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A angel food cake from an angel

August 6, 2012

Lemon poppy seed angel food cake

I had a visitation last week from my dearly departed grandmother. A dear friend had requested an angel food cake for her birthday. Intrigued, I hadn’t made one in years, I got down and dug in the back recesses of my pan cupboard and found my grandmother’s battered angel food cake pan. The moment I unearthed the pan into the light, there my grandmother was; with her apron on and wooden spoon in hand. She was even standing in her sunlit farm kitchen on a summer day, baking an angel food cake for her famous raspberry compote.

My grandmother loved to bake angel food cakes. Looking at that angel food cake pan, I was momentarily struck with how many cakes that pan had baked for dozens of family gatherings. Here I was, 25 years after she had died, holding that piece of history in my hands, about to honor it again with yet another angel food cake. It also struck me how little angel food cakes I bake or see. Where did they fall from grace?

The angel food cake made its appearance in the late nineteenth century, along with the first hand cranked rotary beater. (This is not a surprise as the main ingredient in this cake is something like a dozen egg whites whipped to peaks.) Before that, its history is somewhat shrouded in mystery, like its namesake.

In 1886 it made its formal appearance on the scene as “angel food cake” in the Fannie Farmer’s revolutionary cookbook. Before long it was on many American’s tables, including the president’s. Eleanor Roosevelt loved this cake so much her recipe is famous to cake geeks. It kept up its popularity, spurred on by the advent of electric beaters into the 1980s.

But somewhere along the way it faded into the background. Maybe because as we become busier, this gentle, sweet cake became too much trouble. Maybe it’s because the modern baker, who is intimidated by the cake, doesn’t make the effort to try it and realize how easy it is to bake. Whatever the reason it lost its fame, it is a worthy and ever so light dessert to pay homage to.

There are a few secrets to making an angel food cake that your grandmother would visit you for.
~Bring the eggs to room temperature before you whip them.
~Beat the eggs in a metal bowl that is squeaky clean and dry.
~Don’t over beat the egg whites; they will deflate when you mix in the rest of the ingredients. Beat only to soft peaks.
~Turn upside down to cool so it won’t fall during the cooling. Wine bottles work well for this.
~Use a specific two part cake pan for angel food cakes and do not grease it except for the center post. You want it to stick to the sides so when you turn it upside down to cool so it won’t fall out. (Bad bad when that happens)
~Use super fine sugar or whirl your sugar in the blender or food processor for a couple minutes to make it superfine. This is because when you fold the sugar into the egg whites, it will dissolve easily.
~Don’t do the bunny hop in the kitchen while it is baking.

This recipe is a time tested one that our grandmothers used. It was so lovely to have my grandma visit me while I baked this. And even though I added a few special ingredients to make it a bit more contemporary, I felt my grandma was nodding her silver head in approval as I folded in the poppy seeds. Whoever visits you this summer, they will appreciate this delightful cake with the season’s fresh berries and whipped cream.

Lemon poppy seed angel food cake
I used regular un-bleached white flour in the recipe and it worked fine. Poppy seeds can be purchased at Mother Nature’s.

2 cups of superfine sugar, divided
1 1/3 cups of cake flour
1 1/2 cups of egg whites (10 to 12 eggs) at room temp
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoon of cream of tartar
3/4 teaspoon of almond or vanilla extract
Zest from two organic lemons (save the juice for a lemon icing)
2 tablespoons of poppy seeds

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees and get out your angel food cake pan. If you don’t have superfine sugar, whirl your sugar in the blender or food processor for a few minutes. In a nice medium mixing bowl, whisk ½ cup of the sugar with the flour. Whisk and whisk till kinda fluffy or sift it. (I don’t have a shifter)

Place your egg whites, salt and cream of tartar in a metal bowl and mix on high with electric mixer with a whisk attachment till medium soft peaks form, about 1-3 minutes. Lower the speed to medium of your amazing mixer, (just think they had to do this by hand once upon a time!) and add the rest of the sugar (1 1/2 cups) by sprinkling it over the egg whites as the mixer is going. Mix for a few minutes more till the batter become thick and shiny. Then add the almond extract, lemon zest and poppy seeds and mix till well blended.

Turn off the mixer and sprinkle 1/4 of the flour mixture over the batter and fold in with a rubber spatula till blended in. Then repeat till all the flour mixture is folded in and incorporated. (Make sure and get the rubber spatula to the bottom of the bowl cause the flour will pool up down there if you don’t mix it.)

Pour the mixture into a two part, ungreased angel food cake pan and bake for 40-45 minutes, until it springs back to the touch and the house is fragrant with the scent. Take the cake out and turn it upside down to till completely cool. Once it is cool, carefully remove from the pan by running a butter knife around the edges. Run your fingers briskly over the sides to remove the brown crumbs. Frost with a lemon icing (mix the fresh lemon juice into powdered sugar until it’s thin enough to drizzle) and serve with fresh berries and whipped cream.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. August 6, 2012 4:35 pm

    Your grandmother sounds wonderful. I love heirloom recipes and the memories that they bring back.

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