Homemade Angel Food Cake

Graham

On Monday, Graham turned one, and the four of us celebrated the only way I know how, with an angel food cake, the cake my mother made for me and each of my siblings for nearly the first two decades of our lives. Angel food cake played such a role in celebrations growing up that for many years I assumed it was a Greek tradition — seriously, every aunt and great aunt and cousin seemed to celebrate with it, too.

While the absence of fillo and syrup should have perhaps been a giveaway, I was shocked to learn that the tradition in my family started with my mother’s mother who liked everything light light and served her angel cake with a simple chocolate glaze that poured down the cake’s sides freezing halfway down in a beautiful scalloped edge. But even more shocking than learning that angel food cake was not invented by the Greeks was discovering that for many years my mother didn’t make our birthday cakes from scratch. Yes, the woman who would never consider making soup without homemade broth, the woman who turns her nose at jarred roasted peppers, the woman who thinks nothing is more revolting than bottled salad dressing relied on Duncan Hines to make 90% of our childhood birthday cakes.

But I don’t blame her. Boxed cake mixes, particularly angel food cake mixes, are pretty good. And if the ingredients in these mixes were even remotely recognizable, she, and I in turn, would likely be keeping our pantries stocked with them.

But once you make one angel food cake from scratch, it’s hard to go back. For one, it’s not that difficult. Compared to many cakes, the ingredient list is modest. And if you measure your egg whites accurately and take the time to sift your flour — if ever there’s a time to sift, this is it — you are well on your way to success. The key with angel food cake lies in the handling of the egg whites, which must not be overbeaten. I learned this from Florence Fabricant, who offers some nice guidance in the the preface to the angel cake recipe in The New York Times Desserts Cookbook: “It is absolutely essential that great care be taken in beating the egg whites so they remain creamy and do not weep or break from overbeating preventing the cake from rising so magnificently. It’s best to underbeat them slightly.”

Second, making an angel cake from scratch feels like some sort of culinary triumph. Without any leavening the cake rises to extraordinary heights; without a lick of butter or oil, the cake remains incredibly moist and spongey. It is truly a feat.

And finally, in addition to being light light, angel cake is incredibly delicious. Craig Claiborne, who declared angel cake his absolute favorite dessert, perhaps described it best: “divine, celestial, manna from heaven.” I couldn’t agree more.

angel food cake ingredients

egg whites, beaten

ready for the oven

just-baked angel food cake

Cooling upside down — this helps prevent falling:
cooling upside down

cooled angel food cake

halved angel food cake

whipped cream frosting

frosted, halved angel food cake

frosted cake

frosted cake

cake topped with chocolate shavings

Ella’s first birthday: 02-16-2011
Ella

Ella

homemade angel food cake with whipped cream frosting

Homemade Angel Food Cake

Source: The New York Times Cookbook, Craig Claiborne

Notes: I use the recipe from the Craig Claiborne New York Times Cookbook, but I reference the angel food cake recipe from The New York Times Dessert Cookbook (which happens to be credited to Claiborne and differs only in the quantity of sugar), because Florence Fabricant offers some wonderful guidance:

It is absolutely essential that great care be taken in beating the egg whites so they remain creamy and do not weep or break from overbeating preventing the cake from rising so magnificently. It’s best to underbeat them slightly. And they will beat best if they are not ice cold. The pan is not greased so the batter easily “climbs” up the sides as it bakes, increasing the loftiness of the cake. Tracing a square in the top of the unbaked batter with a knife also encourages rising. And keeping the cake upside down until it cools is essential to prevent it from falling.

1 cup sifted cake flour*
1 1/2 cups superfine granulated sugar (I did not use superfine)
1 1/4 cups egg whites (10 to 12), at room temperature
1 1/4 teaspoons cream of tartar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon almond extract

*I used Lily White because I had it, but I imagine all-purpose will work just fine, too.

1. Preheat the oven to 325ºF.

2. Sift the flour four times with a 1/2 cup of the sugar. (Do take the time to do this. I think it makes a difference. I don’t have a sifter — I just use a fine-mesh sieve.)

3. Beat the egg whites until foamy. Add the cream of tartar and salt and beat until soft moist peaks form when the beater is withdrawn.

4. Add the remaining sugar, about two tablespoons at a time, beating it in after each addition. Add vanilla and almond extract.

5. Sift about one-quarter cup of the flour-sugar mixture at a time over the meringue and cut and fold it in just until no flour shows. (This part is kind of tricky. You’ll feel you are deflating the egg whites at every fold, but try to be delicate and fold no more than necessary.)

6. Turn into ungreased nine- or ten-inch tube pan and bake about 45 minutes to an hour, until the cake is lightly browned and springy. Invert pan onto a rack and let cake cool in pan completely, about an hour and a half. Run a knife or metal spatula around the sides of pan to release the cake.

Chocolate Whipped Cream Frosting

Note: Do this to taste. Add more cocoa and sugar based on your preferences. This is about the proportions I use:

2 cups heavy cream
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon cocoa powder
1/4 cup to 1/2 cup confectioners’ sugar

1. Beat cream on high until it begins to thicken. Add vanilla. Continue beating until it begins to thicken more. Add cocoa and about 1/4 cup confectioners’ sugar. Beat until it starts to thicken more. Taste, add more sugar and cocoa if necessary.

To assemble cake:

Halve cooled angel food cake. Spread a layer of whipped cream frosting on top of one half. Top with remaining half. Plop a generous amount of frosting on top of the cake and with an offset spatula (if you have one) spread it down and all around the cake covering all sides. Using a peeler, shave a bar of chocolate over top of the cake.

The New York Times Cookbook, Craig Claiborne

28 Comments

  1. Hi, Alexandra. I’m your reader from Ukraine.
    ahahahahaha – the baby’s so cute and definitely it IS the tastiest cake ever (esp. after making Ella sooooo happy ).
    i was choosing a cake for my birthday but apparently i already know the answer.

    Reply
  2. If I make this cake will Graham and Ella magically appear in my apartment to eat it? If so then I’m going to make it asap! Your kiddies are too cute! I love when you add a picture in here and there. Oh and this cake, it’s pretty darn cute too and I cannot wait to try it out. My mom use to make angel food cake all the time too, but not for birthdays, birthdays were yellow cake with raspberry filling, which is still my favorite. Happy Birthday to Graham!

    Reply
  3. I ALWAYS had angel food for my birthdays too, I’ve even re-instituted this tradition for birthdays in my office, everyone loves angel food cake! this is a perfect post!

    Reply
  4. I love, LOVE that you have a photo of box Ella and Graham on their first birthday with this cake. Traditions are awesome. I’ve only made angel food cake once, but you are right that it feels so satisfying — it doesn’t seem like it should be so easy to make! Happy birthday to Graham — love your posts with photos of the kiddos. And that Ella – her expressions are priceless.

    Reply
  5. Beautiful photos, food and especially children! My mother also made angel food cakes for us, different variations for different children. I got the one topped with whipping cream and lemon pudding folded together.

    Reply
  6. This cake looks divine! Your children are beyond!!! I predict Graham will go into molecular gastromony and Ella, obviously, will go into pastry!

    Reply
  7. Thank you for highlighting this cake and cookbook. It is one of my favorites! My copy of the book is much rattier looking – it was my go-to book for many years. Angel food cake is my all time favorite and I see you are bringing your children up right…to love this cake forever.
    (If you haven’t tried it, the French potato salad recipe in this book is divine…)

    Reply
    • Dee G — so funny about the cookbook… I wasn’t sure anyone would recognize it. And thank you for the tip on the French potato salad. I have a ton of potatoes from my CSA that need to be purposed!

      Reply
  8. Your boy is so cute……and quite like his sister.
    Thanks for the detailed instructions for angel cake – I will have a try now – I was always a bit intimidated before……..

    Reply
  9. The instructions and images made this easy to follow. One of the better tasting angel food cake I’ve tried. My friends gave me lots of compliments because of this recipe. Thanks a bunch!

    Reply
  10. Angel food cake was the bday cake of my youth…topped with fresh whipped cream, strawberries, and nothing more.

    They were highly coveted, though seldom made from scratch I think.

    In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever made an AFC from scratch…sounds like it’s high time to try!

    Reply
  11. First off that’s one amazing angel food cake you made there. On top of that chocolate whipped frosting looks amazing. And the kid is the most precious thing ever.
    All and all this is one of the cutest posts ever!

    Reply
  12. How funny! My sister and I always had angel food cake, too. (Was it a super trendy thing in the ’80s or something??) Emily liked hers with green frosting and red hots (very classy), and I liked pure white frosting with great big, flat, round sprinkles. Happy birthday, Graham!

    Reply
  13. I just found your blog through Pinterest and I’m loving it so far! Angel food cake is delicious, I may have to make this recipe soon :)

    Love your photography! I struggle with my photography but i’m learning. Since the days are getting shorter I need to adjust to taking photo’s in the dark.

    Reply
    • Christina — Welcome! Love the title of your blog. Hilarious. Photography is all about practice. Natural light always helps, but depending on your schedule, this may or may not be a possibility. Taking photos in the dark is such a challenge. Looking forward to following your blog.

      Reply
  14. I think the cream of tartar is helpful if not necessary. It helps stablilze the eggs and adds an acid to the batter ifone of the components is baking soda. It is possible to substitute lemon juice for cream of tartar, when I googled it they suggested an equal amount of lemon juice for use with egg whites. I think it takes 2 to 3 times as much lemon juice if you are using it with baking soda. I know my mother did substitue with lemon juice when making angel food cake. We had it a lot, since my Grandmother was known for her powdered sugar angel food cakes. I do suggest that you always use cake flour and the superfine sugar. If you don’t keep superfine sugar on hand, you can whirr regular sugar in the blender and use that sugar as superfine. This is a bit after the fact, but I just found the blog and thought I would go ahead and add the information.

    Reply
  15. Loved your post, thank you. A close friend gave me Claiborne’s cookbook you picture as an anniversary gift in 1974. She swears it is the best cookbook. I will surely refer to your recipe and tips to make this angel food cake. Growing up, this cake (chocolate pudding mix instead into the heavy cream) was my annual go-to birthday cake, and now is my daughter’s annual special dessert. Looks like you may have a taker too in your family!! An aside, this same friend brought the same cookbook’s “Orange Fruitcake” for Christmas dessert, served with orange creme sherbet it was a total WOW (and I dislike “fruitcakes”). Take care, and thanks again, Judith

    Reply

Leave a Comment.