FARGO — I was shopping at a local craft sale when one booth stopped me dead in my tracks.
Yes, that was partly because it was a baking booth, filled with cupcakes as far as the eye could see. But it was also because of one particular cake, covered in buttercream and labeled “mock angel food cake.”
How had I, as a board-certified cakeologist, never heard of this?
I had grown up eating angel food, largely because it was my mother’s favorite cake and so became the default cake at most of our birthdays and celebrations.
Angel food is so named because its soft, spongey structure and pure-white color is seemingly light as clouds. (On the other hand, a badly made angel food cake can have the texture of a Tempur-Pedic mattress left out in the rain.)
This cake’s structure doesn’t stem from leavening but from cream of tartar-stabilized egg whites whipped to form soft peaks. In fact, even the tiniest smidgen of fat will prevent angel food batter from forming a meringue. You aren’t even supposed to grease the pan, as the whipped-egg batter needs to cling onto the straight-edged side of the tube pan to grow to its desired pillowy height.
Some historians trace it to southeastern Pennsylvania, where it was believed thrifty cooks invented the cake to use up the numerous egg whites left over after the making of noodles.
The first recipes with standard measurements sprang up in the 1880s. Their appearance coincided with the invention of the rotary beater, which surely made egg-beating a less devilish affair.
Before this heavenly invention arrived, I try to imagine all these old-timey cooks — struggling to keep their wood stoves at a consistent heat — while also hand-beating 20 egg whites with a slotted spoon and perhaps taking care of little Jebediah, Cornwallis and Hildegarde as well and heading out to the barn to slop the hogs while the cake is in the oven.
But angel food has managed to survive into modern times. Part of its appeal may be that it is fat-free, which is why my weight-watching mother loves it (never mind the almond-flavored icing or the dollops of vanilla ice cream). The cake is soft and pillowy inside, but forms a yummy, caramelized, golden-brown crust. This cake pairs especially well with whipped topping and fresh fruit, which makes it a perfect spring or Easter dessert.
The down side, especially nowadays, is that it uses 10 to 12 eggs. It also involves separating the eggs, which means you’re left with enough yolks to make the Incredible Hulk an omelet.
At a time when the bird flu has threatened to drive the Easter Bunny into early retirement, it seems wise to find a version of angel food that uses fewer eggs — or, as in the case of
, no eggs at all.
Even almighty Google failed to cough up much information on the history of mock angel food, although I did find a good blog post devoted to it. The author of the
explained that her version uses fewer eggs, doesn’t need to be baked in a special pan and produces a chewier, denser cake.
After trying the recipe, I made some modifications. Cheap Recipe suggests beating the eggs to “stiff peak,” but I found that made the cake too chewy.
I decided to make
next time. I also adjusted the temperature and added more almond flavoring.
But I will say this: This cake is easy to make, it uses fewer eggs and the frosting is ridiculously tasty. In fact, you might just skip the cake and eat a bowl of this buttercream.
Here it is. Enjoy.
6 egg whites, room temperature
1 teaspoon cream of tartar
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
2 cups granulated sugar
2 cups cake flour
1 cup boiling water
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
½ teaspoon almond extract
Almond buttercream (see recipe below)
Beat egg whites until soft peaks form. Add cream of tartar and baking powder and gently fold in.
Sift sugar and cake flour together three times. Add boiling water, salt and flavorings to dry mixture. Wait a couple of minutes to let the mixture cool slightly, then very gently fold in whipped egg whites.
Spread batter into an ungreased 9-by-13-inch cake pan. Bake at 325 degrees for 35 to 40 minutes, removing when the surface is golden and springs back when touched lightly.
Allow to cool completely and prepare almond buttercream: Beat together 1 stick room-temperature butter, 3 cups of powdered sugar, a splash of milk and ½ teaspoon of almond extract until fluffy. Frost; cut pieces with a serrated knife.
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