A light, spongy, white cake made with egg whites and no shortening.

Like pasta, angel food cake is something most of us have only experienced as the store-bought version. Most people I've talked to have never thought about making this dessert from scratch - we're used to seeing that plastic-wrapped ring in the supermarket.

I have no problem with the pre-made kind, but the homemade version tastes exponentially better and is an easy (I promise!) way to impress people. It takes only a few ingredients and a few steps, and requires no special equipment except an electric mixer with a whisk attachment. Don't be daunted by my copious notes at the bottom, I just like to explain the shit out of everything.

This is actually less work than many other cakes, as you don't need to spend time on frosting or assembly. Throw some strawberries and chocolate sauce at it, and you've got something ridiculously good.

You do not need a special ring-shaped pan to make this - see note at the end.


ingredients:

  • 1.25 cups (4.4 oz / 125 grams) all-purpose white flour
  • 1.5 cups (10.5 oz / 300g) granulated white sugar
  • about 12 egg whites (1.5 cups / 360 ml), room temperature
  • 1 teaspoon (3g) cream of tartar
  • 0.5 teaspoon (3g) salt
  • 1 tablespoon (15ml) lemon juice
  • 2 teaspoons (10ml) vanilla extract
  • 0.5 teaspoon (3ml) almond extract (optional)

procedure:

Separate the eggs.

Preheat oven to 350 F (175 C) and make sure your baking pans are absolutely free of grease.

Sift together (or just thoroughly stir) the flour with about half of the sugar. Set aside.

Beat the egg whites on high speed until foamy. Add cream of tartar, lemon juice, and salt, and beat until it forms soft peaks.

Gradually add in the other half of the sugar, by small amounts (about a spoonful), until it forms glossy stiff peaks. This may take a few minutes.

Stop mixer, and scrape down the sides of the bowl. Add the vanilla and almond extract, and mix for another minute or so.

You're done with the mixer; the rest is done by hand. Shake about a quarter of the flour mixture gently over the egg whites, and fold it in. When it looks like the dry particles have almost disappeared, add more of the flour and fold again. Keep going until it's all homogenous.

Pour the batter into the pan, smooth the top, and bake for about 30 - 45 minutes, depending on the shape of your pan. It's done when it is brown and perhaps a little cracked on top, and a knife inserted in the center comes back clean.

Immediately invert and cool to room temperature before removing from pan.


notes on eggs:

The success of this recipe depends on your egg whites being absolutely free of any trace of fats. This has to do with the way the protein structures stiffen to trap air bubbles, and the way the cake will rise in the pan. The batter wants to "climb" the pan's walls, and if you grease the pan, it can't do that. So make sure your pan is absolutely clean.

Similarly, make sure you don't get even a trace of egg yolk in with your eggs. I learned the hard way that a 3-bowl system will save you from fucking things up. Crack an egg into bowl 1, scoop out the yolk and put it into bowl 2, dump the remaining white into bowl 3, repeat. This saves you from contaminating eleven perfect egg whites, should you break the last yolk.

I always break at least one yolk, so I start with more than a dozen eggs. If you didn't think this far ahead, it's not a big deal to do this recipe with 11 or even 10 whites - it will still work, as long as you're close (it's really easiest to go by volume anyway and aim for 1.5 cups / 360 ml). Even if your egg amount is off by 10% or so, just use the existing amounts of the other ingredients.

If you break a yolk, treat that dish as contaminated, and give it a rinse under hot water before breaking the next egg into it.

It's easier to separate eggs when they are at room temp, plus your hands won't go numb from cold. This writeup has a great method.


notes on pans:

The traditional ring-shaped pan does work great here, because the cake needs to be inverted immediately after leaving the oven, and the center hole allows you to hang the cake on a wine bottle. (If not inverted, it will start to deflate - I forget why.) If you have a bundt cake pan, that'll work fine too. But you totally don't need anything special, as this cake can be made in pretty much any pan.

A loaf pan works best, round cake pans work next-best. I wouldn't try a sheet cake pan (9 x 13") because the sides are too far apart*. I have noticed that when using round (9") pans, the cake doesn't rise quite as high as the equivalent amount of batter in a loaf pan does. I assume this has to do with the "climbing the walls" thing. But it still works fine, and the resulting texture is very much the same, if perhaps a little lighter and fluffier in the loaf pan.

(*Meaning, I wouldn't use this large a pan if intending to make a proper, normally high cake. Thanks to VicimusGegan for reminding me about roulades / jelly rolls! I haven't tried it, but I think this batter might do just fine, spread in a thin layer across a 9x13" pan, jelly roll pan, or even a cookie sheet with a rim. It wouldn't rise very high, but for a roulade, you wouldn't want it to.)

I suspect this would work great in individual ramekins, though I haven't tried it.

Whatever you use, don't fill the pans more than about 2/3 full, as that batter will expand.


other notes:

The cream of tartar and lemon juice help stabilize the egg whites in order to create maximum volume when aerating them. Meaning, these ingredients are mandatory and un-substitutable. The end product is very lightly lemony. If you'd like it to be more vanilla-y and less lemony, feel free to tip those flavorings in that direction, but don't eliminate the lemon altogether, as it's functional. The almond extract is optional, but really nice.

If you're worried about your folding technique, youtube can explain it better than I can. But the basic idea is to quickly and gently mix the dry ingredients into the wet. The egg whites are kind of dry and stiff at this point, and you may worry that you're smashing the bubbles as you mix in the flour. And basically you are, but it's ok. Your goal is to deflate the mixture as little as possible, but it's going to deflate a little no matter what - don't worry, the mixing process creates more aeration than you actually need.

When I say "soft peaks" and "stiff peaks," again, youtube or google image search it if you want to know exactly what to look for. But don't stress - this isn't an exact science, and those terms are used just to generally describe the thickness of the egg white mixture at that point. To check, you shut off the mixer, lift up the whisk attachment, and check out what's clinging to it, and check out what's left in the bowl. Soft peaks are starting to thicken, but still goopy. Stiff peaks keep their shape.

This recipe originally called for cake flour. I've tried it, and that works fine, but is not distinguishable (to me) from one made with regular all-purpose white flour.

When you invert the cooked cake, you want air to circulate around it. So you need to do this on a wire rack, or across a couple of canned goods. On top of a toaster works too.

As the cake cools, it will draw away from the sides of the pan a little. When you want to remove the cake from the pan, reach down into those crevices with a knife and sort of pry the cake farther away from the pan's bottom. The cake is super bendy and springy, so you can wiggle around in there quite a bit without destroying it. Just pry all the way around the perimeter of the cake until it's free from the pan.

You will eat this long before it goes bad. But it will keep at room temp for at least a few days, and in the fridge for at least a week. I bet it would freeze great. The surface may form little beads of moisture after a day or so, especially at room temp - this is normal and harmless.

By its nature, this is going to have a slightly different texture than what we're used to - still very light, but denser than store-bought. That's because food manufacturers will do anything they can to sell you something that's half air. I mention this so you don't think you screwed it up, if you make this and notice a different texture.

Original recipe here; photo here, of ones I made in loaf pans.


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