The History of the Angel Food Cake
Angel food cake has a texture and appearance (and even some necessary equipment) that's entirely its own. It's sweetness and light, in dessert form. Yet it remains something of a kitchen curiosity. Where did it come from, and what accounts for its enduring appeal? As it turns out, this ethereal, cloud-like dessert is an American invention.
Meringue-based cakes and confections are enjoyed the world over, but this one is different. No one knows for sure when the first one was created, but according to Gabrielle Langholtz, author of "America: The Cookbook;" a sponge cake recipe in "The Kentucky Housewife" (published by Lettice Bryan in 1839) is the precursor to modern-day angel food cake. Similarly, "The Joy of Cooking" puts angel food in the category of "foam cakes," along with sponges and chiffons. These cakes all contain a high proportion of eggs relative to other ingredients. Beating the eggs or egg whites to a foamy consistency produces their delicate structure, and gives way to the signature high rise (unlike baked goods that rely on leavening agents such as baking soda or powder).
It's worth noting that sponge cakes are made with whole eggs, and the batter for chiffon cakes (another American invention) includes vegetable oil as well. The fairest of them all, angel food cake features only the whites of the egg (usually as many as a dozen), and not a trace of butter or oil. Thus, the dessert is entirely fat-free, which helps explain its popularity among the calorie- and cholesterol-conscious. Look in any low-fat cookbook, and you're bound to find at least one angel food cake recipe among the dieters' delights.
Lemon juice was once used to keep the beaten egg whites stiff, but today cream of tartar is the stabilizer of choice. Other than that, the cakes combine little more than sugar, flour, and a pinch of salt with those loftily beaten whites. Perhaps the most heavenly thing about angel food cake is how well it allows for riffs on the basic flavor. Vanilla is most common, but it's easily swapped out for citrus or other extracts. You can replace some of the flour with unsweetened cocoa powder for a chocolate angel food cake, add ground cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves to make a spice cake, or incorporate finely crushed peppermint candies to take it in a holiday direction. The key thing is to keep the flavor additions minimal enough that you don't deflate the meringue as you fold them in.
Though the ingredients list is generally short, instructions for making a proper angel food cake can be anything but. The master recipe in "The Fannie Farmer Cookbook" by Marion Cunningham runs nearly six pages, though admittedly much of that concerns the various methods used for whipping and folding the egg whites. For the best workout, you can use a traditional balloon whisk, but a modern electric mixer (handheld or standing) makes much lighter work. Interestingly, some food historians trace the widespread popularity of angel food cake to the advent of the rotary eggbeater in the mid- to late 19th century. What was once an arduous task became much more homemaker-friendly, and recipes began to appear in earnest. A recipe for angel food cake even appeared in The New York Times in 1880, and another for angel cake in the "Boston Cooking School Cook Book" in 1884.
A few pointers encourage success. Never grease your baking pan, or use anything nonstick-both inhibit a proper rise. Many recipes, including Martha's favorite recipes like the striking Pretty-in-Pink Angel Food Cake, require sifting the flour and some of the sugar together no fewer than four times before folding them into the meringue. This will feel excessive, but it's crucial to achieving the cloud-like texture.
Just as essential is the equipment. Real angel food aficionados use a straight-sided tube pan with "feet" on the bottom, which allow the cake to cool properly once it's inverted. (Clever bakers with ordinary tube pans have long made like MacGyver, simply placing the pan over the neck of wine bottle until the cake has cooled.)
Finally, consider the cut. Slicing through an angel food cake without causing it so squish can be impossible (a true letdown after all that work). A specialty cutter (sometimes called an angel food rake or comb) allows you to gently saw through the cake to make even slices-perfect for topping with fresh fruit and whipped cream, a scoop of ice cream, dusting of powdered sugar, a drizzle of chocolate glaze, or perhaps best of all, a dollop of custard or curd made with leftover egg yolks.