One of my (only) favorite things about summer is the wonderful produce. As crappy as it's been with the heat lately, the nice part is that a bunch of stuff that's usually not in season until later is ripe now: sweet corn, tomatoes, flavorful herbs—but especially berries. Strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, currants. I love 'em all. And one of my favorite things to do with berries is to combine them with chocolate (OK, so that's what I like to do with most things).
But what's the best way? As it has been so frickin' hot, it's tough to temper chocolate, so I don't really feel like straight-up dipping them. And I want something that won't melt like ice cream, or is super-rich like custard. So I figure the natural choice is to make some chocolate angel food cake.
What Is Chocolate Angel Food Cake?
Angel food cake is a foam cake made with egg whites, flour and sugar that became popular in the 19th century, largely due to Fannie Farmer. The recipe had been around for a while, but Fannie cemented its name and methodology somewhat. The invention of the rotary beater in the mid-1860s made this cake a lot easier on the wrist.
The main identifying quality of angel food cake, and what makes is so unique, is the whipped egg whites. They are the sole leavener, which is referred to as mechanical leavening as opposed to chemical (baking powder) or organic (yeast). Low-protein or "soft" flour (aka cake flour) is important, as it keeps the cake light and tender. It's also baked in a tube pan, which conducts the heat most evenly around the cake, and is ungreased to allow the cake to reach its full volume.
How Do I Make Sure It Turns Out Awesome?
The structure completely depends of the quality and stability of the foam, so it's really important that you do it right.
The main things to keep in mind: at the outset your bowl and whisk are absolutely clean, with no traces of anything. A tiny bit of fat (leftover egg yolk, butter, etc.) will prevent your foam from stabilizing and completely ruin your cake. If your utensils are at all grungy, you can wipe them clean with a bit of white vinegar. The cream of tartar in this recipe also helps keep the foam stable.
The other main thing you want to do is make sure you don't deflate all those lovely air bubbles when you're incorporating the dry ingredients. This is why you need to sift them evenly over the top in several additions and fold quickly but gently; otherwise you end up with dry flour-spots and/or a flat cake.
Even after it's baked, you're not off the hook.
It needs to cool upside-down to keep all that volume. The easiest way is to invert it onto a cooling rack. Though another ingenious method is to slip the tube of the pan over the neck of a wine bottle. This way it's suspended, so the top of the cake can stay risen over the lip of the pan and not get smushed down at all.
This is a really smart step that's omitted in a lot of recipes. Mixing cocoa powder with very hot water and letting it sit for a while actually brings out the cocoa flavor even more, so you get a really nice, deep chocolatey flavor. Try it the next time you're making chocolate cake or cookies. You'll be surprised at the difference it makes.
Finally, use a serrated knife when cutting the cake. Straight knives tend to compress it, canceling out all your hard work. Slice up some berries, mix them with sugar, and set them aside to get juicy—it's time to make some chocolate angel food cake! I promise it's worth turning on the oven for.
About the author: Liz Gutman co-owns the Brooklyn-based candy business Liddabit Sweets, which means she spends a lot of time around chocolate (and a lot of time eating it). She moved to New York in 2001 to go to, wait for it, acting school. But when the acting life wasn't for her, she wound up in the French Culinary Institute's pastry program while working at Roni-Sue's Chocolates in Manhattan's Lower East Side. She befriended Jen King, aka the other half of Liddabit, at FCI and founded Liddabit in May of 2009.