A few friends came over for a simple Sunday supper last night, and while digging around for a dessert idea I looked in the refrigerator and an oversupply of eggs sent my imagination in one direction: Angel food cake.
I've been baking this particular version for about five years, after a vacation in Palm Springs, Calif. A highly productive lemon tree was just outside the front door of our rental, and its bright yellow fruit inspired me to sort through the kitchen's cookbooks in search of lemony recipes. What was to become an enduring favorite of mine, whether I'm in the desert or in wintery Minnesota, came from an Ina Garten title.
One of the beauties of this recipe is that it calls for adding superfine sugar to beaten egg whites, and the results turn lustrously glossy and gorgeous (pictured, above). And thick, which makes the last step -- folding the flour-sugar mixture into the egg whites -- a snap, without radically reducing the meringue's volume.
Preparing an angel food cake is so easy that the prospect of ever buying one of those bland and spongy supermarket versions is just plain wrong. To some starter bakers, the words "beat egg whites into soft peaks" can be intimidating, but in reality nothing could be easier; just turn on the mixer and allow nature to take its course. Top-grade eggs are the key to the voluminous batter that makes this recipe such a winner, but the addition of cream of tartar boosts even basic white eggs.
Here's the way the batter looked before it went into the oven, and before the cake magically climbed up to the top of the pan. A tip: Skip the non-stick pan. An aluminum pan will work so much better; it's rougher surface gives the cake something to cling to as the batter expands and rises. As for cleaning, give the pan a good soak in soapy hot water for five minutes and it will practically scrub itself.
Oh, and although Garten's recipe doesn't include it, I like to give the finished cake a little glaze (the photo at the top is the unglazed cake).
It's easy: Instead of zesting one lemon, I zest two, and I spread the zest from the second lemon on a sheet of wax paper and let it sit on the counter and dry while the cake is baking and cooling. Then I juice one of the lemons, and whisk in powdered sugar until the mixture reaches a glaze-like consistency (that's usually about 3/4 cup to 1 cup of powdered sugar). Then I finely chop the dried zest, stir it into the glaze and spoon the glaze over the top of the cake, making sure it runs down the side. Allow the glaze to dry, and serve.
LEMON ANGEL FOOD CAKE
Serves 8 to 10.
Note: Adapted from “Barefoot Contessa Family Style” by Ina Garten (Clarkson Potter, $36)
2 c. superfine sugar, divided
1 1/3 c. cake flour
1 1/2 c. egg whites (about 10 to 12 eggs), at room temperature
1/4 tsp. kosher salt
1 1/2 tsp. cream of tartar
3/4 tsp. vanilla extract
1 1/2 tsp. grated lemon zest (from 1 lemon)
Berries and freshly whipped cream for garnish, optional
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Combine 1/2 cup sugar and flour, sift four times and reserve. In a bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a whisk, combine egg whites, salt and cream of tartar and whip on medium-high speed into soft peaks. Slowly add remaining 1 1/2 cups sugar and whisk until shiny and thick. Add vanilla extract and grated lemon and whisk 1 additional minute. Fold 1/4 of flour mixture into batter, and continue folding remaining fourths until fully incorporated. Transfer batter into a 10-inch angel food cake pan and smooth out top. Bake until top is browned and cake springs bake when lightly touched, about 35 to 40 minutes. Remove from oven, transfer pan to a wire rack and cool 15 minutes. Invert pan over a serving plate and let cake fall out of pan. Carefully remove bottom. Cool completely and serve with berries and freshly whipped cream, if desired.