Saturday, July 23, 2011

Making Nice

Foam cakes and I have never gotten along.  They tend to bake up with a tough crust, possess little intriguing flavor, require a delicate touch, speed and time in alternating increments, and to top it off, they use up an astounding number of eggs.  But when I came home, I made the rounds and my fate was sealed.  My mum wanted a light and fluffy cake like the ones in Chinese bakeries and my dad wanted (specifically) an angel food cake.  

Of all the foam cakes I have tried or tried to make, angel food cake is the most temperamental.  Bought from bakeries and grocery stores, they tend to be dry, tough and overly sweet.  Made at home, they stick mercilessly to whatever unfortunate pan you chose to inflict them upon.  And then, they are still dry, tough and overly sweet, because reducing the baking time or sugar might result in a cake with no structural integrity, and it might simply fall.

But if my dad asks for angel food cake, he gets angel food cake.  Father's Day passed with a phone call from me with the words, "Happy Father's Day, Dad" and quite literally nothing else, because I had a midterm the next day.  In an engineering class.  Being the mechanical engineer that he is, and the biomedical/mechanical engineering student that I am, I would most definitely die rather than fail an engineering class, even an electrical engineering class.  Thank you, Dad, for trying to teach me all those things about thermodynamics that I was too young to understand.  Maybe I can make it up to you with cake.  For you, I will dive headfirst into mortal combat with angel food cake.

It was in this way that angel food cake and I have finally reached a tenuous truce.  The one that emerged from the oven yesterday was soft, fluffy (even the crust), and tempered flavor- and texture-wise by its light frosting of cocoa whipped cream.  The cake recipe I found from my favorite cake book, called, fittingly enough, The Cake Book by Tish Boyle.  It is called Heavenly Angel Food Cake, but I have rewritten the directions to reflect how I made this cake with some pictures showing my interpretations of frothy, soft peaks, stiff peaks, etc.  

As I was writing this post, I reread the recipe.  I intended to cut the recipe in half, since I thought that 12 egg whites was an insane number of eggs to break for a single cake and my family of four wouldn't be able to eat the whole thing anyway.  However.  I believe that I may actually have forgotten to cut the recipe in half, and only the cut number of eggs in half.  Particularly since I was mixing the cake in a rush.  Sigh.  Cakes and rushing don't normally get along, either.  I'll save that rant for another post.  In any case, the cake actually turned out far better than any of my other angel food cake attempts in the past.  I'll let it go.  This time.

The whipped cream recipe is a bunch of different simple recipes tossed together to create something that I personally find more heavenly than the cake itself.

Heavenly Angel Food Cake from The Cake Book by Tish Boyle

1 cup sifted cake flour
¾ cup sifted powdered sugar
¼ teaspoon salt
6 large egg whites
1 teaspoon cream of tartar
1 cup superfine sugar (I simply used granulated)
2 teaspoons vanilla extract

2 medium mixing bowls for the sifted sugar, flour and salt
1 sifter or fine-net strainer for sugar and flour
1 large, sturdy mixing bowl, absolutely clean, for egg whites
Electric mixer (or balloon whisk and insane amounts of elbow grease, but I haven't tried)
1 balloon whisk
1 rubber spatula
¼ teaspoon measure
1 teaspoon measure
1 tablespoon measure
¼  cup dry measure
1 cup dry measure
8" round springform pan (originally a 10" diameter tube pan, but I'm not that lucky)


1. Whisk together the flour, sugar and salt, then set aside.  Preheat the oven to 325°F.

2. In the large mixing bowl, whip the egg whites until frothy, on low speed. 

See?  Frothy.

3. Add the cream of tartar, then mix until completely dissolved.  Then mix at medium speed until soft peaks begin to form...

Soft peaks.  They fold back on themselves when you pull the beaters out of the egg whites.
4. And slowly add the superfine (granulated) sugar about 1 tablespoon at a time.  Continue to whip throughout this process until all the sugar is mixed in, then whip at high speed until stiff peaks form...

The stabilized, sweetened egg whites should now look smooth and glossy.

5. Gently fold in the vanilla extract, then the flour mixture, a few tablespoons at a time.  This is where that delicate touch comes in handy.  Try not to deflate the egg whites too much.  A few streaks of flour actually doesn't make much of a difference, but giant pockets will.  Use your judgement as to how much mixing you do.  There's a balance.

Done (almost) properly and plopped into the pan, the batter looks something like this, only whiter.  Sigh, poor indoor lighting.

6. Scrape the batter into your 8" round springform pan and try to smooth the top.  Bake for about 40 minutes.  When the cake is done, the top is browned and somewhat springs back when you poke the top.  DO NOT poke too hard or you will make a hole in your nice spongy cake.

7. Right before you take the cake out of the oven, have ready an oven rack or something you can put the cake upside down on.  This step is very useful in keeping the angel food cake nice and fluffy.  It also helps that little depression in the center of the cake from growing too much.  Cool the cake upside down for about 1½ hours.

8. To remove the cake, run a slender plastic knife around the side of the cake, literally cutting it away from the pan.  Try to keep the side of the knife pressed against the pan.  Try to use a plastic knife to avoid scratching the nonstick coating of your springform pan, or even just the metal pan.  Scratch = more surface area = more sticking to pan.  Once you remove the ring, you should be able to turn the cake upside down on the serving plate and carefully remove the bottom of the pan.  A thin layer of cake may peel away with it.  That's perfectly fine.  Enjoy your cake!  Decorate, eat, save until it gets moldy (not recommended)!

Cocoa Whipped Cream

1 cup heavy whipping cream
2½ tablespoons powdered sugar
2 tablespoons cocoa powder
Splash of vanilla extract (about 1/4 teaspoon?)

1 large, sturdy mixing bowl
1 whisk or electric mixer
Copious amounts of elbow grease if whisk is used

1. Whip the cream at low speed until slightly thick.  Add the sugar, cocoa and vanilla and increase the speed to medium, then whip at high speed until desired consistency.  I chose to whip it until very stiff, so I could use it for frosting the cake. 

2. Use as desired, whether frosting the cake or simply serving it on the side. 

Look, Dad's cutting it! :D


Egg whites separate best cold, and whip best at room temperature.  Separate the eggs fresh out of the refrigerator, then let the egg whites sit for about 30 minutes.

To make sifted cake flour, you can substitute all-purpose flour and cornstarch.  Put two tablespoons of corn starch into the 1 cup dry measure, then fill to the top with flour.  Scoop the flour using another spoon or the ¼ cup measure, then carefully flatten the top by scraping the extra flour off.  Sift this, then carefully measure out the now-cake flour using the scoop and scrape method.  You will have extra "cake" flour left over.  

It's even simpler to make sifted powdered sugar.  Simply sift about ¾ cup powdered sugar, then scoop and scrape measure that.  Of course, you'll have extra.  Just put it back in the bag or box.

I have read in some cookbooks that you are supposed to use a non-porous metal mixing bowl as opposed to porous plastic bowls for beating egg whites for maximum volume so that no trace of fat gets into the egg whites.  In this case, the good mixing bowl was at the time used for marinating raw chicken.  The plastic bowl worked just fine.

The angel food cake will puff up in the 8" round springform pan when it bakes, then fall back down when it cools, particularly sinking in the middle with a depressing-looking crater.  Never fear, for the cake firms up remarkably after proper cooling, even holding its shape when and after I loaded the whipped cream onto it.  The step of letting it cool upside down for an hour and a half seems to be crucial to preventing the cake from sinking any further.  It also allows the cake to keep its fluffy texture. 

The angel food cake refrigerates well for a day.  I believe you are actually supposed to store it "at room temperature for 3 days or in the refrigerator for up to a week" as The Cake Book states, but this cake was put in the fridge to keep the whipped cream "frosting" from going bad, then disappeared in an extra day.

The mixing bowls do not move around as much if a damp towel is placed under the bowl.  I learned this trick from a chef who was kind enough to teach some Girl Scouts how the real cooks do it :)  Yay, friction!

Postscript:  My brother wanted a yellow cake made from a box.  I detest boxed mixes.  I dislike them far more than any foam cake, for at least foam cakes are made from real ingredients.  Box mix cakes taste distinctly familiar, too sweet and one-dimensional with an undertaste of chemicals and are artificially lightened until they feel like dry cotton on the tongue.  They are designed to keep a shelf life longer than any self-respecting shortening and still rise far too much even after they have been beaten to death with a wooden spoon, somewhat like a zombie cake. I made him a chiffon cake instead, one that my mum now calls the "Happy Driving" cake.  This cake was made before I started this blog.  I will try to get that cake onto this blog.

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