My mother used to make angel food cakes from scratch by hand — meaning she didn’t even use an electric mixer. I still remember her sitting on a kitchen chair, one arm wrapped around the big yellow Pyrex bowl resting in her lap while she beat the egg whites with a long-handled spiral whisk in the other hand. It seemed a long, tedious task to me, which is why, when I grew up, I would simply reach for a box mix anytime I wanted an angel food cake.
So this may be the first time I’ve actually made one from scratch. But at least I knew going into it what’s involved, and what the final product should look and taste like. Once you’ve had a homemade angel food cake, you realize there really is no comparison with the kind that comes from a box!
With the help of an electric mixer, making an angel food cake isn’t really that difficult. But of course the bakers in the Great White Tent had a pared-down recipe, and some had never even had angel food cake before, so they were clearly at a disadvantage for this technical challenge.
Perhaps they were unfamiliar with angel food cake because it is an American invention. One of the first iterations appeared in Lettice Bryan’s 1839 cookbook, The Kentucky Housewife, under the name White Sponge Cake. It was first called Angel’s Food in 1878 in Isabella Stewart’s publication, The Home Messenger Book of Tested Recipes, 2ndedition.
What sets angel food cake apart from other sponge cakes — and what makes it a suitable food for angels, apparently — is the fact that it contains no egg yolks and no fat. The only leavening in the cake comes from beating air into the egg whites until they form a meringue-like consistency. This creates a high-rising cake with a light, airy texture that would probably float on a cloud (making it easier for angels to eat than, say, the heavier, chocolate devil’s food cake, which would undoubtedly sink like a stone)!
Another idiosyn-crasy of this cake is the pan that it’s baked in. The classic 10-inch tube pan has a cone-shaped “chimney” in the center (much like a Bundt pan, only taller) that allows the cake to rise higher (by giving it more surface area to cling to) and bake more evenly, since without it the center would still be raw when the outside edges are done. As many of the contestants on the Great British Baking Show discovered the hard way, the angel food cake pan should never be greased; if it is, the air-filled batter would be unable to cling to the surface of the pan and wouldn’t rise as high. Some of the pans come with little “feet” sticking above the rim, which come in handy after the cake is baked, as it is meant to be cooled upside down (another trick to keep the cake from falling after it’s taken out of the oven).
I know this was a technical challenge, which means I should technically follow Mary Berry’s recipe exactly, but I did make a few minor adjustments. First, I used cake flour. Cake flour is milled from soft wheat and has a lower protein content than other flours, creating a lighter texture and a close crumb when used in baked goods. When my mom made angel food cakes, she always used cake flour, so now I do, too.
Also, when I made the whipped cream topping, I added a tablespoon of cornstarch to stabilize it. Because I planned to take the cake to my Bible study to share with friends, I didn’t want the whipped cream all droopy and sloppy when it was served several hours later. In addition, the recipe includes a lemon curd and passion fruit sauce to drizzle over the cake before serving. (The lemon curd uses the egg yolks left over from making the cake.) But passion fruit is difficult to find around here, and when I did find a grocery store that carries them, they cost over $3 each! Fortunately, I found frozen passion fruit pulp at the same store for about the same price for 14 ounces! With a little research, I discovered that 2 passion fruits contain about ¼ cup of pulp (about 2 ounces), so I have enough pulp left over in the freezer for future bakes!
I took advantage of some Meyer lemons I found at my local grocers to find out if they’re really as good as their hype. They did not disappoint. Where ordinary lemons might be described as sour or bitter, Meyer lemons would be more accurately characterized as tart but flavorful, even bordering on sweet. I even found myself sipping on the few drops left in my measuring cup!
I also must say that the addition of passion fruit to the lemon curd really brightened the flavor and lifted the profile of the whole cake. The tangy tropical fruit gave the Meyer lemon curd complex yet refreshing notes that kept me licking the spoon (and dipping it in the jar for more) long after the cake was eaten!
Here’s a link to Mary Berry’s original recipe, but I’ve adapted it for American bakers here:
Mary Berry’s Angel Food Cake with Lemon Curd
Adapted for American bakers
For the cake:
- 1 c. + 2 T. cake flour
- 1½ c. superfine (baker’s) sugar, divided
- 10 large egg whites
- Zest of 2 lemons
- 1 T. lemon juice
- 1 t. cream of tartar
- ½ t. salt
For the lemon curd sauce:
For the topping:
- 1¼ c. (10 oz.) whipping cream
- ½ t. vanilla extract
- 1 T. cornstarch (optional)
- Preheat oven to 350°F and place the top oven shelf in the bottom third of the oven with nothing obstructing it. (You need plenty of room for the cake pan.) Sift the flour and ½ cup of the sugar together into a bowl and set aside.
- In the large bowl of a mixer fitted with a wire whisk attachment, beat the egg whites on medium-high speed for one minute or until frothy. Add the lemon zest, 1 tablespoon juice, cream of tartar and salt, and whisk for another 2-3 minutes until soft peaks form. Increase speed and add the remaining 1 cup of sugar, a tablespoon at a time, until firm, but not stiff, peaks form.
- Remove the mixer bowl from the mixer and sprinkle one-third of the flour/sugar mixture over the egg whites. Fold in gently to keep as much air in the mixture as possible. Repeat with the remaining two-thirds of the flour mixture.
- Transfer the batter to an ungreased, 10-inch angel food cake pan. Smooth the top and gently run a knife through the center of the batter to remove any air pockets. Bake cake in the preheated oven for 45-50 minutes, until a skewer inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean.
- Remove cake from the oven and immediately turn it upside down to cool. If your pan doesn’t have “feet” and the cake has risen above the center tube, balance the pan on the neck of a wine bottle. Let cool for at least an hour, then run a knife around the inner and outer edges of the cake to release it from the pan. Invert cake onto a plate. If the pan has a removable base, use a palette knife to carefully separate the cake from the bottom of the pan. Leave to cool completely on a wire rack.
- While the cake is baking, make the lemon curd: Mix egg yolks, sugar, lemon juice and zest together in a large saucepan. Cook over low heat, stirring with a wooden spoon, making sure to stir the sides and base of the pan. Cook for 5-7 minutes or until the mixture coats the back of a spoon. Remove from heat and stir in the butter. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve into a large bowl. Pour the curd into two 12-ounce glass jars and seal with lids. Cover remaining curd with plastic wrap and allow to cool.
- For the topping, whip cream, vanilla extract and cornstarch (if using) together until soft peaks form. Spoon the topping onto the cooled cake, and use a palette knife to spread it over the top and sides of the cake, smoothing it as you go.
- Cut the passion fruit in half and scoop out the seeds. Stir the seeds and pulp into the reserved, cooled lemon curd (or about 1 cup), and drizzle it over the angel food cake before serving. Store the remaining curd in sealed jars in the refrigerator or freezer for another use. You may also want to serve additional sauce on the side with your cake.