesterol, 46 g carbohydrates, 6 g protein, 138 mg sodium, 0 g fiber.
Fortified whipped cream frosting
Before starting frosting, put the beaters and mixer bowl in the freezer to chill.
Put 1 1/2 tablespoons cold water in ramekin; sprinkle on 3/4 teaspoon unflavored gelatin. Let stand 5 minutes. Place ramekin in skillet filled with 1/2 inch water; heat, stirring constantly, until gelatin is clear and dissolved. Let cool, about 5 minutes.
Place 1 1/2 cups chilled whipping cream in the chilled bowl of an electric mixer; beat on medium speed until cream begins to thicken. Add gelatin mixture, 3 tablespoons sifted confectioners' sugar and 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla. Continue beating until soft mounds fall. Remove bowl from mixer; finish whipping by hand with a balloon whisk until cream thickens a bit more and holds its shape. Adapted from "Great Cakes," by Carole Walter.
A pro backs us up
We asked pastry chef Joanne Chang, author of "Flour: Spectacular Recipes From Boston's Flour Bakery + Cafe" (Chronicle, $35), for some angelic tips. We are proud to say that everything she recommended is backed up by the recipe and our hard-earned lessons:
• Sifting the flour is critical, she says, "to be sure it's as aerated as possible to keep the final crumb light."
• Why you don't overbeat the whites: "You want them at soft peak so that when the batter goes into the oven the whites still have some stretch in them. This allows the whites to grow and leaven the cake."
• Why sugar gets added in two different places: "Whipping too much sugar into the whites will give you a tough cake," she says. "Leaving some to fold into the cake will ensure the cake is moist."
• Chang recommends leaving the cake upside down until you serve it "to keep the crumb airy."
• The serrated knife and sawing motion are key because they won't compress the cake.
That odd measure tells me somebody tested this recipe a lot. Always a good sign.
Maybe the most important part of the list. Separate eggs one at a time — a speck of yolk or shell will prevent whites from properly whipping. With this method, you won't contaminate your eggs. You'll need two small bowls and one large bowl. Crack 1 egg; let the white drip into one small bowl. Set yolk aside in the other small bowl for future use. Transfer pristine egg white into the large bowl; repeat 11 times.
Be sure the expiration date has not passed. This ingredient helps stabilize the whites.
Do not beat until stiff, no matter what any recipe says!
Do not overbeat! You still don't want stiff peaks! Stiff whites will break your batter and cause the cake to sink.
This bucks recipes that say you must whisk in flour by hand. Incorporating on low produces a better batter. But if you're nervous, go ahead and whisk by hand — gently!
You can find cheap tube pans at thrift shops, donated by disgusted bakers who didn't have Charlotte J.'s recipe.
This breaks up any air bubbles in the batter. One time around is sufficient. And don't bang the pan on the counter! It's a cake, not a slab of meat.
Do not ever "turn cake around halfway through baking," no matter how trusted the source. Leave it alone, opening the door only when checking for doneness near end of baking.
A lot of recipes tell you to place the middle tube onto a bottle, neglecting to mention that a bottle that narrow has not existed since 1942. Many tube pans come with little tabs that accommodate this necessary step. Otherwise, place pan upside down on a few ramekins — anything stable that puts air between the pan top and the counter. And don't worry, it won't fall out. It's glued in there.
Whipped cream frosting is the easiest to spread on this tender crumb and complements beautifully. Berries are nice too.