Effortless Angel’s Food Cake
This is probably the easiest meringue you’ll ever make. Just put some cold egg whites and sugar in a bowl, start whipping and then stop before they’re stiff. With a squeeze of lemon for stability, this seemingly under-whipped meringue puffs the angel’s food until it’s as light as cotton candy. The lemon disappears in the oven, leaving behind a soft, tender vanilla cake.
Aside from my unusual treatment of the meringue, the success of this angel’s food hinges on bleached cake flour. It has a super-low protein content that can’t be faked with cornstarch or replaced by pastry flour. Look for brands like Swans Down or Softasilk in the baking aisle, and avoid anything marked self-rising or unbleached.
Because this recipe may present a couple of new techniques for the uninitiated, give yourself room to learn. Like a kiss, angel’s food only gets better with experience. That’s not to say your first time won’t be deliciously sweet, only that half the fun is in perfecting your technique.
Key Point: The unique behavior of bleached cake flour is vital to this recipe’s success; unbleached cake flour will cause the angel’s food cake to collapse. Sift flour (if using a cup measure, spoon into the cup and level with a knife before sifting).
- 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons (5 ounces) bleached cake flour, such as Swans Down
- 2 cups (15 ounces) egg whites (from a dozen large eggs), straight from the fridge
- 2 cups (15 ounces) sugar
- 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
- 2 tablespoons (1 ounce) freshly squeezed lemon juice
- ¼ teaspoon Diamond Crystal kosher salt (half as much if iodized)
- Adjust oven rack to middle position and preheat oven to 350 degrees. Have ready an aluminum tube pan with a removable bottom, roughly 10 inches across and 4 inches deep. Nonstick pans will not work. If the pan doesn’t have stilts, set out a bottle with a slender neck that will fit into the mouth of the tube.
- Sift flour (if using a cup measure, soon into the cup and level with a knife before sifting). Combine egg whites, sugar and vanilla in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Mix on low speed to moisten, about 1 minute, then increase to medium-low (4 on a KitchenAid) and whip for 3 minutes; the whites will look very dense and dark from the vanilla. Add the lemon juice and salt, increase speed to medium (6 on a KitchenAid), and whip for 3 minutes; the meringue will be light but thin, not foamy. Increase to medium-high (8 on a KitchenAid), and continue whipping until the wires leave a distinct vortex pattern in the thick, glossy meringue, another 3 minutes or so, depending on the freshness of the whites. To check the meringue, detach the whisk; when whipped to very soft peaks, the meringue will run off the wires but retain enough body to pile up on itself in a soft mound.
- Sprinkle cake flour over the meringue and stir gently with a flexible spatula to disperse. Switch to a folding motion and work from the bottom up, cutting through the middle, until no pockets of flour remain. Pour the batter into the pan; if you notice a small patch of unmixed flour as you pour, incorporate it into the surrounding batter with a gentle wiggle of your spatula. The pan should be about two-thirds full.
- Bake until the cake has risen well above the rim of the pan, with a firm, golden blonde crust, about 45 minutes (206 degrees). Immediately invert the pan on its stilts, or over the neck of the bottle, and cool upside down until no trace of warmth remains, at least 2 hours.
- Turn the cooled cake right side up and loosen the outer edges with a metal spatula. Lift the center tube to remove the cake, then loosen it from the bottom too. Invert onto a serving plate; the cake will slide right off the tube. With a chef’s knife or serrated bread knife, cut into 10 or 12 servings with a gentle sawing motion, applying very little downward pressure. Angel’s food is mostly air, so the big slices will be less filling than they look.
- Wrapped tightly in plastic, leftovers will keep for up to a week at room temperature. You can also drop thin slices of angel’s food into a toaster to crisp like a campfire marshmallow.
- If a speck of yolk slips into the whites, fish it out with an eggshell. If the yolk can't be removed, save those whites for another use and start fresh.
- Extracts like peppermint and orange, made from essential oils, may cause the meringue to collapse; take care when experimenting with flavorings.
- In a kitchen below 68 degrees, cold air may cause the cake to contract and fall from the pan before its crumb has set. As a workaround, open the oven door and place the inverted cake on the stovetop, where drafts of warm air will stabilize its temperature.
- Through trial and error, I’ve discovered that the highly polished sides of stainless steel angel’s food cake pans may cause the cake to fall from the pan as it cools. For best results, use an untreated aluminum tube pan.
- Mix it up!
- Brown Sugar Cinnamon: A cozy flavor for fall, or to end a heavy holiday meal. Sift the cake flour with 4 teaspoons ground cinnamon, and replace the sugar with an equal amount of light brown sugar (dark will not work as well).
- Chocolate: However angelic its texture, this variation turns out as dark as devil’s food. Reduce the cake flour to 3 ounces (2/3 cup), sifted with 2 ounces (2/3 cup) Dutch-process cocoa powder, such as Cacao Barry Extra Brute. After cooling the cake, use a slender knife or bamboo skewer to loosen it from the center tube too, as this version tends to stick.
- Creamsicle: Pulse the cake flour with 2 tablespoons orange zest in a food processor for 1 minute. Replace the vanilla extract with 2 teaspoons orange flower water and the seeds from 1 Tahitian vanilla bean (split and scraped). Trade the lemon juice for 1½ ounces (3 tablespoons) freshly squeezed orange juice.
- Green Tea: The sweetness of angel’s food mellows the bitterness of Japanese matcha, for a mossy-green cake with an earthy but aromatic flavor. Sift the cake flour with 2 tablespoons matcha. I love to serve slices alongside Whipped Chocolate Crémeux with a scattering of Cocoa Nib Crunch.
- Lemonade: Grinding lemon zest into the flour helps release its essential oil, making this variation particularly aromatic. Pulse the cake flour with 2 tablespoons lemon zest in a food processor for about 1 minute. Omit the vanilla extract and salt. Increase the lemon juice to 1½ ounces (3 tablespoons). Also lovely with lime juice and zest instead.
- Roasted Sugar and Vanilla Bean: This is, without a doubt, my favorite way to make Angel’s Food. It’s not my “basic” recipe, because the process of roasting sugar is time-consuming, and not everyone keeps a vanilla bean on hand, but these two upgrades make the cake even more extraordinary. Replace the sugar with 15 ounces (2 cups) Roasted Sugar. Along with the vanilla extract, use the seeds from 1 Mexican vanilla bean, split and scraped.
- Gluten-Free: Sift 2 ounces (½ cup) arrowroot, 1½ ounces (1/3 cup) white rice flour, 1½ ounces (1/3 cup) cornstarch, 1 ounce (¼ cup) coconut flour, and 1 teaspoon baking powder into a medium bowl, then whisk to combine.
- Excerpt from BraveTart: Iconic American Desserts by Stella Parks. Copyright © 2017 by Stella Parks. Reprinted with permission of W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.