Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Angel Food Cake: Snow White Perfection

Not long ago I asked a friend who had a birthday coming up if he was excited to dig in to his special birthday cake. When he looked puzzled, I said you know, the one you had for each and every birthday when you were growing up and now that you are married, the one your wife bakes for you each year.

He looked at me like I was crazy. He asked me what I was talking about – he sometimes had a cake but often he didn’t even have a cake on his special day.

I thought EVERYONE had their very own special birthday cake that was baked just for them to celebrate their birthday.

Now, I don’t mean an individual cake meant to be eaten only by them.

What I mean is the same type of cake that they had YEAR after YEAR after YEAR on their birthday that was then poked with candles, lit on fire, then shared by all.

For example, my mom always baked an angel food cake for my birthday. And not just any angel food cake – my cake had been baked with confetti sprinkles folded into the batter so each slice included an exploded rainbow of color.

And each of my four siblings had their own special cake.

Having our own special birthday cake became yet another way we labeled each other in my family like being left handed or the one with the green eyes or the one who is best at card games or who could sew the best.

I knew this wasn’t just special to my family because my husband’s birthday cake while he was growing up was always, as he puts it, “white cake with white frosting” – he didn’t specify what type that white frosting was but I get the general idea.

But maybe it was a quirk of growing up in the mid-west as we both had. We certainly love our regional dishes -- I was particularly fond of pork tenderloin sandwiches.

But then I found out that the favored birthday cake of my sister-in-laws husband who grew up on the east coast is banana whipped cream cake. That cake is truly unique. Here is how my sister-in-law described the recipe:

“You take 2 8-inch rounds of yellow cake and slice them down the center. Whip cream with sugar and a little vanilla and then slice several bananas. Layer the cake with bananas and cream then cover it with the whipped cream. It tastes the best the next day after it has sat in the fridge overnight.”

Not exactly a gourmet cake but I have actually tasted that cake and it is pretty darn good! But this cake didn’t make the cut on a technicality – this cake was made for all family birthdays – not just her husband’s birthday.

One has to wonder how those cakes became identified with a specific kid. My mom loved to bake and here was yet another way she could indulge her passion. I certainly didn’t know that angel food cake was my favorite when I was only a year old. As I got older and also became passionate about baking, I often wondered why my mom who was such an accomplished baker would always use a cake mix when she baked cakes.

I never got to ask her but my guess is that at the time she was baking, cake mixes where seen as the modern way to bake cakes.

So, while she labored over her other creations – ring-a-lings, pies, homemade noodles, etc., she looked to Betty Crocker and Duncan Hines to celebrate birthdays.

But our special birthday cakes came to an end as the monster known as Alzheimer’s swallowed up my mom.

So there have been a few years where I also didn’t have my special birthday cake made by my mom and it has been a long time since I have bought a cake mix.

I didn’t intend to resurrect the angel food cake tradition but over the last few months the thought of making one has tugged at my thoughts.

In April, at the Baker’s Dozen Anniversary Celebration, we were asked to bring a recipe from the Baker’s Dozen Cookbook to help celebrate the day.

I decided to bake an angel food cake using Flo Braker’s recipe from the Baker’s Dozen Cookbook.

My finished cake looked ok and tasted ok but I was finding it hard to remember why I liked it so much.

As I mentioned in my post about the Baker’s Dozen celebration, Flo Braker commented that the photo in the Baker’s Dozen cookbook was not of a cake that she had baked. Actually, she said, “not that ugly brown thing!”

According to Braker the exterior of an angel food cake can be snowy white – as white as the interior.

Since my finished cake was certainly brown, I desperately hoped that she hadn’t seen it yet. I vowed then to try to bake one that was as snow-white and as tender as she said it should be.

Over the next few months I asked other baker’s their thoughts about brown angel food cake vs. snow-white angel food cake. Not surprisingly, most had never thought of angel food cake as any other way other than with the brown exterior.

Maybe I heard wrong – I decided to double check with Evie Lieb of The Chocolate Cake recipe fame and who had been at the same table when Flo Braker made her statement.

Evie confirmed Braker’s statement and pointed me to an article on the Fine Cooking Magazine's website that included detailed instructions on Braker’s technique for baking the perfect angel food cake.

Then I had the good fortune to actually run into Braker at our local farmer’s market. She confirmed that it was possible to bake an angel food cake that would “slip out of” its brown exterior – the brown crust would be left behind in the tube pan.

And finally, my birthday was fast approaching. Time to bake an angel food cake.

Although the recipe has only seven ingredients and comes together quickly, this is a cake that is all about technique. An angel food cake is a type of sponge cake – in contrast to butter cakes.

According to Flo Braker in her book The Simple Art of Perfect Baking, “ The methods for making these cakes are unlike those used to make butter cakes. The egg is to the sponge cake what butter is to the butter cake, and making a perfect sponge cake depends on how well you whip the eggs to create what is known as a foam.”

In the Baker’s Dozen Cookbook, Braker outlines the techniques that will result in a delicate and tender cake. I highly recommend checking out her recommendations in that cookbook as well as her articles on this subject online at the Fine Cooking Magazine website.

Probably the most important technique that I hadn’t paid much attention to was the temperature of the egg whites – Braker recommends 60 degrees instead of the room temperature 70 degrees that most cookbooks recommend.

According to Braker, “You want whites that are whipped to the optimum, but not necessarily the maximum, capacity. Angel food cake needs a smooth, shiny, and soft meringue that will incorporate easily with the other ingredients, leaving room to expand in the oven.”

Bottom line, stiffly beaten egg whites are too stiff to be folded correctly into the other ingredients.

For the first cake I made I left the egg whites out in the mixer bowl for one hour. I had a hard time getting them to 60 degrees because of the weather that day. The second time it only took a half hour. So, keep checking the temperature with an instant read thermometer after about 15 minutes.

But, now for the hard part – getting the brown exterior to stay in the pan.

According to Braker, the trick is to leave the cake upside down on a bottle or on the pan’s feet at least four hours or overnight if possible – not just for a few hours as most recipes state. Then, turn the pan right side up and run a thin knife around the edges. Don’t worry about the center tube. Turn the pan on its side. Tap the pan on the counter and rotate. Then carefully tap the bottom of the pan and release the cake.

Both my test cakes came out almost completely white -- if not snow-white, certainly closer to white than brown. What didn’t come off I could easily rub off with my fingers. This was a beautiful cake and because I had followed the other techniques, the cake almost melted in my mouth.

The reason I made a second cake was not so much to perfect my technique although that was certainly a factor. I needed my confetti! I gently folded in sprinkles into the batter. You could just see a hint of the sprinkles on the exterior of the cake as it slipped out of the pan.

And on the inside? Well, happy birthday to me.

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