Friday, January 08, 2010

Fallen Angel (Food Cake)

The group of friends I met through the Engineer likes to organize a Meatfest each year. This came about as a way to have a dinner together to celebrate the holidays. In order to keep in line with everyone’s dietary restrictions, we try to keep kosher, and since both E. and I are lactose-intolerant, we choose a meat-based meal rather than a dairy one, hence the term Meatfest. I like to contribute dessert, but it’s actually surprisingly hard for me to find a dairy-free one. It sounds like it should be easy, since I bake without lactose all the time, but I use a fair amount of lactose-free dairy in my food. The meal also has to be pork-free (otherwise, what’s the point of keeping it kosher by not having dairy?), as well as fish-free and nut- and peanut-free, because of allergies. It is usually at Rob and Jen’s house (they are our friends R. and J.; I’m using their real names here since they’ve basically outed themselves in the comments over the past few months!) or at the childhood home of the Legal Chef (I referred to Jason in the post about Vermont, but I believe this nickname might suit him better!). The Legal Chef hosted this year and made a turkey, while Rob and Jen made roasted vegetables. The Actor brought smoked meat, rye bread and pickles; our newlywed friends D. and N. brought a really good salad; the Engineer made roasted-garlic stuffing (using dairy-free margarine instead of butter); and, suddenly inspired, I volunteered to make my angel food cake.

The reason I refer to it as “my” angel food cake is that I had made it twice before with the Baking Illustrated recipe, without giving it so much as a second thought, and the cake always came out perfect. Here’s a tip: use pasteurized egg whites to make this cake. You won’t have to waste time separating eggs and you won’t have 12 leftover yolks. Since egg whites are the only ingredient in these containers, there are no additives or preservatives to worry about. It’s really a life-saver.

So on New Year’s Day, first thing in the morning, I pull out all the ingredients and bake the cake, only to make a royal mess of things. I’ll never cease to be amazed by how a recipe, even once you think you’ve mastered it, can suddenly turn on you and NOT WORK. The cake fell quite a bit while it was in the oven, and it continued its fall once I pulled it out. It was the flattest cake ever, nothing like what I had made before in my life – and not by any stretch of the imagination what an angel food cake should be.

The way I made the cake that morning was a little different from previous times. I usually measure the flour by volume (I know I shouldn’t, but I learned how to bake like most other North Americans, and I tend to do whatever feels easiest). That morning, though, since I now have a digital scale, I decided to do it the right way: I put a bowl and a sieve on the scale and set it to zero, so that I could weigh out exactly 3 oz of sifted flour. Sure, it was all-purpose flour instead of cake flour, but that’s how I’d always done it before. It looked like a smaller amount than I expected, though, and a lack of substance in the cake could explain its collapse.

I also *may* have beaten the egg whites too much, which means they might have released too much air and fallen as I was folding in the flour. I decided there was no way I was bringing that cake to dinner. Perhaps I could make the chocolate cake I had made the previous year? But I wanted to diversify, and besides, that cake also betrayed me out of nowhere last time I made it!

So I decided to make another angel food cake that afternoon, after walking in the Old Port with the Engineer and the Actor. Of course, since all the grocery stores were closed on New Year’s Day, we couldn’t buy more pasteurized eggs whites, and I had to settle for a dozen eggs from the corner store. Thankfully, I have one of those Yolky contraptions. It looks silly, but it greatly reduces the number of times I accidently break a yolk as I’m separating the eggs.

And this time, I did what I had always done before: I dumped the flour in the measuring cup and then sifted it (I hope the Legal chef isn’t reading this, that sentence might give him a heart attack!). For fun, I weighed the amount of flour I ended up with, and it was 5 oz, not 3 (though the Engineer says that Baking Illustrated seems to underestimate how much flour is needed for pie crusts, so maybe 3 oz really isn’t enough?). I was careful not to overwhisk the egg whites. I folded in the flour in fewer additions, so there was less of a risk of deflating the egg whites as I was working them. And the cake was much, much better than my first attempt. It wasn’t as nice as the ones I had made effortlessly before, but it was good enough for Meatfest. (I used artificial almond extract, which did not cause a problem for the nut-allergies in the group, but when in doubt, omit it entirely.)

Baking Illustrated recommends serving the cake upside-down (so with the crisp top of the cake directly on the serving plate and the side that touched the cake pan exposed). I’m not sure which I prefer, personally; here are two pictures so you can compare and decide for yourselves.

So, without further ado, here’s the recipe.

1 cup (3 oz, or up to 5?) sifted plain cake flour
1 ½ cups (10 ½ oz) sifted sugar (¾ cup + ¾ cup)
12 large eggs whites (1 ¾ cup + 2 Tbsp), at room temperature
1 tsp cream of tartar
¼ tsp salt
1 ½ tsp vanilla extract
1 ½ tsp lemon juice
½ tsp almond extract

Adjust an oven rack to the lower-middle position and heat the oven to 325 °F. Have ready an ungreased large tube pan (9-inch diameter, 16-cup capacity), preferably with a removable bottom. If the bottom is not removable, line it with parchment paper or waxed paper.

Whisk the flour and ¾ cup of the sugar in a small bowl. Place the remaining ¾ cup sugar in another small bowl next to the mixer.

Beat the egg whites in the bowl of a stand mixer at low speed until just broken up and starting to froth (using a low speed takes longer, but it helps create “steady” peaks of egg whites later on, which are less likely to deflate). Add the cream of tartar and salt and beat at medium speed (again, not high) until the whites form very soft, billowy mounds. With the mixer still at medium speed, beat in the remaining ¾ cup sugar, 1 Tbsp at a time, until all the sugar is added and the whites are shiny and form soft peaks (at this point, when you tilt the bowl, the mass should still flow slightly). Add the vanilla, lemon juice and almond extract and beat until just blended.

Place the flour-sugar mixture in a sifter set over wax paper. Sift the flour-sugar mixture over the whites, about 3 Tbsp at a time (I used more the second time), and gently fold in, using a large rubber spatula. Sift any flour-sugar mixture that falls onto the paper back into the bowl with the egg whites.

Gently scrape the batter into the pan, smooth the top with the spatula and give the pan a couple of raps on the counter to release any large air bubbles.

Bake until the cake is golden brown and the top springs back when pressed firmly, 50 to 60 minutes. Let the cake cool completely, 2 to 3 hours.

To unmold, run a knife around the edges of the pan, being careful not to separate the golden crust from the cake. Slide the cake out of the pan and cut the same way around the removable bottom to release or peel off the paper, if using. Place the cake (bottom-side up or top-side up, as you wish) on a platter. Cut slices by sawing gently with a large serrated knife. Serve the cake the day it is made.


Amélie said...

I'd just like to point out a post on Heavenly Cake Baker, where Marie (the blogger) also had a bad experience with an angle food cake (well, it was actually a chocolate tweed cake, which is an angel food cake with grated chocolate).

Also, Rose Levy Beranbaum says that the top of an angel food cake goes down to the level of the pan top when baked fully (so it should be flat and not inflated in a convex shape over the edge of the pan).

Amélie said...

One more addition: Rose Levy Beranbaum's Chocolate Tweed Cake recipe is online!

Amélie said...

If anyone is still reading this post: I just made an angel food cake this weekend. I was careful not to overwhisk the whites, and I used a dry-level measuring cup for the flour (so I scooped the flour out of the bag, the proper way, but did not weigh it). I can't tell you for a fact that it was better than any I've ever made before, but I can't imagine a better angel food cake than that; it was textbook perfect.