The mysterious alchemy of egg whites manifesting themselves into an angel food cake was always intimidating to me. Even when I got my Artisan mixer, which took all the mystery out of things like making bread and pasta to the point that I make them regularly – for the most part without the mixer these days – an angel food cake was still a source of anxiety.
My mother used to present the frothing of egg whites as some sort of mystical process, with the cream of tartar the fairy dust that made the slimy whites grow into airy clouds of meringue. Of course she taught me the proper rituals that accompany such a ceremony: the sacred cleansings, the delicate approach, the proper reverence during the baking process.
By the time I was old enough to bake on my own, egg whites held almost the same terror as the confessional. The separation of white from yolk alone was enough to give you an ulcer. “Just a speck of shell or yolk will cause the entire batch to COLLAPSE,” my mother would stress as she stood over me, watching me flipping the yolk back and forth between the two shell halves, allowing the white to drip into a bowl below. Because, God forbid you waste a single egg with your clumsiness!
Needless to say, up until the age of 40, I’d made only two angel food cakes in my life, both for my own birthday, because I figured at least I was just disappointing myself. Though both turned out well, it had been a terrifying process I was in no hurry to make a regular part of my life.
But there are other cakes in the world and I would have died reasonably happy never again having to face the intimidating threat of having 12 egg whites go in the garbage because I’d looked at them cross-eyed or the barometric pressure wasn’t at the proper level.
So God laughed and gave me a son whose favorite cake happens to be angel food. I was forced to face my fear and I have vanquished it.
I’ve had to churn out many more angel food cakes so, while I’m hardly blasé about it, I’m not overly anxious. I am very focused during the beating of the egg whites until that moment when they begin to expand and gloss over and I know I’m okay. Then I dissolve in a sort of private celebration that once again I trod the path of danger and arrived victorious.
It is the sort of reverence that should be brought to such an undertaking as an angel food cake.
Heir 2 has chosen this as his dessert to be served after his graduation, topped with a strawberry concoction he learned to make at his job at The Old Mill Restaurant in Strasburg. Well, we had to test it out ahead of time, ya know...
I used the Joy of Cooking angel food cake recipe, as serviceable as any other. Really, if you follow the Angel Food Cake Catechism, it's very simple:
1. Everything that touches the egg whites must be very, very clean. I rewash everything in hot soapy water, even if it's already clean. Then I dry it with a fresh towel.
2. The egg whites should be cold.
3. Don't beat the eggs to a meringue-like stiffness (they should pour, not plop).
4. No stomping around once the cake is in the oven.
We'll leave Heir 2's strawberry recipe for tomorrow.
*Not to be confused with Zuppa da Bay.