Baking brings me a joy that's hard to replicate with any of my other hobbies. I get the nerdy intellectual satisfaction of figuring out the chemical reactions so I can tweak the recipes and techniques to get the precise taste and effect I want. I get the little-kid "WHAT THE HELL IS THIS MAGIC HAPPENING BEFORE ME" wonder when I see the batter/dough transform from individual ingredients into a mixed-up mass in a bowl to fully-baked deliciousness. I get the tactile pleasure of handling the ingredients (have you guys held or stroked a handful of dry flour? It's amazing; I highly, highly recommend it). I make the kitchen smell absolutely amazing; and then afterwards, not only do I have something tasty to eat, I have something wonderful to share.
I'm not exaggerating when I say that my angel food cake in particular has had people coming up to me and saying, with the light of the recently-converted zealot in their eyes, "This is the best angel food cake I've ever had what are you some kind of witch?" It's flavorful and not too sweet and the texture is difficult to describe: it's tender and fluffy and moist and kind of witchcraftey all at once. It's certainly like no other angel food cake I've had, either bought or home-made from scratch.
So now, my insomnia + restlessness + desire to be pedantic brings you: Candy's tips on how to make angel food cake! Before you read a couple thousand words worth of cake guide, I'm going to save you some time by laying out my assumptions: I'm assuming that you already know how to make cake and either a) you have an angel food cake recipe that you've tried and that you're less than satisfied with the outcome; or b) you've been terrified of trying because of all the horror stories you've heard.
In re (b) above: guys. I'm here to tell you that angel food cake is one of the easiest cakes I make. The trickiest technique you have to master is how to fold flour into the batter. However, there are a few make-or-break points when making angel food cake, and they are more numerous than for the average cake, which gives them their reputation for being tricky fucking bastards. Once you know what to look out for, though, it's really easy to work around, and you'll be whipping up angel food cakes in no time. I'll include my favorite angel food cake recipe at the end of this primer in case you're curious about what specific variant I make.
So. Guide. Got-damn that was a long intro.
1. By far the most important thing: whip your egg whites properly, in a clean stainless steel or glass bowl. Avoid plastic bowls; they're hard to clean properly because fat molecules kind of soak in there and hang out, ready to leap out and molest your unsuspecting egg whites and preventing them from forming proper protein matrices. Think about it this way: how cleanly can you perform a handstand if somebody's intent on diddling you the whole time? That's what fat does in an angel food cake.
No need to thank me for that mental image. It's just part of the service I offer you, my readers.
a) Start with cool (not room temprature) egg whites--about 60°F. Even cooler is just fine.
b) Pay attention to this, sports fans, because this is really important: start at the slowest speed. This is especially true if you have a stand mixer, and your urge is to pump it to 11 right away. Starting fast not only doesn't help you get to the proper consistency any faster, it's basically asking to have egg whites spooge all over your counter. And I mean, if you're into that kind of thing, then god bless and watch out for the small chance of contracting salmonella. If you're into making an actual cake, though, start slow, go up to medium stirring speed after a few seconds, and don't add the cream of tartar till the eggs are kind of foamy. After adding the cream of tartar, increase the speed a couple notches. Once the batter starts getting opaque and looks more white than yellow, add the granulated sugar very gradually (I usually add two to three tablespoons at a time). If you have a KitchenAid, you have absolutely no reason to go above 6 or 7; going faster doesn't actually save you time, it just increases the likelihood that you'll overwhip the eggs and ruin your cake.
c) Whip the whites to the proper stiffness. You want to whip a lot of air into the whites because the tiny trapped bubbles of air are your sole leavener, but overwhipping means that the bubbles don't have any room to expand and are more likely to collapse. The shitty news is, you can overwhip even before the whites get that crazy lumpy holy-whoa-you've-fucked-it-up-right-
Here's how you can tell you've reached the requisite stiffness (THAT'S INDEED WHAT SHE SAID): once the soft glossy peaks have formed (about thirty or so seconds after you've added all the granulated sugar), stop your mixer, and tilt the bowl just a tiny bit. Did the egg whites move? If yes, gently but thoroughly scrape down the sides and bottoms of the bowl, and whip some more. After 10-20 seconds, stop. Tilt the bowl a tiny bit again. Movement? If yes, then scrape, whip, etc. Go another 20 or so seconds. Tilt. No movement? Sweet. Tilt a tiny bit more. Still no movement? Tilt more. Keep cautiously tilting until you can hold the entire bowl upside-down and the egg whites stay securely in the bowl. Congratulations, you've just a) performed motherfucking MAGIC, and b) know that your egg whites have enough air beaten into them.
The thing is, you want to stop beating RIGHT AT THE POINT the eggs do that magical fuck-you-gravity trick. Beating them further beyond this point is counterproductive.
I like this metric because it's completely objective, and it's also super-simple to gauge. Cookbooks all say "soft, droopy peaks" but fuck, man, what does that MEAN? How droopy is droopy? 'Cause I can get droopy peaks that look like a Hokusai wave, or droopy peaks that look like a tired, slouchy Ryan Gosling. It's completely subjective and leads to outcomes that are far too variable. With my method, it's a yes or no proposition. If egg whites still move, then keep beating those eggs like they was Dickensian orphans. If egg whites stay put, you're golden, and tastiness awaits you.
d) Alton Brown will try to feed you some bullshit about how stand mixers are terrible for angel food cakes and any other recipe requiring meringues. He will go on about chaotic motion. He will tell you that you'll have a watery pool of unwhipped whites at the bottom of the bowl. LIES. In my nine or so years of angel food cake-making, I have never once had this problem. SCRAPE THE BOWL, PEOPLE. Jesus, it takes all of like four swipes. As far as I'm concerned, a stand mixer basically ensures I can do other things with my hands while I'm waiting for the foam to get real. Which reminds me:
e) Seriously, don't stop watching the egg whites while they're being beaten, especially if you're beating at speed 6 or higher. If you have to take a potty break or anything that requires you to take your eyes off the mixer for more than 10 seconds, turn the mixer off, or put it at low speed, and resume high-speed beating only when you're back. Besides, watching the egg foam transform is the very best part of making an angel food cake. (That is, other than cramming some into your cakehole once it's cooled.)
2. Get a proper angel food cake pan. That non-stick shit? Fuck it. Fuck it right up its tiny little funnel. Angel food cakes get their gorgeous loft by climbing up the pan, which means the batter needs to be able to cling to the goddamn walls; furthermore, to properly free the cake, you oftentimes have to cut that fucker out, and I don't know about you, but having Teflon sprinkles in my cake do not a happy camper make. Get a sturdy uncoated metal version. They're not any more expensive that the useless non-stick versions. Getting a pan with built-in feet makes cooling them easier, too, so you don't have to save glass bottles with necks skinny enough to fit through the funnel. However, that's a lesser consideration compared to not succumbing to the (non-existent) benefits of a non-stick angel food pan.
3. Use powdered sugar to substitute for some of the sugar and cake flour. Cook's Illustrated/America's Test Kitchen doesn't like this approach. I am here to tell you that awesome though they are, they are wrong. I made angel food cakes without powdered sugar for a couple of years and wasn't quite satisfied with the texture and loft until I found a recipe online that called for it, and bam: I leveled up. Taller cake that had amazing, tender crumb and superior flavor. One and a quarter to one and a half cup of powdered sugar sifted into the cake flour makes all the difference.
4. Here's a dirty little secret: a tiny bit of egg yolk in your egg white? Not a big deal at all. I've totally fucked up while separating eggs and, like, dumped an egg yolk into the egg white bowl, or had a yolk break on me when I was being lazy and wasn't separating my eggs in a small bowl before transferring the whites to their own dedicated container. (Writing cake-making instructions: you either sound like some kind of pro-segregationist nutball, or a sex fiend. FACT.) I used to toss the entire batch out and start fresh because oh my god the fat and how it interferes with the protein matrix oh despair oh cry, but one day I just had no eggs left and no way of getting more any time soon and I said fuck it, scooped out all the yolk I could and went ahead with the cake. And the cake turned out perfectly.
I'm not advocating sloppy practices, mind you. I strongly, strongly recommend that you separate your eggs over a tiny bowl and transfer the whites one egg's worth at a time to the mixing bowl. Trust me, you're saving yourself a headache. I'm just here to tell you that if you have a speck of yolk contaminating the whites, you're almost definitely going to be OK.
5. Sifting the flour and the powdered sugar is absolutely key, especially before measuring, and double especially if you're measuring by dry volume. The sifting before measuring not only ensures you get rid of all lumps, it also ensures that you're not packing in too much flour and powdered sugar, which can weigh the cake down.
That said: you can actually get away with a lot less sifting than the cookbooks typically recommend. I personally sift twice, three times max when making angel food cake: I sift the flour and powdered sugar directly into the measuring cups before dumping the contents into the bowl; I occasionally re-sift the combined flour/sugar mixture; and I sift the flour mix over the batter, which ensures that I get a nice, even coating of particles over the surface of the batter.
6. Use a very, very light touch when folding, and use the barest minimum of strokes necessary to get the job done (see what I mean? SEX FIEND) so you don't disrupt the protein/air matrices any more than you have to. If you don't know how to fold, it's really easy: grab a large, flexible baking spatula (I hope it goes without saying that the spatula has to be clean, I mean sweet Jesus what kinds of lazy bastards would fold cake batter with a dirty fucking spatula?) and cut right down the middle of the batter bowl, starting at the edge farthest from you and moving towards you. As you bottom out on the far end (yup, the joke writes itself), scrape the edge of the spatula along the bottom of the bowl, and as you bring it towards you, you lift the batter up from the bottom and very, very gently plop that batter on top. Rotate the bowl 1/4 turn and repeat. Do this until the ingredients are just incorporated. Little streaks of dry ingredient are OK. We're mostly trying to avoid big chunks or lumps of dry stuff.
7. Do not, for all that is holy and angel food-cakey, open the oven door in the first 40 minutes or do something that would cause a big, sudden vibration that could jar the oven. I've had an angel food cake fall once and only once in all my years, and that was during a party when a well-meaning guest opened the oven and popped in a dish to warm up barely 20 minutes after I had put the cake in the oven. The vibration from the food dish hitting a rack + sudden drop in temperature = rubbery angel food cake that was completely unsalvageable.
8. Use the highest-quality vanilla you can, preferably vanilla paste, if at all available. And add a ton of vanilla to the cake--I typically use 1 to 2 tablespoons, which is far more than cooking books generally recommend.
9. Cool that shit upside-down. It helps the cake maintain its height.
10. A cutting technique instead of a baking technique: use a very sharp bread knife, and use very little pressure downwards when cutting. Saw back and forth instead. Putting too much pressure into a knife compresses the cake unpleasantly. Or you can use those fancy forks for tearing apart angel food cake. Or faceplant into the cake. That works, too.
All right, so armed with that information, are you ready to get your angel food cake on? Here's my recipe if you want to give it a shot:
1 cup cake flour, sifted
1 1/2 cup powdered sugar, sifted
1 3/4 cup egg whites (11 to 12 eggs' worth)
1 1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
1 cup granulated sugar (you can decrease to 3/4 cup if you want a less sweet cake)
1/4 teaspoon salt
Loads of vanilla paste
1. Pre-heat oven to 350°F. Sift the cake flour and powdered sugar together.
2. Add salt and vanilla to the egg whites in the mixing bowl, then follow the entirety of (1) up above, in the guide.
3. Sift 1/4 of the flour mixture over the batter, then fold it in. Repeat until no flour is left and there aren't any clumps or stripes of flour mixture hidden in the batter.
4. Gently scoop the batter into the pan; smooth the top with a baking spatula, and cut around the outside edges and around the middle of the cake to ensure no big bubble pockets form.
5. Pop into oven and bake for 40 or 45 minutes. Look for a cake that springs back when you touch its top, or when a skewer poked through the middle comes back clean. If the cracks in the cake feel dry, that's another good sign that the cake's done.
6. Set cake upside-down until completely cooled, about 3 to 4 hours, then cut the cake free by cutting along the sides and along the funnel, then upend onto a large plate and wait for the cake to fall free. Slip a knife between the cake and the cake pan base to separate the cake from the base.