I’m a member of a group of bakers that meets to discuss everything from the nuts and bolts of small-business baking to our favorite brands of butter. With so much in common, some of us wondered what would happen if we all baked a cake following the same recipe. Would we end up with identical cakes?
We decided to find out. Everyone in the group baked an angel food cake following one member’s favorite recipe. The results were dramatic. The 35 participants showed up with 35 completely different cakes. Some were five inches tall, others three inches short; some stood straight, others were lopsided; there were brown cakes, tan cakes, and ones that were pristine white; smooth cakes, crumbly cakes; tender ones and chewy ones. As one observer noted, “The only thing they had in common was a hole in the middle.”
Seeing all those cakes side by side convinced me that to make a great angel food cake you need more than a good, well-balanced recipe—you also need a solid understanding of baking techniques. After years of testing different proportions and methods, I’ve found that several things are essential to an angel food cake’s success. First, the ingredients: cake flour and a combination of confectioners’ and granulated sugar ensure a delicate texture, while fresh, slightly cool egg whites provide a tall, well-structured cake. Next, the techniques: how you handle those ingredients determines whether your cake is tall and tender or flat and chewy. Carefully whipping the whites and gently folding in the dry ingredients provide the most volume and tenderness. Baking the cake at the right temperature allows it to fully expand and bake through before the cake’s structure is set.
Cake flour makes a tender cake; Sugar makes it stable
For a fine-crumbed, tender angel food cake, use cake flour. Because it’s low in protein, there’s less gluten, which can toughen a cake. And cake flour’s fine particles are especially easy to fold into the batter.
I like to use a combination of granulated and confectioners’ sugar to take advantage of the best properties of each. Adding granulated sugar to the egg whites makes a meringue, which gives you a more stable and much airier foam than egg whites alone. But if you use too much sugar or add it too quickly, a heavy syrup will form, which would burden the whites and weigh down the cake as it bakes.
Confectioners’ sugar dissolves too quickly when added to egg whites. Rather than form a stable foam, it makes an icing-like mixture. But when added to the dry ingredients, confectioners’ sugar helps disperse the flour particles more evenly, making it easier to fold into the egg whites. Its minuscule grains make a tender, close-grained cake.
Underwhip the whites for a loftier cake
Egg whites provide the sole leavening for angel food cake, so they must be whipped correctly. Whites that are whipped soft, not stiff, ensure a high-rising cake.
Freshly separated egg whites give the best aeration and structure. Most of the volume in an angel food cake comes from the steam produced by the evaporation of the liquid from the egg whites. As the steam passes through the air cells, the cells expand and lift the batter. Egg whites that have been frozen or refrigerated after they’ve been separated lose moisture, and their proteins begin to deteriorate so they don’t expand as much. Whites whip best when they’re about 60°F. Separate your eggs while they’re still cold from the refrigerator and let them stand at room temperature for about an hour.
Whites whipped at this stage are viscous, the bubbles that form hold air better, and the whites are less likely to overwhip. Roomtemperature whites (about 70°F) whip more quickly, but there’s a greater risk of overwhipping them.
Whip the whites to their optimum, not maximum, capacity. Properly whipped whites incorporate easily with the other ingredients and continue to expand in the oven. The batter should be fluffy but fluid, pourable rather than spoonable. If you whip the whites too stiff, incorporating the dry ingredients will require extra folding, and the batter will lose volume. Also, the overextended air cells are more likely to collapse in the oven; the cake will be tough and chewy rather than melt-in-your-mouth tender.
Whip the whites in a clean, deep bowl. Any equipment that comes in contact with the whites— the bowl, beaters or whisk attachment, and spatula— must be absolutely grease-free. Even trace amounts of fat can destroy an egg white’s ability to trap and hold air. Wipe all your equipment with a paper towel dampened with a bit of white vinegar just to be sure.
A deep stainless-steel bowl with at least a four-quart capacity allows for the increased volume of the whites once they’re whipped. Plastic bowls are hard to keep grease-free, and glass bowls are slippery.
Gentle folding keeps air in the whites
The trick to folding is to gently combine the dry ingredients with the egg whites while retaining as much of the aerated volume as possible. Sprinkling the dry ingredients over the whipped whites, rather than dumping them on top, keeps the flour mixture from clumping and deflating the whites.
Here’s my folding technique:
• Hold a rubber spatula, rounded edge down, over the center of the bowl, with the blade facing you.
• Cut straight down into the mixture, pull along the bottom and up the side of the bowl nearest you, and with a flick of the wrist, lift the mixture up and over itself, letting it fall gently back into the bowl.
• Give the bowl a quarter turn; repeat the gesture.
A few times during the process, bring the spatula up through the surface and check to make sure that the dry ingredients are being evenly distributed. Because the flour mixture and the whites are the same color, it can be difficult to know when the folding is complete. Fold no more than is necessary to incorporate the dry ingredients into the egg whites.
The right oven temperature ensures a high rising cake
The ideal temperature for baking angel food cake is 325°F. Once the cake is in the oven, the sugar interacts with the whites and with the flour proteins. If the oven is too cool, the sugar will absorb liquid from the whites, turn syrupy, and weep out of the batter, pulling down the air cells and decreasing the cake’s volume. On the other hand, if the oven is too hot, the cake’s outer structure will set before the cake can fully expand and bake through, making it dense and short.
Towards the end of the baking time, as the cake reaches its full height and turns golden, a few cracks may appear on the surface. Though the structure is set, the cake may settle about 1/4 inch in the pan as the steam dissipates. When the surface is golden and springs back when you touch it lightly, the cake is done. Don’t use the toothpick test: it can fool you on an angel food cake. The toothpick can slip right through the porous batter and come out clean even if the cake hasn’t finished baking.