Thursday, March 12, 2015

Baking an Angel Food Cake from Scratch in a Woodburning Cookstove

As the days get longer and warmer and the chickens begin to be more reliable about laying, baking an angel food cake from scratch is a great way to use an over abundance of eggs.  Now, many people think that angel food cakes are one of the most difficult things to bake, but I have had a great deal of success baking angel food cakes in woodburning cookstoves.  In fact, I honestly prefer to bake angel food in a woodburning range over a modern oven.  It seems to me that they remain more moist than when they are baked in our gas oven.

For as long as I can remember, the most frequently requested birthday cake on my mom's side of the family has been an angel food cake.  My grandma Marian is an expert on angel food cake baking, and until recently, she would bake many of these cakes throughout each year for friends, neighbors, and family members.  For my brother and sister and me, it never felt like our birthday until we had an angel food cake with caramel frosting.  Others in the family occasionally requested different frostings, but the cake was always the tender, cloud-like angel food that we all loved.

Directions for baking angel food cakes have changed over the years.  Originally, it was considered best to bake angel food cakes for a long period in a slow oven, the heat of which was gradually increased during the baking time.  For example, Grandma Ruth (my great-grandmother whom I have mentioned frequently on the blog) included these baking instructions on her angel food cake recipe:

"Bake at 275 for 20 minutes, 300 for 30 minutes, and 325 for 10 minutes."

In fact, in the December 1937 issue of Kitchen Klatter Magazine, the following article about baking angel food cakes in a woodburning cookstove was contributed by reader Helen F. Karr of Doniphan, Nebraska:

"I have my fire out and my stove cold.  I put my fuel in and have it ready to light before I start to mix my cake.  I mix my cake just as you do your cake and put it in the pan, then into the cold oven.  I light my fire.  I do not put much fuel in at a time because our stove doesn't take much to heat it.  For the first 15 minutes I just have my oven warm up.  Then increase the heat for the next 15 minutes.  By the next 15 minutes I have my oven about hot enough to bake a loaf cake, then keep it about the same for the next 15 minutes or just a little hoter [sic].  If not done I just let the oven cool down a little.  The heat that is in the oven will finish it.  I don't like to have my oven to get hot too fast."

Sometime in the mid-twentieth century, opinions about how to bake an angel food changed so that directions now call for oven temperatures ranging between 350 and 400 degrees coupled with shorter baking times.  I have used both baking methods and cannot tell much difference in the end product.  I tend to favor the cooler oven temperature method, however.

Before I give you the recipe that I use for angel food, I need to warn you that not even the smallest little bit of fat or grease may come into contact with your cake ingredients or any of the utensils that you use to mix or bake the cake.  The presence of any oils will make your cake fall, and that is the last thing you want after you go to all of the effort to make an angel food cake from scratch!

The recipe that I use for angel food cake is one that I have devised.  I took one of the recipes for angel food out of the Kitchen Klatter Cook Book and altered it until I got the results that I desired.  This makes a very tall, finely textured cake.  Here is what you will need:

Jim's Angel Food Cake

1 1/6 c. cake flour
1 3/4 c. powdered sugar
1 3/4 c. egg whites
1 1/6 c. sugar
1 3/4 tsp. cream of tartar
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. vanilla
1 tsp. almond flavoring

The first thing that I always do is to measure the cake flour and the powdered sugar.  I measure both by sifting them into dry measuring cups and then leveling them off with a table knife.

Of course, most people don't have a 1/6 c. measuring cup, so I just use my 1/3 c. and fill it only halfway.

Once you have measured and combined the cake flour and powdered sugar, you must sift both of them together at least three times.  This is necessary because when you eventually stir them into the egg whites, you want to make sure that they are already evenly mixed.  Once you have sifted them together several times, put the flour and powdered sugar mixture aside.

Now begin separating your eggs.  The number of eggs that you will need is totally dependent on their size.  I just keep cracking and separating eggs until I have the required 1 3/4 c. of egg whites.  Usually, this is about 12-14 eggs.

Caution:  You must be absolutely sure that no egg yolk--not even the smallest little bit--accidentally lands in your egg whites!  The presence of any egg yolk will result in your cake falling.  This is why I separate my eggs over  a small bowl.  That way, I can inspect every white thoroughly before pouring it into the measuring cup.

Save the egg yolks for making homemade noodles or for Sunshine Cake (or both, depending on how many you have).  Place the whites in a large mixing bowl and add the salt and cream of tartar.  Begin beating the egg whites on high speed.

(A silly side note about the mixer in the pictures: This vintage avocado green Sunbeam belonged to Granny, my dad's mother.  I inherited it from her in 1995 when she and Gramps moved into a retirement home.  When I was little, almost every appliance that my mother had was avocado green.  We had an avocado green refrigerator, stove, iron, vacuum cleaner, electric skillet, blender, etc., and I think that it is the most hideous color.  However, I decided that I would use Granny's mixer until I had worn it out.  After twenty years of fairly hard use, it's still working fine, and this is after Granny used it for I don't know how long!)

When the whites become foamy, begin gradually adding the granulated sugar.

Continue beating at high speed, scraping the sides of the bowl occasionally.

Now for the fun part: figuring out when the egg whites and sugar have been sufficiently beaten.  Some recipes say to beat them until "stiff, but not dry, peaks form."

Grandma Ruth had a different method for determining if the egg whites were beaten enough, and it has worked for me every time.  She would take the bowl of egg whites off the mixer and carefully raise it upside down above her head.  If the egg whites don't fall out, they have been beaten enough.  If, as you begin to tilt the bowl at a dangerous angle, they begin to slide even a little bit, put the bowl back on the mixer and beat them some more.  Then, take the bowl off and try the test again.

Be careful, though!  If the egg whites are permitted to fall all the way out of the bowl, you'll have no choice but to start over completely.

Once the egg whites are done, begin folding the cake flour/powdered sugar mixture into them a little at a time.  My grandma Marian taught me that the best tool to use to do this is a flat beater as you see in the picture below.

This process has to be done VERY gently, being sure to pull the egg whites up from the bottom of the bowl.  The series of photos below shows the motion that your beater should cycle through.

The picture above shows the vanilla and almond flavoring being stirred in at the end.  Grandma Marian always taught me to add the flavorings last so that they didn't lose any of their intensity due to evaporation during the mixing process.

The cake that you see me baking here was for my niece, whose favorite colors are pink and purple.  We happened to have pink nonpareils, so I stirred some of those in to create a pink "fun-fetti" effect.  If you are going to stir in nonpareils, they must be put in at the end with only a minimal amount of stirring because their color quickly begins to bleed into the cake batter.

Gently pour the cake batter into an UNGREASED angel food cake pan.

Run a table knife through the batter to release any air bubbles.

Place the cake in a slow oven (or whatever temperature you have decided at which to bake angel food cakes).

The oven door of the Margin Gem.  Since the temperature gauge
on the Margin Gem is not very accurate, I don't usually pay much
attention to the numbers.  Instead, I pay attention to the relative
location of the indicator needle.  This is what the gauge looks like
when the oven is running at about 325.
While the cake is baking, I gradually add more small pieces of fuel to the fire in order to gradually increase the heat of the oven.  Don't add too many pieces at once because you don't need a raging inferno, and small pieces will afford you more control.

You can see in the picture below, how tall the cake will rise during baking.  Angel foods will shrink back down when they get to the end of their baking time.

An angel food cake baking in the Margin Gem cookstove.

Watch the cake and your oven temperature carefully during baking.  I don't like to let the oven get too hot because then the top of the cake gets too brown for my taste.

I would NOT recommend turning the cake until it is close to the end of the total baking time because you don't want to run the risk of it falling because you jostled it.

You can tell when the cake is done by the fact that it will obviously begin to pull away from the sides of the pan.

When the cake is done, remove it from the oven and turn it upside down.  The cake pan that I use no longer has the three little legs that most angel food cake pans have which elevate them off the surface that they are resting on when they are upside down.  This makes no difference to me, though, because  the cakes are often too tall for those little legs to be effective anyway.  Thus, I turn the cake upside down over a vintage Pepsi bottle that I have saved just for this purpose.   (If you are a Coke lover, you could use a Coke bottle instead, but I wouldn't guarantee the results.  My grandma turns her canning funnel upside down and then puts a wooden handled cookie cutter over the narrow hole and uses that in place of a bottle.)

The cake needs to be left upside down in the pan until you can no longer feel any heat at all when you place your hand on the bottom of the pan.

Once the cake is completely cool, run a very thin-bladed, non-serrated knife around the outer edge of the cake as well as around the center tube of the pan.  I find it best to not move the knife up and down at all, but rather slide it all the way around with the blade completely inserted the whole time.  This seems to prevent the cake from bunching up and creating holes along the outside.

Invert the pan and remove the cake to a cake stand.  

Grandma Marian always says that if you want a particularly elegant angel food, you should rub the brown outer edge pieces off with your fingers.  If you decide to do that, don't discard them.  They are extremely tasty.

At this point, I always frost any angel food that we are not selling.  My favorite frostings to put on angel foods are either caramel (a cooked frosting that I really should share with you) or plain powdered sugar icing with almond flavoring added to it.

To serve an angel food, cut it with a serrated bread knife using a back-and-forth sawing motion rather than a slicing motion.  If you slice, you will mash the cake into a misshapen and unappetizing blob.

Angel food cakes will keep at room temperature for a few days, but you must not seal them completely.  I find that Grandma Marian's method of laying the knife that you are using to cut the cake between the lid and the bottom of the cake stand--thereby creating a little ventilation--does a beautiful job of keeping the cake in its prime.  If the cake stand is completely sealed (other than in transport), the cake will quickly become a soggy mess.

If you have a favorite method of baking an angel food in a wood cookstove, please fill up the comments field with additional information for us all to benefit from.