There's usually not much to say about an angel food cake. It's white. Its flavor is best described as, well, sweet. Its texture ranges from a sponge to a cotton ball, depending upon which cake mix you prefer. If you shy away from baking even from a mix, the angel food cakes of the grocery aisle have accustomed you to even whiter, sweeter and spongier cakes.
No wonder, then, that an angel food cake from scratch is a revelation.
It's still as white as a well-intentioned lie, but a homemade cake tastes of vanilla, with a texture that lives up to its ethereal name, for surely an angel could slice off a wedge merely by flexing her wings.
So why don't more people make angel food cake? Egg yolks. Twelve, to be exact.
The cake needs a dozen egg whites, resulting in an equal number of yolks. Good thing you hang out with us, though, because not only can we tell you how to whip 12 egg whites into a heavenly creation, but we have some great ideas for using those homeless yolks.
What about those cartons of egg whites? We gave them a try and, while the resulting cake was perfectly edible, it was more dense and moist than the ideal angel food. Like Purgatory, it was neither here nor there.
The first key to a successful angel food cake is cleanliness. Egg whites won't whip as high if there's even a speck of oil around, so make sure your mixing bowl and beaters are pristinely clean and dry.
The second key is knowing how to separate eggs.
Start by rapping an egg against the counter to crack the shell. Then, working over a small dish, hold the egg while opening the crack with your thumbs. As the egg white begins to spill into the dish, tilt the egg to keep the yolk in the lower half. Then slowly pour the egg from one shell to the other, letting the egg white fall into the bowl while keeping the yolk whole in the shell halves. You only need to do this two or three times.
Then tip the yolk into a separate dish, and pour the white into the mixing bowl. This two-bowl process guards against a bit of egg yolk contaminating a bowlful of whites, should a yolk break. Yolks are fats, and will keep whites from whipping well.
Resist the urge to go all Food Network by cradling the yolk in your hand and letting the white slip through your fingers. Oils on your hands also can interfere with the egg whites' whipability.
And remember, there's no shame in using a handy-dandy egg separator, available in the cooking aisle of most stores. Just make sure it's clean before you begin.
The art of folding
The third key to a lofty angel food cake is folding the flour into the beaten egg whites thoroughly, but without deflating them. Sift the dry ingredients over the whites, then, with a rubber spatula, cut down through the center to the side of the bowl, then bring up the spatula, lifting some of the whites up and over the flour. Give the bowl a quarter-turn and repeat the motion, reaching down into the whites and lifting them over the flour until no trace of flour remains.
Don't stir. That will deflate the bubbles in the egg whites. It's also easier to add the dry ingredients in several portions, so there's less flour to incorporate at once.
Pour the batter into an ungreased tube pan, then with a dinner knife, make several strokes through the batter to eliminate any air pockets.
The art of upside-down
Once an angel food is baked, it needs to cool upside-down, usually placed over a bottle. The cake clings to the bottom of the pan, so tipping it over "stretches" the cake by way of gravity, which keeps the warm, delicate crumb from collapsing on itself before it's cool.
Angel food cake takes to a variety of accompaniments: citrus curds, flavored whipped cream, or fresh fruit. But it's also tasty -- and fat-free -- served plain. With one bite, heaven can wait.
Kim Ode • 612-673-7185