Transform Angel Food Cake With Toasted Sugar

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[Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

Last week, I got to attend the James Beard Foundation Media Awards as a guest. I'd been nominated for an article about my favorite thing in the universe: toasted sugar. If you're not familiar with my technique, it's a way to make granulated caramel, which can be used as a replacement for white sugar in any recipe to tame the overall sweetness and provide more depth of flavor.

While I didn't win, just living in a world where playing with sugar gets me invited to fancy parties is cause enough for celebration. To that end, I wanted to make a dessert where toasted sugar would be the star, and there's no better showcase for it than angel food cake. It transforms the usual sweet simplicity of the cake into something far more nuanced and complex.

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The exact flavor depends entirely on the degree to which the sugar is roasted, so you can make a custom-sized batch of quick toasted sugar for just a whisper of caramel, or you can spend the whole afternoon slow roasting sugar until it tastes deep, dark, and robust (full directions here). You can also use sugar leftover from blind baking pies; just make certain the sugar is free from any trace of butter, which will prevent the meringue from whipping to its full potential (while this isn't a huge risk factor when whipping up plain whites, as Daniel has demonstrated in the past, the sheer volume of sugar changes the stakes for meringue). To make sure your sugar's okay, always check the inside of the foil liner once the sugar has cooled; it should feel clean and dry, not greasy.

This time around, I roasted plain white sugar until it was as dark as demerara (which, if you're not familiar, is just a little darker then light brown sugar). With that degree of toasting, the sugar is more inclined to clump (water is a byproduct of the caramelization process, although much is driven off with the heat), so grinding it up in a food processor will help restore its powdery consistency for ease of use.

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With the sugar squared away, the overall process is exactly like my regular angel food cake. Which is to say: nothing like a traditional angel food cake. Instead of painstakingly adding the sugar to the egg whites as they whip, my method combines the two up front, along with the seeds of a Mexican vanilla bean. This all-in-one method streamlines the process and makes the meringue even more stable by minimizing the risk of over-whipping (more on that here).

From there, just fold in the bleached cake flour (more on the importance of that here), transfer to an anodized aluminum tube pan, and bake until golden brown. Since the batter is a little golden to start, this version's not as easy to judge by eye, so you can grab a digital thermometer to check instead. The cake is ready when it registers an internal temperature of 206°F.

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Whether the cake has a deeper caramel profile or just a hint, it's especially nice paired with your favorite chocolate sauce, homemade caramel, fresh figs, or whatever fruit strikes your fancy.