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Cake : The Perfect Angel Food

November 10, 1994|JOAN DRAKE

Angel food belongs to the family of foam cakes--those that depend on a beaten egg foam for leavening, rather than an agent such as baking powder. It's not surprising, then, that preparation of the egg whites is crucial to the success of this delicately textured and flavored cake. The goal when beating the whites is to trap air within the walls of the protein, so they reach maximum volume. There are several keys to doing this successfully.

To begin with, use a bowl made of unlined copper, stainless steel, ceramic or glass. Not recommended are aluminum, which will tint the egg whites gray, and plastic, because with plastic it's almost impossible to remove the traces of fat that have accumulated from previous uses. (Fat prevents the whites from reaching full volume.)

A deep, round-bottomed bowl is the best shape. It must be large enough for the egg whites to expand six or seven times their original volume. The bowls and beaters must be absolutely clean and free of fat and moisture for the egg whites to whip properly.

The eggs should be separated while still cold from the refrigerator, then set aside for about an hour before beating, until they reach room temperature (65 to 75 degrees). Care must be taken when separating the eggs because the whites won't whip if even a speck of yolk is present.

Many experts claim you get better volume if egg whites are beaten by hand with a balloon whisk in an unlined copper bowl because the acidity of the metal helps the whites to rise and then retain their stability. This may be true, but beating them in a stainless-steel or glass bowl, with a small amount of cream of tartar to supply the acidity, is a lot easier on the cook. We'll let you decide.

CLASSIC METHOD

Before each use, the copper bowl needs to be cleaned with salt slightly moistened with white vinegar. Scrub the inside thoroughly with this mixture, using a sponge or soft cloth. Rinse with hot water and dry thoroughly.

When the bowl cools to room temperature, add the egg whites and begin beating with a balloon whisk in a slow, circular motion. Bring the whisk down on the far side of the bowl and up toward you.

First the whites will lose their yellowish translucence and appear bubbly, but still be very fluid. As they begin to whip, increase the speed and beat in a figure-eight motion--down the middle of the bowl, under and up one side, then down and away toward the opposite side.

When peaks form but fold over if you lift the beaters, begin adding sugar (Step 1). Continue beating until stiff peaks form and a rubber spatula pulled through the bowl leaves a trough (Step 2).

ELECTRIC MIXER METHOD

It takes only a few seconds of beating egg whites on low speed of an electric mixer to reach the foamy stage. This is the point to add cream of tartar, which helps stabilize the whites. If it's added too early, the foaming action will be delayed.

Increase mixer speed and continue beating. Before long, the egg whites will reach the soft-peak stage and you can begin adding sugar. Continue beating until the whites stand upright in peaks when the beaters are removed.

When beaten properly, the whites will have a glossy appearance and be stiff, but not dry. If over-beaten, they appear curdled, don't combine well with the other ingredients and won't hold air.

Next the flavorings are folded in, followed by more sugar, which has been sifted together with the flour and salt. Cake flour is used because it has less protein, but due to the fine texture, it needs to be combined with the other ingredients to get well dispersed during the folding process.

One quarter of the dry mixture is gently folded in at a time, using a rubber spatula (Step 3). Fold just until the flour mixture disappears, about 15 strokes, rotating the bowl a quarter turn after each stroke. Keeping the folding operation to a minimum prevents too much reduction in the volume of the egg whites.

The batter structure is fragile, so angel food cakes must be baked in a pan with a center tube. This design helps the batter pull itself upward during baking and also lets heat reach the core of the cake. The pan is not greased so the cake can cling as it rises.

Typically the pans are 10 inches in diameter, have four-inch sides and a nine-cup capacity. Most are made of aluminum; some have non-stick coating. Because angel food cakes are cooled upside down, the pans sometimes have small metal feet spaced around the rim, or the tube is higher than the sides. Those with a bottom and tube portion that lift out make it much easier to remove the baked cake.

Once placed in the pan, cut through the batter with a rubber spatula to eliminate any large pockets of air (Step 4). Bake the cake in a preheated oven on the lowest rack to allow plenty of space for it to rise.

Resist opening the oven until the minimum cooking time has elapsed, because a rush of cool air may cause the undercooked cake to shrink or fall. The cake is done when the top is browned and springs back when touched with a finger.

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