As I write this, my angel food cake is upside down, cooling in the kitchen.
Upside down. You heard me right.
Making angel food cake is one of the great acts of culinary faith. After separating a dozen eggs, beating them to soft peaks, and baking your cake in a quake-free kitchen, flipping it over so that it can cool upside down is absolutely the last thing you’ll want to do. Trust me.
But, it’s one of the things that will guarantee you a tall, light & fluffy cake. Don’t worry, I’ll show you how to do it.
Angel food cake is built out of egg whites, sugar, and a minuscule amount of flour. Since the egg whites provide most of the body and structure for the cake, the name of the game is to not de-poof your whites once they’re beaten.
A modern twist on classic Grandmother Cake
This recipe comes from America’s Test Kitchen. I hate to say it, but I think it actually beats my 1950’s Betty Crocker version. No joke.
Wait, I have to grind up sugar?
Yep! Hear me out.
For this recipe, America’s Test Kitchen tested a bunch of different kinds of sugar. In the end, they grind up regular white, granulated sugar to lighten it so that it doesn’t weigh the egg whites down.
Here’s my sugar before grinding, just as it came out of the package.
And here’s my sugar after grinding.
That said, next time, I might try bar sugar, also known as superfine sugar. (This is the sugar that you use in cocktails, because it basically dissolves instantly.) The recipe didn’t mention it, and I’m curious. My box of bar sugar says it would be great in meringues, souffles, and mousses. I’m thinking angel food cake would work, too, and it would cut out one kind of fussy step. More on that when I try it.
Tips for making angel food cake
- Don’t grease your pan. (Really, don’t. You need the cake to stick to the pan so that it doesn’t fall out when you cool it upside down).
- Use cake flour. Trust me. It’s lighter than regular flour.
- Don’t get a speck of yolk in your egg whites. Yolks are all fat, and fat keeps egg whites from whipping up properly.
- No jumping in the kitchen when it’s in the oven. Think of this as a slightly more stable souffle.
- Cool it upside down for 3 hours to minimize sinkage and maximize poof.
- Angel food cake doesn’t like humidity. So, if it’s sticky & hot where you are, make the cake the day you’re going to serve it.
What is cake flour?
Cake flour is milled more than standard flour, which means that it’s much finer and lighter. (Sounds just like what we’re doing with the sugar, right? For angel food cake, smaller particles of just about everything are better.)
The protein content is also lower than all-purpose flour. The more protein in a flour, the more gluten your baked goods will develop. Gluten basically equals chewiness, which is great for a crusty loaf of bread, but not so great for a cake. Cake flour makes cakes with a really light, fine crumb.
Most big grocery stores in the U.S. carry cake flour in the baking aisle. If you can’t find it locally, you can definitely order it online. I usually grab Swan’s Down at my regular market, or King Arthur Flour’s unbleached cake flour when I order online.
Use a tube pan with a removable bottom
I always use a regular, 10-inch tube pan with a removable bottom to bake my angel food cakes. (This is my pan.)
You can also use a special “angel food cake pan,” (like this one) which is basically a tube pan with three tabs on the rim to hold up the pan when you cool the cake.
To the ovens!
Angel Food Cake
Recipe from America’s Test Kitchen Magazine
1 cup + 2 Tbls. cake flour
1/4 tsp. salt
1 3/4 cups white sugar
12 large egg whites
1 1/2 tsp. cream of tartar
1 tsp. vanilla extract
Bring your eggs up to room temperature
Set your eggs out on the counter about a half an hour before you want to bake. You want to bring them to room temperature, because room temp egg whites beat up fluffier than cold egg whites.
Pre-heat your oven to 325 degrees.
Grind up the sugar
This is fussy, I know. But I do think it definitely makes a difference. If you don’t have a food processor, I’m pretty confident that a blender will work just as well.
Put the sugar in the bowl of your food processor.
Cap it and turn it on high for a few minutes. Warning: You’re going to get a little sugar cloud. Toss a damp towel over the top to keep it contained.
When the sugar is ground up, take about half of it and set it aside in a bowl. (You’re going to add the sugar to the batter in two parts.)
Add the cake flour to the sugar that’s left in the food processor.
Give that a whirl on high for a minute. This is just to combine it well and make a really uniform mixture.
Set that aside while you deal with the eggs.
Separate the eggs
Separate your eggs, whites in one bowl, yolks in another. It’s absolutely critical (words you’ll hardly ever hear from me, I know) that you don’t get any yolk in the egg whites. Even a little yolk will keep the whites from whipping up to soft peaks.
I just use my hand to separate the eggs. (Crack the egg in your hand over a bowl. Cradle the yolk so it doesn’t break. Let the white pour through your fingers into the bowl. Repeat.) If you’d rather not do it by hand, you can always use an egg separator.
Save the yolks for another purpose. They’ll keep in the fridge for about a day. A great way to use up extra egg yolks is to make ice cream.
Beat the egg whites to soft peaks
Put your egg whites in the bowl of your stand mixer (or in a large bowl if you’re beating by hand or with a handheld mixer). Toss in the cream of tartar. It might clump up a little. That’s just fine. Your mixer will bash those little clumps apart.
What does cream of tartar do? Basically, it’s an acid, and a little bit of acid will help your whites beat up fluffier. It will also help stabilize them.
Beat the whites on high until they get white and frothy. This will take a minute or so.
When the whites are frothy, slowly add the reserved, ground up sugar with the mixer running. (NOT the sugar & flour.)
Beat the mixture for another 5 minutes or so, until the egg whites form soft peaks.
When they’re ready, your egg whites will look like this…
…and form a soft peak (i.e. a peak that flops over when you pull the beater out of the bowl).
Finish the batter
Add the vanilla extract and beat to incorporate.
Take the remaining flour & sugar mixture. Sift half of it into your beaten egg whites to remove any clumps. (Clumps = weight, which means droopage for your finished cake.)
Gently fold the sifted flour into the egg whites.
Repeat with the rest of the flour mixture.
Your finished batter will look about like this:
Bake the angel food cake
Transfer the batter to your tube cake pan. DON’T grease the pan beforehand. You want it to stick to the sides, so that it doesn’t fall out when you cool it upside down.
Smooth the batter down gently with a spatula so it’s about even.
Bake on the lower-middle rack at 325 degrees for 40-45 minutes.
The cake is done when it’s golden brown on top and when a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean.
The top of your cake will crack a little. That’s just fine.
Invert the cake & cool completely
Let the cake cool for about 5 minutes on the counter. Then get ready to flip the cake. You’ll need a smaller, sturdy stand with a flat bottom. A clay flower pot is ideal…it’s flat, heat absorbant, etc. You could also use a bowl.
Remember, you didn’t grease the pan, so the cake is sticking to the sides…which is what keeps it from falling out.
Deep breath. Ready?
Grab the cake pan with potholdered paws, and…flip it over quickly and calmly so that the center part of the pan is resting squarely in the middle of the bottom of the flower pot.
Make sure that it’s steady on the flower pot (i.e. so that when the kids/dog/your rowdy friends gallop through your kitchen, it won’t tip and fall) and…that’s it! Let the cake stay like this until it’s completely cool. Gravity will do its work and help keep your cake nice and tall.
Unmold, slice & serve
When your cake is cool, flip it back over. Run a knife around the inside edge of the pan to loosen it and remove it from the pan.
What do you like with your cake? Here are some ideas (I’m partial to the lemon icing):
- Fresh berries
- Whipped cream spiked with Kahlua
- A dusting of powdered sugar
- A drizzle of quick lemon icing (mix fresh lemon juice into sifted powdered sugar until it’s thin enough to drizzle)
- Chocolate ice cream & a dollop of hot fudge