There are many sensible reasons not to bake a cake when it’s 98 degrees outside and all you have is a ceiling fan unable to go any faster than .000001 per miles. Being a lousy baker is another reason.
It’s a mystery how the idea of what to cook comes to me each week. No spread sheet. No consideration for the season. It’s a “that sounds good!” process.
And that’s how I decided how wonderful it would be to write about angel food cake on a hot day.
According to Mom if you can make an angel food cake, you’ve pretty much mastered the magic of cooking. She whipped them together on a regular bases, right up until she discovered Duncan Hines. Proven long ago to be a master cook, she compensated for the mix’s chemical taste by covering it with a confectioner sugar glaze and a heaping of whipped cream and strawberries on the side. The family didn’t object at all.
I happened to have a box in the cupboard that’s called for in a book I’ve been wanting to talk about–Cook, My Darling Daughter by Mildred O. Knopf who wrote it for “young women who want to learn how to love to cook.” (Her italics.) She was the wife of a theater, film and television producer who was the brother of Alfred Knopf, the publisher for all her cookbooks. Evidence points to her being one of America’s great hostesses, circa 1930 to the late 80s. If you aspire to such a role track down the Perfect Hostess Cookbook.
Her angel food cake recipe is entitled “George Washington Angel Cake.” Besides the box mix, it calls for a can of red pie cherries. I took down the box, bought the can of cherries, then stood there in my bomb-hot kitchen and cursed: Ethically speaking, if I was going to do this post right, I should at least consider making one from scratch and that’s when I pulled out my heroine Clementine Paddleford. The recipe in How America Eats is from Mabel McKay who at the time was the Oregon governor’s wife. Her angel food cake won the State Fair’s blue ribbon from 1933 to 1940. She then gave others a chance for the ribbon but came back in 1948 and won the ribbon again. The cake’s true fame, though, arrived after they moved to Washington for her husband to serve as President Eisenhower’s Secretary of the Interior. At one of the wive’s gatherings, Mabel served it to Mrs. Eisenhower. And that is how her angel food cake entered the hall of baking fame.
The recipe is straight forward, nothing fancy. 13 egg whites, flour and sugar, a pinch of cream of tartar and salt. Nothing to worry about at all. Put everything in a mixing bowl. Churn on high. Bake. TaDa! An easy, no sweat post!
Except that the secret of Mabel’s award-winning cake is whipping the eggs on a turkey platter.
Here we go….
Mabel’s Angel Food Cake
(With modifications for heat and being a wimp)
13 large egg whites
pinch of salt
1 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar *
1 1/2 cups sugar, sifted 6 times
1 cup and 1 tablespoon cake flour, sifted 6 times
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Dust a 10 inch tube cake pan with flour. DO NOT TURN ON THE OVEN.
Climb on a ladder and take down the turkey platter that is used only for holidays. Wipe the cobwebs off.
Pour the egg whites on to it and sprinkle in salt. It’s 98 degrees and I’m not in any shape to whisk eggs for any longer than 30 seconds. Begin to cheat: Use a hand mixer at the lowest speed and begin to beat the eggs at the center of the plate. My platter has a lip which, in theory, should’ve kept the eggs from splattering all over the counter. It did not.
(Husband comes down stairs to make coffee. The machine is at least two feet away from the turkey platter: “What the hell’s all over my coffee maker?” Do not stop beating if a stupid question like this is asked of you.)
Fix: Use a whisk to gently stir and push the edges of the whites toward the middle of the platter and into the beaters. This also helps to insure the whites are evenly churned.
After the eggs begin to froth, add the cream of tartar and continue to beat until fluffy little mountains form. Begin to add sugar, a tablespoon at a time. Then add the flour, a tablespoon at a time. Here’s where the platter technique really begins to make sense: Because the surface is spread out you’re able to incorporate the sugar and flour more evenly and gently into the egg whites than you would using a bowl. You also have a real tactile sense of how the batter is coming along especially since, by now, you are covered in egg white spittle.
At this point, I switched from the whisk to a spatula to help push the eggs into the center of the plate. As the whites stiffen, splattering lessens and you’re able to increase the speed some. Or pretend you’re up to Mabel’s standards and switch to a whisk for the final fluff. Either way do not over beat!
Stir in the vanilla.
Pour the batter into the prepared cake pan. (Another moment of drama: My turkey platter is very heavy–and wide. At one point I used my chin to brace it against my shoulder. A good portion of the batter plopped on the counter. Carefully scoop it up and into the pan.)
Place the pan in the cold oven. Every ten minutes you’ll be increasing the oven temperature by 25 degrees. Thus:
Start at 150 degrees and bake for 10 minutes. Raise the temperature to 200 degrees, bake for 10 minutes. Increase the temperature to 225 degrees for 10 minutes; 250 degrees for 10 minutes; 275 for 10 minutes. Raise the temperature to 325 for the final ten minutes. At this point the cake should be a delicate brown. If it isn’t, leave it in for an additional 5 to 10 minutes.
Take the cake out of the oven. Immediately turn it upside down and balance it on a bottle neck. Let cool for at least 2 hours.
Run a butter knife around the edges and the funnel to loosen.
Choose a frosting or topping. Better yet, leave it plain.
When the day cools to 85, cut a piece, pour yourself some iced tea, and sit in the shade to reward yourself with a startlingly great slice of cake. Cleaning the turkey plate and the sticky, crusty counter can wait.
Note on cream of tartar: I didn’t have any and used fresh lemon juice as a substitute. The ratio is 1 teaspoon of lemon juice for every 1/2 teaspoon of cream of tartar called for.