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.
By Jean Kressy, a food writer in Ashburnham, Mass.