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Suffolk food writer Nicola Miller from Bury St Edmunds gives us the queen of all plain cakes





When it comes to plain cake, angel food cake is the queen of them all. An antidote to layer cakes with sickly-sweet icing or fussy flavours, its essential nature is stealth-luxe in cake form. Even the smallest slice will recalibrate taste buds pushed to their limits by overly-complex flavours. There is nothing quite like angel food cake, yet you rarely see it served in the UK.

Angel food cake is an American cake, first and foremost, possibly developed by the Amish Mennonite communities to use up leftover egg whites after their noodle-making sessions. Yet the base technique, which uses beaten-egg whites and sugar to trap air, gives us a fat-free cake so ethereally light it must cool upside down in its tin pre-dates the naming of the cake as ‘angel food’. The silver cake is one of angel cake’s ancestors and is named for the whiteness of its crumb via bleached flour, egg whites and white sugar, although it also contains fat. Silver cake’s equal and opposite was known as ‘gold’ or ‘yellow cake’ because it was made with egg yolks. It is possible that the more poetic description, ‘angel cake,’ came from baking entrepreneur Linus W Dexter who, according to author Ann Byrn, was lauded by his obituary as its creator.

The invention of rotary beaters and then handheld and stand mixers have made making angel food cake, which requires ten to twelve egg whites whipped to Mr Whippy levels of fluffiness, much easier, as do efficient modern ovens, running hot water to ensure your utensils are scrupulously clean, and cartons of pasteurised egg whites (should you prefer to use these). Consider cooks in the 19th century, who rose at dawn to light their wood-burning stove in advance in the early-morning heat of an American summer, collected eggs from a henhouse, heated water to clean their tools, then had to beat those egg whites by hand, using a twig, tree branch or fork in a hot kitchen. If caster sugar wasn’t available, coarser sugar might also have to be finely ground by hand. The vagaries of wood stoves meant the cook had to stay close at hand while their cake baked. Angel Food Cake was a test of muscle memory, requiring patience, a steady eye, and cooperation from the climate where even a few droplets of sweat falling from the cook’s brow could derail the progress of egg whites from opaque mass to soft, fluffy clouds. My daughter and I baked our cake on a sweltering day, and not once did we take for granted the labour-saving devices we had to hand.

Nicola Miller's Angel Food Cake
Nicola Miller's Angel Food Cake

Traditionally served with strawberries, cream or ice cream, this cake requires no glaze or frosting to set it off despite the plethora of recipes where this beautiful, classic lily of a cake is gilded beyond recognition. It goes well with any fruit; think currants, stone fruits and berries in the summer, figs in the autumn, tea-poached fruit compotes, stewed apple or roasted pineapple during the winter, or curds made from the leftover yolks. It is gorgeous with chocolate sauce and sliced pear or candied nuts. My angel food cake is lightly flavoured with the juice and zest of two citrus fruits, and a dollop of crème fraîche or buttermilk ice cream on the side will enhance its gentle tanginess.

Notes:

You will need the following:

A food mixer. (You can make the cake by hand, but beating ten egg whites is time-consuming.)

A 25cm diameter angel food cake baking tin. (Mine is made by Wilton and is readily available online or from good kitchen shops.)

Four small bowls for mise-en-place.

A cooling rack.

A sifter.

Ensure your mixing bowl is scrupulously clean so the egg whites whip up. Fat is their enemy. After washing, I wipe the mixer’s bowl and whisk with lemon juice to ensure any residue of washing liquid and fat has gone. You must leave the cake tin ungreased and never use a non-stick pan because the batter won’t be able to ‘cling’ to the sides of the pan and rise as it bakes.

LEMON & LIME ANGEL FOOD CAKE

Ingredients:

125g plain flour (I prefer bleached flour for that beautiful white crumb.) 300g white caster sugar (to be separated into 100g/200g amounts)

Ten large free-range egg whites at room temperature

Finely grated zest of 1 unwaxed lemon

Finely grated zest of 4 unwaxed limes

1 tbsp lime juice

1 tsp vanilla paste

1 tsp cream of tartar

½ tsp table salt

Method:

Heat the oven to 180°C/160°C fan.

Before mixing the cake, I separate the egg whites from their yolks into bowls. (Keep the yolks in the fridge to make mayo, pasta, fruit curds, or extra-rich scrambled eggs.)

Place the flour and 100g of the sugar into a bowl and place on one side. Place the remaining sugar on one side too.

Add the egg whites to the bowl of your mixer (if using) and whisk them for at least one minute at medium speed. The eggs will look frothy. Now, add the lemon and lime zest, the lime juice, salt and cream of tartar. On medium speed, whisk the mixture into very soft peaks; this will take around 2 minutes but keep a close eye on it. Now, turn the speed to high, and gently sprinkle in 200g of sugar, in batches, until you have a lovely, glossy mixture that rises in soft peaks (i.e. the peaks don’t stand up straight but gently fold over at the top and hold their shape when you lift the beaters; it should resemble a Mr Whippy ice cream.). Switch off the beaters. Add one-third of the sugar/flour mix using a sifter and gently fold in with a metal spoon. Continue until all the sugar/flour is incorporated. Using as little force as possible is crucial because you don’t want to knock the air out of the cake mixture.

Gently spoon your batter into the cake tin. Don’t pour it in, as the weight of the batter landing upon itself can knock out some of the air. You’ll need to remove any larger air pockets, and you do this by gently running the blade of a thin metal knife through the centre of the mix in a circular motion, following the pan’s circumference.

Place the tin in the centre of the oven and bake for 40-45 minutes or until the cake is golden browned and springy to the touch. Remove from the oven and turn the tin upside down on a cooling rack to rest on its little legs. You must leave the cake undisturbed for a few hours before removing it from its tin. I leave mine for two hours.

When the cooling time has passed, turn the tin the right way up, carefully run a knife around the cake’s edge and push it out onto the rack. I use a palette knife to help ease the cake away from the base of the tin.

To serve, cut with a serrated bread knife using a gentle, sawing motion. This ensures you don’t crush the cake’s loft and spirit! Don’t use an ordinary cake knife.

Follow Nicola on Twitter: @Nicmillerstale

Winner of the Guild of Food Writers Online Food Writer Award 2020

Fortnum & Mason Cookery Writer of the Year 2022