Being a student at The Culinary Institute of America is an opportunity to learn more about food than you ever knew was possible. CIA students study, cook, bake, and taste, taste, taste—always tasting. With all of that tasting, you are bound to be surprised from time to time, and luckily, most of those surprises are good!
As a graduate of the CIA’s Baking & Pastry program, I can still remember one of my biggest and most unexpected surprises like it was yesterday. As part of a lesson on mixing methods for cakes, my classmates and I were tasked with preparing classic, no-frills angel food cake.
Before that day, angel food cake was something people served from a plastic grocery store tray with some strawberries and whipped cream. It was fine, but it always felt like a diet food—something my mom’s friends were eating because they thought they should, not because they wanted to.
But then that day in class, as we all proudly inverted our pans to see tall, golden brown cakes made from nothing but eggs, sugar, and flour, I reconsidered my relationship with angel food cake. Because when we tasted these cakes? Well, they were delicious! They were sweet, but not cloying. Tender, but not crumbly Soft, but not dry. It was the perfect little snacking cake, barely even related to the ones I knew from the grocery store.
If you’ve never had an angel food cake , it is a light, spongy cake made with beaten egg whites and sugar (meringue), stabilized with flour. All of the leavening in an angel food cake is supplied by the air that is whipped into the meringue, meaning it contains no ingredients like baking soda or baking powder. It is lightly flavored—maybe a dash of vanilla or almond extract—with some richness from the golden exterior.
It is drier than sponge or chiffon cakes because it does not contain any fat (including the pan—no greasing required!). These cakes have a unique structure that makes them less desirable for use in layer cakes or as a component of any layered, sliced dessert or pastry. That’s why it is so often enjoyed on its own, or beside fresh fruit and maybe a cream or custard sauce.
If, like me, angel food cake has a less-than stellar reputation in your memory, give it a try. It is simple to prepare, but kind of hard to resist once it’s on your counter! Ready to make your own? Here’s our recipe, and some of our key tips below.
- Assemble all equipment and ingredients and sift the flour before beginning to mix. It is important to assemble all equipment and ingredients prior to beginning mixing, as thorough preparation will ensure the batter goes from the mixer to the oven in the shortest amount of time; reducing the time the batter stands in the mixer will prevent a loss of volume in the batter and thus should result in a cake with maximum volume. Ensure that all tools and equipment are clean and completely free of fat.
- Beat the egg whites until they form soft peaks. Continue whipping and add the sugar, streaming it in gradually with the machine running. All of the leavening in an angel food cake is supplied by the air that is whipped into the meringue. Eggs lend stability to a product when baking. They also have leavening power; egg whites especially, as they are whipped, trap air that expands when heated. This ultimately creates a larger and lighter product, as demonstrated in this cake’s characteristically spongy and airy texture. When sugar is added in the whipping process, the combination of the eggs’ moisture along with the mixing agitation causes the sugar to begin dissolving; the sugar in turn coats the air bubbles in the eggs, making them more stable.
- Once the meringue has medium, glossy peaks, fold in the sifted dry ingredients by hand, working quickly to reduce the deflation of the beaten egg whites. Flour acts as perhaps the most common stabilizer in baking; its gluten content (the protein component) builds structure and strength in baked goods. It is important that the flour is sifted, as sifting introduces air into the mixture as well as preventing an uneven, lumpy texture.
- Sprinkle the ungreased tube pans with a small amount of water before adding the batter to help develop a thin crisp crust on the cake.
- Scale the batter into each prepared tube pan. Bake until the cake springs back when lightly touched.
- Invert each tube pan onto a funnel or longnecked bottle on a rack to cool. Alternatively, for each cake, invert a small ramekin on top of a rack and prop the cake pan on the ramekin, upside down and at an angle. Let the cakes cool completely upside down.
- Carefully run a palette knife around the sides of each pan and around the center tube to release the cake. Shake the pan gently to invert the cake onto the rack.
Laura Monroe, '12 — DISH Editor