Know Your Sweets: Angel Food Cake

Know Your Sweets

Learn the histories of all your favorite sweets


[Photograph: via Shutterstock]

The Basics

A cake so light and fluffy it's almost heavenly, angel food cake is a American sponge cake that's a staple of potlucks, bake sales, and funerals across the country.

Similar Desserts

Sponge cake, lady fingers, chiffon cake, cornstarch cake, silver cake, snowdrift cake

Key Ingredient Spotlight: Cream of Tartar


Potassium bitartrate, also known as potassium hydrogen tartrate [photo: Wikipedia]

The buoyant nature of angel food cake is made possible by the chemical reaction between egg whites that have been whipped until stiff and cream of tartar (Potassium bitartrate). The tartar stabilizes the egg whites and works as a leavening agent, ensuring that the cake's texture is properly springy. Cream of tartar is also used for stabilizing whipped cream, as well as preventing sugar from crystallizing too quickly.

The cream of tartar and stiff egg white combination makes the cake so incredibly light that a regular knife isn't recommended for slicing it, only use a serrated one.

Key State: Pennsylvania

While some historians posit that the first angel food cake was the product of plantation-era Southern baking, angel food cake most likely originated from the same place so many of our sweet national treats emerged: Southern Pennsylvania. After making noodles or dishes using a large number of egg yolks, Pennsylvania colonists most likely looked for ways not to waste the leftover egg whites, turning them into delicious after dinner treats like angel food cake and meringues.



[Photograph: Yvonne Ruperti]

Angel food cake is traditionally baked in an ungreased tube pan as the conical shape is the most conducive to the sticky, clingy texture of the cake as it rises. Sheet cake and bundt cake pans are also used on occasion, but don't allow for the cake to rise properly.

The cake is usually flavored with vanilla and accompanied by a fruit sauce, such as strawberry or blueberry, or a light citrus glaze over the top. Chocolate variations, such as the one above, are made by adding cocoa. In more recent years, pastry chefs have been exploring adding spices to the cake itself, with varieties from matcha and cardamom popping up in bakeries across the country. While frosting is rare for an angel food cake, some Southern recipes call for a lemon or orange buttercream layer both inside the cake and covering the exterior.



[Photograph: shutterstock]

While egg white-based cakes have been popular since the beginning of the 1800s, it wasn't until the arrival of the hand-cranked egg beater in 1865 that this whisk-intensive dessert found a national spotlight.

The first written record of a "snow-drift cake"—which appears to be a kissing cousin to the angel food cake—appeared in the 1871 edition of M.E. Porter's now classic work, Mrs. Porter's New Southern Cookery Book, and Companion for Frugal and Economical. Shortly thereafter, an almost identical recipe for a confection known as "silver cake" was recorded by former slave and cooking instructor Abby Fisher in her book, What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking, Soups, Pickles, Preserves, Etc.

The term "angel cake" was finally printed in the 1884 version of The Original Boston Cooking School Cook Book, and was updated to "angel food cake" in the 1896 version of the text.

Pop Culture

In a perfectly twee episode of the 1950s animated series Little Audrey entitled "Tarts and Flowers" the cartoon's protagonist attends a wedding between a gingerbread man and an angel food cake, who is kidnapped before the ceremony by a slice of devil's food cake.

Why You Should Seek It Out

The light and springy crumb has a unique texture that's just plain fun to eat. Its subtle, not-too-sweet vanilla flavor makes the perfect backdrop for fresh fruit, which is why we're planning to make some as soon as the first strawberries hit the market.

Get the Recipe!

Check out our recipe for Chocolate Angel Food Cake or see a traditional vanilla version here