It also seems appropriate that I talk about this fluffy, delicate cake since I recently blogged about its polar opposite - the wickedly decadent Devil's Food Cake. Just as Devil's Food sparks images of a sinfully rich and dark chocolaty dessert, Angel Food Cake gets its name from its white color and feathery-soft texture, reminiscent of an angel. As nineteenth century New York Cooking School instructor Juliet Corson eloquently stated, "The pure white of the interior contrasts prettily with the golden brown surface, and the delicacy of its substance well merits its name."
The characteristic white color comes from using pure white flour, sugar and a whole carton of egg whites, which need to be thoroughly beaten in order to incorporate air into the batter and give the cake its distinctive height. This laborious task was made much easier when the rotary egg beater came on the scene around 1870, and the sky-high snowy-white cake began appearing in cookbooks not long after.
However, Angel Food Cake as we know it today was actually not the first dessert with the name "Angel's Food." There is a recipe for "Angel's Food" in the 1865 cookbook Mrs. Goodfellow's Cookery as it Should Be (said to be written by a student of Mrs. Goodfellow), which sounds like a deliciously rich apple pudding. As per the instructions: Stew tart apples, strain them, sweeten with white sugar, mix four whites of eggs, (saved from the custard,) add the stewed apples, and the eggs beaten to a stiff froth; make a boiled custard, pour it into a glass dish, and drop on the custard the beaten apples and eggs.
Another recipe for Angel's Food - from The Godey's Lady's Book Receipts and Household Hints (1870)
by Sarah Annie Frost - is also custardy, but calls for jelly instead of stewed apples, as well as layers of sliced cake - similar a trifle or charlotte. Ms. Frost calls it " A New Dish" —Make a rich custard, pour it in a glass bowl, and put a layer of sliced cake on it. Stir some finely-powdered sugar into quince or apple jelly, and drop it on the cake. Pour syllabub* on the cake, and then put on another layer of cake, and icing. Then there was Angel Pie, made with a meringue crust filled with rich lemon custard - a dessert that became popular in the late nineteenth century.
The earliest reference I found to a recipe fora tall, fluffy Angel's Food Cake was in an The Cooking Manual of Practical Directions for Economical Every-day Cookery (1879) by Juliet Corson. According to Ms. Corson, this receipt came from Washington, D. C., as it was a favorite of Mrs. Lucy Hayes, wife of Rutherford B. Hayes and first lady at the time. Apparently the press claimed she was so fond of this cake that she had it sent to the White House from St. Louis. Mrs. Hayes said this was an exaggeration, but she did like the delicate cake, which was made especially for her in Washington. Ms. Corson was "pleased to include the directions for making it" in her cookbook's new chapter. It is similar to the modern recipe I used: Eleven egg whites, sifted flour and powdered sugar, cream of tartar and vanilla, mixed well and poured into an unbuttered cake tin.
The best version of this cake that I have tried is from Greg Patent's Baking in America. He calls it "Amazing Angel Food Cake", and it really is amazing (and quite simple to boot!). It calls for covering the cake with foil and baking for 10 minutes at a high temperature; then the foil is removed, the oven temp is lowered and the cake is baked the rest of the time uncovered. Let me tell you, this method worked perfectly and produced a flawless cake - better than any mix.
Amazing Angel Food Cake
- 1 cup sifted cake flour
- 1/2 cup confectioners sugar
- 13 large egg whites
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon cream of tartar
- 1 cup sugar
- 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- 1/2 teaspoon pure almond extract
- Adjust an oven rack to the lower third position and preheat the oven to 475F. Have ready a grease-free 10x4-inch tube pan with a removable bottom (not nonstick).
- Resift the flour with the confectioners sugar; set aside.
- Beat the whites with an electric mixer on medium speed until frothy, about 1 minute. Add the salt and cream or tartar and continue beating until the whites are thick and fluffy and form soft billowy mounds that droop at their tips. Beat in the sugar 2 tablespoons at a time, beating for a few seconds after each addition. Add both extracts and beat for 30 seconds, or until the whites form slightly stiff peaks that curl at their tips and move slightly when you tilt the bowl.
- Gradually fold in the flour mixture, sifting about 3 tablespoons at a time evenly over the whites and using a large rubber spatula to fold the two together with a few gentle strokes. Using the spatula, gently transfer the batter to the tube pan. To remove any large air bubbles, run a long narrow metal spatula in 3 or 4 concentric circles through the batter, beginning at the tube and working outward. Smooth the top with the rubber spatula.
- Cover the pan tightly with heavy-duty foil. Bake for 10 minutes. Quickly open the oven door and remove the foil. Close the oven door and reduce the temperature to 425F. Bake for 15 minutes more, or until the cake has risen to the top of the pan, is well browned, and springs back when gently pressed. The cake may have a few cracks. Immediately invert the pan onto a narrow-necked bottle. Let cool completely upside down, 2 to 3 hours.
- Loosen the sides of the cake from the pan using a narrow thin-bladed knife. Run the knife between the cake and the central tube. Lift the cake out of the pan by its tube, and release the cake from the bottom of the pan with the knife. Carefully turn the cake out onto a wire rack. Cover with a cake plate and invert the two so that the cake is right side up. To serve, cut into slices with a serrated knife.
* Syllabub is a sweet drink made of thickened milk or cream
Sources: Baking in America by Greg Patent; American Cookery by James Beard; Mrs. Goodfellow's Cookery as it Should Be by a pupil of Mrs. Goodfellow; The Cooking Manual of Practical Directions for Economical Every-day Cookery by Juliet Corson; The Godey's Lady's Book Receipts and Household Hints by Sarah Annie Frost