With our recent excursions to Aztec-era Mexico and the California crops of today, I thought it was time to return to my Pennsylvanian roots (and our less-than-tropical climate) for this week’s recipe of angel food cake. Thanks to the culinary archeologists who have researched Pennsylvania’s historic cookware and crockery, angel food cake (or as it was known in the early – mid 19th century, “snowdrift cake”) is actually a Pennsylvanian invention, thanks to the overabundance of historic tube pans discovered in early Pennsylvanian towns (tube pans being the smooth bundt-cake style pan that angel food cake is typically made in). But, even with its potentially northern inception, angel food cake truly caught on in the antebellum South because of one horrific practice: slavery.
Not unlike the scullery maids who allowed early English land barons to produce bigger and better culinary creations at the expense of their workers’ health and safety, African American slaves supplied the sheer manpower necessary to create the light and fluffy creations desired by southern plantation owners. Angel food cake batter, because of its high egg-white content, must be whipped with consistent, arm-crippling force for ten, fifteen, even twenty or more minutes to turn a veritable puddle of egg into a dense, rich foam. Because of the sheer time and energy requirement behind dishes like angel food, producing these types of desserts for friends, and neighbors became a show of status and wealth. Closing a meal with a plate of angel food in the days before electric mixers told your audience that you not only had the means to pay for a person or team of cooks and kitchen hands, but that you also had enough surplus labor to dedicate one or more slaves to the sole purpose of whipping egg whites. Thankfully, with the abolition of slavery, kitchen scientists stepped in to take away the brute force needed to whip egg whites (first with mechanical egg beaters and now with electric mixers, immersion blenders, and the like).
For our angel food recipe today, we’ll be using a set of instructions geared towards the modern kitchen. However, if you’re interested in making angel food cake traditionally, the 1881 cookbook of Abby Fisher, a former slave, (appropriately titled “What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Southern Cooking“), is still in print and widely available! I encourage you to at least attempt whipping your egg whites with nothing more than a balloon whisk, if only to gain a small sense of what pre-electric cooking was like; and then, after your arm gives out after several minutes like mine did, feel free to switch to your electric mixer with a renewed appreciation for modern food tech!
Angel Food Cake Recipe
- 1 cup cake flour
- 1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
- 12 egg whites (Be careful if you’re planning on using a carton of pre-separated egg whites, as these are generally treated in such a way that the whites will not whip up successfully)
- 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 1 1/2 teaspoons cream of tartar
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- In a small bowl, whisk together the flour and 3/4 cup of granulated sugar. Set aside.
- In a large mixing bowl, combine the egg whites, vanilla extract, cream of tartar, and salt. Whip by hand, or with an electric mixture until the mixture turns white and forms medium-stiff peaks. Slowly add in the remaining 3/4 cup of sugar, and continue to whip until the batter forms stiff peaks.
- In three additions, fold the flour and sugar mixture into the egg whites, being careful not to overmix.
- Preheat your oven to 375°F / 190°C.
- Pour the completed batter into a completely clean, dry, and ungreased tube pan (any residue in the pan could interfere with the whites’ ability to expand. Bake in your preheated oven for 30 – 45 minutes (begin checking the cake at 30 minutes to stave off overcooking), or until the top is brown, and the cracks in the top are dry.
- To cool, turn the tube pan upside down, balance the pan on top of a bottle, and let cool completely. When cooled, run a knife along the edge of the cake and remove the angel food gently from the pan.
- Slice and enjoy with a a topping of fresh fruit, whipped cream, or on its own for a taste of heaven on earth.
As always, thanks for stopping by! I hope to see you again as we unearth another of humanity’s collective culinary creations!