Take everything you know about angel food cake, put it in a box marked "outdated," and kick it to the curb. That may sound a tad presumptuous on my part, considering Americans have been whipping up angel food (by one name or another) since the 1840s; yet, in that proud tradition, I see a 17-decade rut.
I'm not talking about an easy, comfortable rut that's well worn and safe. I'm talking about a bumpy, rocky rut that can throw experienced bakers for a loop, leaving rookies to stumble and fall. Which may explain why so few of us ever bother baking angel food at home.
Look at this cake and tell me that's not a cryin' shame.
It's pillowy-soft, as light as cotton candy and just as tender, too. Its sweetness is tempered by a generous spoonful of salt and the toasted flavor of its lightly browned crust, plus an aromatic dose of vanilla. The sort of cake that's worthy of your time, not demanding of it.
Before I can explain how and why my recipe breaks from tradition, let's first take a look at the status quo. Recipes for angel food cake always start with egg whites—the fresher the better, they say—brought to room temperature in a clean bowl. They're whisked until foamy and light, then sugar's spooned in a little at a time. Easy does it, though! Go too fast and the fragile foam will deflate. The whipping and sugar-sprinkling continue until the billowy meringue holds stiff to medium peaks, but watch out! Whip too long or too hard and the fragile foam will deflate. Better sift the remaining sugar and cake flour, then carefully fold it all together at the end. I said carefully! Fold too roughly and the fragile foam will deflate.
Sensing a theme?
That fragile foam is a French meringue, the airiest of all styles, but the least stable and most prone to collapse because it's vulnerable to rapid denaturation. Most of us are familiar with denaturation in terms of heat—the hardening of proteins that allows cakes and custards to set. But denaturation can also happen with agitation, a.k.a. whipping, a chaotic environment in which gradual solidification manifests as a film through watery whites. That changes the viscosity of the whites, providing structure to facilitate the development of foam. With continued agitation, the proteins harden more, fueling a transformative cycle of structure and growth.
Admittedly, there are a ton of other factors at play, and it would take an entire textbook to explain the full range of egg white proteins and their individual contribution to meringue. Suffice it to say, denatured proteins will eventually lose their ability to stretch and expand and will crack under pressure: Meringues weep, angels fall, and all hell breaks loose. For successful angel food cake, French meringue needs to be whipped to just that point where it provides enough denatured proteins for structure, but still has native (i.e., natural-state) proteins for growth. Finding that balance takes skill, but is relatively easy with the 19th-century method of whipping by hand.
Nobody can deny the convenience of upgrading from whisks to rotary beaters, then hand mixers, then stand mixers of ever-increasing wattage, but they introduce a new problem: When you're throwing that much power into a meringue, the risk of over-whipping goes through the roof. By virtue of tradition, we still use the same basic French meringue technique despite our powerful new mechanical allies in the kitchen, choosing instead to offset the risk of failure with labor-intensive steps like grinding superfine sugar in a food processor or sifting the flour five to six times. These are Band-Aids that don't address the underlying issue.
Here's the truth: With electric mixers in our arsenal, when it comes to angel food cake, you shouldn't be making a French meringue at all. Nor anything so fancy as a Swiss or Italian meringue instead. No, the best angel food cake starts with a meringue made according to Michael Jackson's most famous command.
Just beat it.
You have to show them that you're really not scared
You're playin' with meringue, this ain't no truth or dare
You'll whip them and you'll beat them and you'll tell them it's fair
So beat it. Just beat it.
No one wants to be defeated by a bad technique, but seriously, that's it. Throw cold egg whites in a bowl, dump in some sugar, add vanilla. Start on low to loosen the whites, increase to medium until foamy, then crank it up to medium-high until the meringue turns glossy white. Forget stiff or even medium peaks; you want to stop while it's still runny and soft—so soft it runs right off the beater, but is thick enough to mound up on itself in the bowl.
That's the only detail you need to remember: thick enough to pile up like soft-serve.
From the chilly temperature and massive sugar dump to the unstructured consistency, each step flies in the face of conventional wisdom by actively inhibiting the egg whites from whipping to their fluffy best. And you know what? That's okay.
Angel food cake doesn't need a meringue that's super fluffy. It needs a meringue that's super stable—aerated but relaxed, and ready to expand with hot air. And that's exactly what my meringue can do in the oven.
It delivers consistently amazing results without any real effort at all; the work is accomplished by your mixer. With that kind of horsepower, you don't have to make any special effort to ensure the bowl is psychotically clean, nor do you need to abandon perfectly good egg whites just because they're flecked with a trace of yolk (as Daniel proved here). In either case, the power of the mixer will see you through.
And, even if you lose track of time jammin' to MJ and beat it longer than you should, the cold temperature and early addition of sugar inhibit denaturation, providing a comfy margin of error. Adding all the sugar up front also makes the cake flour easier to incorporate because it's all on its own, leaving less chance for over-mixing as you fold.
The cake is baked until golden and firm, roughly 45 minutes. But with a digital thermometer instead of a toothpick, there's no need to guess—206°F and you're done!
Truth be told, the hardest part of my recipe is just waiting for the cake to cool.
Cooling upside down is definitely the way to go, harnessing the power of gravity to stretch rather than compress the cake's tender crumb. That's why it's immensely important not to use a nonstick pan, or else the cake will go splat.
Stick with a standard aluminum tube pan, about 10 inches across the top and four inches deep, with a removable bottom so you can pluck out the cake when it's cool. Don't fall for marketing gimmicks here; there's no feature that could justify paying any more than 10 or 15 bucks.
I love the rustic appearance of the cake's craggy upper crust, but for a more stunning presentation, flip it over and pile all kinds of fresh fruits on top. Trust me, this cake is far too delicate and airy to frost or glaze. The former will only churn up a million crumbs, while the latter will be absorbed almost straight away.
That said, I do like to glaze the fruit itself by tossing the berries and figs with a few tablespoons of Fresh Lemon Syrup for a touch of flavor and shine. If you don't have any on hand, a bit of melted jelly works better than watery simple syrup, or just serve 'em up au naturel.
With a dollop of lightly sweetened Lemon Chantilly, angel food cake is fresh and breezy, simple enough to whip up on a weekday afternoon. Even better, it's light enough to follow any meal, and fancy enough to trot out on special occasions (bonus points there, because it's also big enough to feed a crowd).
Whether or not you've ever made angel food cake before, I hope you'll put my method to the test and discover how truly simple it can be. For busy bakers, it's the perfect solution to the seemingly endless supply of egg whites left over from yolk-intensive projects like lemon bars and ice cream, so don't toss those whites! You'll want to make this recipe again and again.