Near the end of my mother's visit we were invited to a party. I was supposed to bring dessert. I decided to make an angel food cake. Once upon a time I made angel food cakes all the time, so often that I felt like I could whip them up in my sleep. I used my great-grandmother's recipe and it always turned out beautifully. And then, for some reason I can no longer recollect, I stopped.
But this summer has been hot, and I didn't want anything fancy. I actually don't really eat dessert much anymore but I wanted to develop a small repertoire of standards that I could whip up whenever the need arose. The only requirements were that they be both gluten-free and dairy-free so that everyone in my family could enjoy them. Angel Food cakes and chiffon cakes are dairy free by definition, so angel food seemed like a good place to start. After all, an angel food cake only calls for roughly 1 cup of flour, how hard could it be to adapt to gluten-free flours?
Famous Last Words.
At least I knew enough to make a test cake early in the week, before the party. So I pulled out a cookbook by a famous baker looking for an angel food cake recipe. Why not use my grandmother's recipe? Well, I don't have it written down. It is still in my head, and I remembered the basic proportions, but I've not been feeling really confident about baking lately and I wanted some kind of official guidance. I didn't trust my gut. So I defaulted to a famous baker, who shall remain unnamed.
I should have trusted my gut. I made the cake following famous baker's recipe. The eggs did not rise as high as I expected when I was beating them, but I suspected my memory was faulty. The cake went in the oven and looked beautiful as it was baking but did not rise anywhere near the top of the tube pan. When it was done I removed it from the oven, placed the cake, in the pan, upside down over a wine bottle to cool, and sat down at the dining table to talk to my mom.
At some point during our conversation, perhaps about 15 minutes after setting the cake aside to cool, we heard a soft swoosh and thump, more like a floomph sound, and looked up. The cake pan was still on the bottle, but all around it, on the counter, was a lump of sticky egg whites and sugar, a pseudo-cake, almost an angel-pudding cake.
Such a thing had never happened to me before.
I probably should have taken pictures of the process and the various stages, but at that point I didn't yet realize it would be a process.
I pulled out all my cookbooks that had angel food cake recipes. I spent some time on the web researching problems with angel food cakes and I realized the cake had probably not cooked long enough, although it was also possible the proportions were off. Most recipes, and Michael Ruhlman's Ratio agreed. My memories of my great-grandmother, Mamie's, angel food cake recipe were right on target:
Mamie's Cake: 12 egg whites, 1 1/2 cups sugar, 1 cup flour, 1 teaspoon vanilla, 1 teaspoon cream of tartar, 1/2 teaspoon salt.
Ruhlman's Ratio: 12 ounces egg whites, 12 ounces sugar, 4 ounces flour, 1 tablespoon lemon juice, 1 teaspoon vanilla, 1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar, 1/2 teaspoon salt. The weights correlate pretty closely to my grandmother's recipe.
But the next two cakes (or was it three?) also fell. I baked the cakes longer and longer but it seemed to make no difference. The outside of the cake would be overdone while the middle remained too sticky, too sweet.
So I thought I would google gluten-free angel food cakes and see what I came up with. You might think I should have done that first, but I disagree. My experiences starting with gluten-free blogs and websites are generally not good. Not surprisingly, I found some pretty strange angel food cake recipes. Although there were some that worked with classic ingredients and proportions, there were many that did not. And the photos of the resulting cakes all looked lovely, but many seemed a little dense, like grocery store angel food cake, which I have always felt is on the heavy side, and not as airy as an angel food cake should be. All of the recipes added xanthan gum to the flour blend though, and I thought this was worth a try.
But I didn't have any xanthan gum. I had guar gum. More googling. They are interchangeable. They are not interchangeable. One may need to combine them depending on the desired result and the humidity. My head was beginning to spin. I went to Kroger. They only had xanthan gum in a pint sized bag. At 1 teaspoon per cake I may have a lifetime supply.
The next cake rose higher and looked more like it should. The cake tester was clean, but the cake still fell out of the pan. This cake however had better texture and seemed more cake-like. So for the next version I included the xanthan gum and increased the cream of tartar from Ruhlman's 1/2 teaspoon to the full 1 teaspoon my great-grandmother had used.
This cake was beautiful, it rose above the top of the tube pan in the oven and I was thrilled. But when the time was up and I removed the cake, it had fallen, and now only went about 2/3 up the sides of the pan. My heart was heavy, but I propped the pan up on the wine bottle and left it to cool anyway. It did not fall out of the pan. And the resulting cake was good, with good flavor. The texture was a little dense, but not unpleasantly so, only slightly more dense than those store-bought angel-food cakes of memory (I haven't' actually eaten a store bought cake for many years).
(almost good enough)
I realized that the last two cakes had both risen higher than the top of the pan and then fallen back. I wondered if this had been part of the problem all along, and part of the reason the early cakes had not quite baked through. I seemed to recall that perhaps gluten-free flour blends were lighter by weight than wheat flour. I wondered if I just needed more flour.
So I weighed a cup of my gluten-free flour blend. It weighed 4 3/4 ounces. I decided this theory had merit.
Yesterday I made another cake and used 5 ounces of flour instead of 4. It was beautiful, and it is this cake that is at the top of this post. I could have turned it over so it looked prettier. But really I was just going to have one slice and ditch it, until I thought of giving it to my step-daughter and grandson. Is it rude to give away a cake with one piece missing? I hope not.
For a gluten-free angel food cake the proportions are: 12 ounces egg whites, 12 ounces sugar, 5 ounces gluten free flour blend, 1 teaspoon xanthan gum and 1 teaspoon cream of tartar. I used the technique and flavorings in Ratio but really, every book I own uses the same technique. I also like the way the lemon juice brightens the flavor of the cake and slightly softens the sweetness. I will continue to use lemon juice in the future. It is possible that you will not need the xanthan gum if your flour blend already includes it, but I would make a test cake first to be sure. I personally prefer blends that do not include xanthan gum, as it is easy enough to add when needed.
So now I have 1 gluten-free, dairy-free dessert under my belt, a dessert that is good enough that I can take it anywhere. I have also reached my limit with sweets for a while. Perhaps in a couple of months, when the weather is cooler, I will be ready to expand my repertoire