Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Angel Food Cake

When our farmers market starts selling strawberries each year, I start buying and tasting samples, eager to determine whose strawberries will result in the most flavorful jams and sauces. Then, when the season peaks I buy a flat of the tastiest variety and set out to make jam. This year, I may have jumped the gun a little as there is still time left in our strawberry season, but I am on a bit of a time crunch with our second daughter on the way and my nesting period in full swing. I made two batches of the freezer jam I make every year using traditional pectin and plenty of sugar as well as a trial batch of a low sugar variety of freezer jam using Pamona's Universal Pectin. This pectin does not require sugar to jell and is instead activated by calcium. I found it at our local natural foods store and thought I'd give it a whirl. It was also quite inexpensive considering how much jam you can make with one box. With the remaining strawberries, I made some simple strawberry topping and package it in two to three cup containers for freezer storage. With just a bit of sugar, strawberries make a fresh and simple topping for homemade vanilla ice cream or angel food cake and the freezer allows us to enjoy them when strawberries are no longer at their peak. So much for eating seasonally, huh? Well, I don't usually find myself craving strawberries in the winter, so we do try to make use of them before our warm fall ends and winter vegetables like pumpkins start showing up in our baked goods again.

With strawberries on hand, angel food cake is now residing in our glass domed cake plate. Not for long, however, as it is a favorite in our household. It is simple, light, even fat free, which seems to make it way too easily digestable. I'm not claiming it is healthy, as it's loaded with sugar and usually made with refined, bleached cake flour, just that it is not in the least bit "rich", and so satisfyingly, yet so unsatisfyingly light that we tend to inhale it. The real bonus is it is so simple to make... that is if you have a stand or hand held mixer to help you with frothing the egg whites. It is no fun (and actually painful if you're not used to it) to whisk egg whites to a stiff peak by hand. Plus, you don't have to grease the pan! I always loved this about angel food cake as a kid, when it seemed like such a chore to grease a pan. The cake actually needs to stick to the pan so its delicate batter can climb up the sides.

You can find recipes for angel food cake in almost any basic cook book and all over the internet, but I tend to reach for the same recipe my mom used- the one out of the Betty Crocker cookbook. Most recipes I've come across do not vary too much on ingredients and instructions, but unfortunately, some of the ingredients are not in the average pantry. Quite a few recipes call for superfine sugar and most call for cake flour. I don't usually buy superfine sugar, but do keep a stock of powdered sugar. I usually keep cake flour on hand, but have improvised when I've found the box to be almost empty while my eggs whites are whirring in the stand mixer. Cake flour has a lower gluten content than all purpose and will result in a more tender cake that rises a bit higher. If you don't want to buy a box of cake flour for the one cup of flour you need in this recipe, you can substitute 3/4 cup of all-purpose flour plus 2 Tablespoons of corn starch for one cup of cake flour.

Angel Food Cake

1 1/2 cups powdered sugar
1 cup cake flour (or 3/4 all-purpose flour + 2 Tablespoons corn starch)
1 1/2 cups egg whites (10 to 12 depending on size of eggs)
1 1/2 teaspoons cream of tartar
1 cup granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt or 1/4 teaspoon table salt
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
1/2 teaspoon almond extract

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Sift together the powdered sugar and flour. Beat the egg whites and cream of tartar in the bowl of a stand mixer with the whisk attachment or in a medium bowl with a hand mixer until foamy. Beat on high speed, gradually add the granulated sugar, then the salt, vanilla, and almond extract. Continue beating until stiff and glossy.

Remove bowl from stand mixer or set hand mixer aside. Using a large spatula, fold 1/4 at a time the powdered sugar and flour mixture into the egg whites just until incorporated. Spread the batter in an ungreased tube pan, cutting through the batter with a clean knife to break up any air pockets.

Bake at 375 degrees until the top springs back when touched, about 30 to 35 minutes. Cool cake upside down in pan. If the cake has risen above the cooling prongs, you can balance it on an upside down funnel placed in the center. Remove from pan when fully cooled by running a knife along the outside and center edges of the cake and inverting it onto a serving platter.

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