What I remember most about angel food cake has nothing to do with baking a perfect cake, cutting it into thick slices, and serving them in big bowls with syrupy strawberries and ice cream. My memories of the cake go back to graduate school where I studied the organoleptic qualities of angel food cake. What that means is that I spent hours in the lab baking cakes to find out how little flour I could get away with and still have a decent tasting cake. For the marathon bake-off, I spent an entire day separating eggs, weighing the whites into small containers, and labeling them for the freezer. By the time I finished, my hands were slick from egg whites, and I could probably have separated an egg with my eyes closed.
It wasn’t until much later that I learned angel food cake was probably invented by frugal Pennsylvania Dutch cooks who created the recipe to use leftover egg whites. In their knowing way, they must have understood something about chemistry. The batter is mostly egg whites, which are beaten until foamy and folded with flour and sugar. In the oven, the airy foam produces steam, which makes the cake rise. To conserve as much air as possible, bakers turn off the mixer the moment the whites form perfect peaks. They also go easy on the folding.
Now I am getting another shot at the angel food cake, but this time it’s deliciously different. This version, with fresh thyme and lemon zest, has not been tweaked with experimental amounts of anything and is ideal for layering with fruit and ice cream.
Thyme Angel Food Cake
1 cup cake flour
1/2 cup powdered sugar
10 egg whites, room temperature
1 teaspoon cream of tartar
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons lemon juice
1 cup granulated sugar
3 tablespoons stemmed thyme leaves
2 tablespoons finely grated lemon rind
1. Preheat oven to 350F.
2. Sift flour and powdered sugar together.
3. Beat egg whites with a mixer at high speed until foamy. Add cream of tartar and salt; beat until soft peaks form. Beat in lemon juice, then beat in granulated sugar in 2-tablespoon increments, allowing each to become incorporated before adding the next. Beat in thyme and lemon rind.
4. Fold flour mixture into egg white mixture with a rubber spatula. Spoon batter into an ungreased 10-inch tube pan.
5. Bake 35 minutes or until cake is lightly browned and springy to the touch. Invert pan; cool completely. Loosen cake from sides of pan using a narrow metal spatula. Transfer cake to a serving plate.
Recipe by Bruce Weinstein and Mark Scarbrough.
Per serving: 140 calories, 0g fat, 0mg chol., 4g prot., 32g carbs., 1g fiber, 140mg sodium.
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Photo credit: Mark Boughton Photography; styling by Teresa Blackburn