In today’s installment of the reflections of a pastry chef, let me tell you about Angel Food Cake.
One of the many different cakes we covered in the first’s week of Aeration & Emulsification course, it was for me the truly only one I had not have any prior experience in making.
Of course I knew what an Angel food cake was, or should look like, but I had never made or eaten one. Partially because a prejudice I had towards Pudim de Claras, a dessert we have in Brazil translated freely as Egg White pudding. Pudim de Claras is simply a stiff meringue (a foam of egg whites and sugar), placed in a caramelized tube pan and baked in bain-marie that I particularly never liked, but I digress.
Due to the visual similarity to a dessert I never appreciated, I never gave Angel Food Cake much of a thought after I moved to Canada. At times I even wondered about its popularity in North America.
Angel Food Cake belongs among the egg-foam type cakes, consisting of egg whites, sugar and cake flour and no fat. Air, trapped into the air cells formed in the egg white foam is the only leavening agent in this cake.
There is also a particular method of making it called angel food method. In this method the egg whites should be whipped to a soft peak stage, making sure that half of the sugar in the recipe is added gradually, allowing for the sugar crystals to dissolve before the addition of more sugar. It is also important to add the sugar after the foam has started to form, because even though sugar helps to stabilize meringue, if added in all at once or in the initial stages the whites will not foam properly as sugar weighs down meringue, weakening it. The addition of a small amount of cream of tartar helps stabilize the egg whites by lowering the mixture’s pH, making them more elastic, yielding better volume , it also whitens the mixture. This should also be done after the egg whites had started to foam, but still in the initial stages of whipping. The other half of the sugar is sifted with the cake flour, helping the flour to mix more evenly mix with the meringue. The flour-sugar mixture is then folded gently into the meringue, only until absorbed but no longer than that.
The batter should then be gently placed into a tube pan, completely free of traces of fat (plastic containers should be avoided to transfer the batter into the pan) and baked immediately.
This straightforward method and fairly simple cake recipe has a long list of instructions that should be followed to the letter, or one should be prepared for poor results, just like we had in class at the first time of making it.
My team had initially chosen the wrong size of mixing bowl and in the attempt of transferring the egg white foam to a larger mixing bowl after it had started to form peaks, we missed the crucial point and probably one of the most important rules of angel food cake making. Egg whites should be whipped to soft peaks. Not medium not stiff, but S-O-F-T!
Both underwhipped and overwhipped egg whites are unstable. The proteins in underwhipped egg whites are not fully aggregated, but as we experienced while making angel food cake, overwhipped egg whites are worst. When whipped too quickly of for too long, egg whites become too stretched and rigid. The whites may eventually collapse; the flour-sugar mixture cannot be folded evenly without braking out the air cells so important in the baking process. Our first attempt of making Angel Food Cake resulted in a very sad looking cake.
Luckily while these types of mistakes can be preventable by understanding the whys and why nots in every recipe, particular mixing method or ingredient they also promote a deeper learning experience, so we choose to remember that by making mistakes we are helping ourselves and our classmates, rather than feeling frustrated.
My team chose to make Angel Food Cake the very next day, knowing the particulars about this cake we then achieve successful results. Our second attempt to making Angel Food Cake was indeed worth of angels and I realized how delicious Angel Food Cake is, finally understanding its popularity.