- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Angel food cake makes me laugh because I invariably think of the silliest cliches: light as a feather, pure as the driven snow, delicate as a cloud.

Cliches notwithstanding, angel food is perfect with summer fruit. It’s not heavy, so you can eat a piece even if you’re watching your caloric or fat intake. It doesn’t really work for low-carb diets, but let’s face it: Everyone needs a little something sweet once in a while.

Because angel food is basically a lot of egg whites whipped up with sugar and folded with flour, it is a pretty easy cake to make. Here are some hints that make the process foolproof or, at least, as foolproof as any baking technique can possibly be.

The pan. Use a 2-piece plain aluminum tube pan. For this, the pan bottom and central tube are one piece, and the pan side is another. Such pans usually are about 10 inches in diameter and hold about 12 cups. To prepare the pan, wash and dry it thoroughly, but never grease it. Above all, don’t use a nonstick pan. To bake properly, angel food (as well as some sponge cakes and chiffon cakes) needs to climb up the side of the pan during baking. This means it actually sticks to the pan. Don’t worry. It’s easy to separate the cake from the pan later with a long, thin knife.

Separating eggs. When they’re cold, eggs are easier to separate. After cracking the egg, pass the yolk once into the other half of the shell. Passing it back and forth repeatedly can cause the yolk to break and ruin the egg whites. Egg whites that have specks of yolk in them won’t whip well, and you’ll end up with an angel food pancake.

Whipping egg whites. Let the egg whites come to room temperature for an hour after the eggs are separated. Whip the egg whites on medium speed, giving them plenty of time to develop a good, stable foam. Once the egg whites are able to hold a very soft peak, increase the speed to medium-high and add the sugar in a slow, steady stream, continuing to whip the egg whites until they hold a soft, glossy peak. Less is definitely more where egg whites are concerned, and you’ll wind up with a better cake if the egg whites are a little underwhipped rather than overwhipped.

Incorporating the flour. Sift the flour (usually mixed with some of the sugar) over the whipped egg whites, folding it in gently but thoroughly with a large rubber spatula. The most important part of this operation is scraping the flour up from the bottom of the bowl as you cut through with the spatula. If you don’t, much of the flour won’t mix in with the batter, resulting in both lumps and a fallen cake.

Baking the cake. Once the batter is mixed, it’s easy to transfer to the pan with a large metal kitchen spoon, adding large spoonfuls of the batter next to each other in the pan. Bake the cake until it is well-risen, deep golden and feels springy when pressed with a fingertip. If you see the cake starting to shrink away from the sides of the pan, it is overbaked. Watch carefully.

Cooling. Yes, you actually do turn the pan and cake upside down, and the cake doesn’t fall out. Some pans have feet on the top, so you can just invert the pan to the countertop to cool the cake. Pans that don’t have little feet need to be suspended by the central tube over a bottle. Most wine bottles are perfect for this. Just don’t forget to test the fit of the pan and the bottle before you fill the pan and bake the cake. By the way, when the cake cools like this, hanging in the pan, it retains its full height. If you leave it in the pan in the same position in which it is baked, the cake will collapse and fall.

Unmolding. After the cake has cooled, turn the pan right side up again and loosen the cake from the side of the pan with a long, thin knife. Lift the central tube out of the pan with the cake stuck to it.

Run the knife between the pan bottom and the cake to loosen it. Use fingertips to gently pry the cake away from the central tube at the top, then courageously invert the cake to a platter and remove the pan bottom/central tube.

Serving. Use a sharp, serrated knife to cut angel food cake or tear the cake into wedges with two forks, back to back.

Note. The recipe and the variation that follow use two different approaches for the flour. The plain angel food cake is made with bleached all-purpose flour, while the cocoa-flavored cake uses self-rising cake flour. If you can’t find self-rising cake flour, use self-rising all-purpose flour.

Classic angel food cake

Using all-purpose flour for this is a departure from classic procedure, but it works very well. Garnish the cake with berries and whipped cream, if you like. It’s always fun to serve fruit with angel food cake.

1½ cups sugar, divided

1 cup bleached all-purpose flour (spoon flour into dry-measure cup and level off)

1½ cups egg whites (from about 12 large eggs)

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon strained fresh lemon juice

1 teaspoon vanilla

Set out a 10-inch tube pan (not nonstick) with a removable bottom, ungreased, and a narrow-necked bottle to hang the cake on after it is baked. Set a rack in the middle level of the oven and preheat oven to 325 degrees.

Put 3/4 cup sugar into a small bowl and set it aside for later. Stir remaining 3/4 cup sugar and flour together in a bowl and sift them once onto a piece of waxed paper.

Combine egg whites and salt in bowl of an electric mixer. Use whisk to whip egg whites on medium speed until they are foamy. Add lemon juice and vanilla, and continue whipping until egg whites begin to hold their shape. Increase speed to medium-high and whip in reserved 3/4 cup sugar in a slow, steady stream. Continue to whip egg whites until they hold a soft, glossy peak.

Remove bowl from mixer and quickly sift a third of the flour and sugar mixture over the whipped egg whites. Gently fold in with a rubber spatula. Repeat with another third of the flour mixture and fold it in, then end with remaining flour mixture, folding it in.

Spoon batter into pan and smooth top. Bake cake in preheated 325-degree oven for 45 to 55 minutes or until it is well-risen, deep golden and firm to the touch.

Remove baked cake from oven and invert pan onto the neck of the bottle. Cool cake completely. Unmold the cake. Store under a cake dome or loosely wrapped in plastic. Makes about 12 generous servings.

Cocoa angel food cake with raspberry compote

Make the preceding recipe for classic angel food cake with these exceptions:

Substitute 1 cup self-rising cake flour for the flour.

Add 1/3 cup alkalized (Dutch process) cocoa to the flour and sugar mixture, sifting together, as in preceding recipe.

The remaining ingredients and procedures are the same. Serve with raspberry compote (recipe follows).

RASPBERRY COMPOTE:

2 ½-pint baskets fresh raspberries, divided

1/4 cup sugar

1 tablespoon raspberry liqueur

1 teaspoon lemon juice

Crush a quarter of the berries and stir in sugar, liqueur and lemon juice. Gently fold in the remaining berries. Serve a large spoonful with each wedge of cake. Makes about 12 generous servings.

Nick Malgieri is the author of “Perfect Cakes” (HarperCollins).

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