Friday, January 11, 2013

Happy birthday to me: Heavenly angel food cake from scratch

My family has always been a bit strange about birthday celebrations. They’re almost always marked on time and always generous. But, almost equally, they’ve been the result of haphazard planning.

I will never forget the year my grandmother forgot to buy my brother David a birthday card, into which she would tuck a check. “Dovey,” she said, calling to him decades ago from a bedroom of our house, which she reluctantly and briefly occupied after my grandfather passed. “Are you going out? Here’s a quarter. Buy yourself a birthday card.”

She laughed as soon as the words left her mouth. I joined after seeing his quizzical expression sag and his eyebrows furrow in frustration. He was not amused, but such exchanges were not uncommon in our household.
I’m sure my mother must have baked us birthday cakes when we were young, but I mostly recall Carvel ice cream cakes, sometimes bedazzled with sparkers, serving as the grand finale to party games like pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey. (Yes, I really am that old.)

If not Carvel, we’d get a newly fashionable sheet cake from the grocery store, where someone squirted your name in tinted clear icing that looked just like Prell shampoo. Mine probably had purple flowers, since I was obsessed with all things grapey at the time, but I have no recollection of what lurked below.
Cake has never been my thing. Then and now, my favorite cake is angel food cake. “That’s not birthday cake,” my mother would say dismissively when I’d ask for one. “What color frosting do you want?”

Happily, my husband and son also are keen on angel food cake, and we enjoy it often in summer topped with the luscious red stains of sweetened strawberries. Thoughtful co-workers once feted me with angel food cake and a selection of toppings like an old-fashioned ice cream sundae party.
I’m good with most store-bought varieties, and I’ve made boxed-mix ones with great success. But, until last weekend, I’d never made one entirely from scratch. With my birthday falling on #LetsLunch posting day, it seemed the ideal topic for this month’s theme of “first time/new beginnings.”

I have a tube pan with a removable bottom and stubby legs on the rim to allow the cake to cool upside down, though I prefer to dangle it from a slender wine bottle. Ironically, the pan was an inheritance from my mother’s kitchen, and may well have been a wedding gift. I also have cream of tartar, another necessity.  After consulting with dear friend and fellow #LetsLunch-er Nancie McDermott, I decided to adapt her angel food cake recipe from Southern Cakes (Chronicle Books).

The only thing I still needed was delicate cake flour, so I made a Sunday morning grocery run. At the checkout line, I struck up a conversation with an angelic little girl wearing a glittering dress chosen for visiting a favorite aunt. Her sister had a matching dress in blue, she said, but she preferred purple.
Her amused father noticed a box of cake flour in my cart and asked what I was making. When I told him, he closed his eyes and smiled.

“I make that all the time,” he said. “People try to convince you that it’s one of those things that’s too hard to make at home, but it’s so untrue.”
Asked if she was happy when daddy made angel food cake, she grinned and revealed a missing front tooth. “Anything that ends in cake,” she said, shyly leaning into his jacket, “is really good.”

Angel Food Cake with Orange Glaze
Adapted with permission from
Southern Cakes by Nancie McDermott (Chronicle Books, 2007).
1 ¼ cups sifted cake flour
¼ tsp. salt
1½ cups sugar
1½ cups egg whites (10 to 12)
1¼ tsp. cream of tartar
1 tsp. vanilla extra
1 tbsp. orange zest, finely grated

2 tbsp. plus 1 tsp. orange juice, fresh squeezed
1 cup sifted confectioner’s sugar

Heat the oven to 325 degrees. Set out a 10-inch tube pan – ideally one with a lift-out bottom – but do not grease it.
Sift the flour, salt and ½ cup of the sugar into a small bowl. Set aside.

Unless you are supremely confident about separating eggs, crack and separate each over a small bowl before adding the whites to your measuring cup. You don’t want a rogue yolk to slip in as you near the finish line. (Save the yolks for making curd, such as Rose Levy Berenbaum’s sublime orange curd.)
Beat the egg whites with a mixer at medium speed in a medium bowl until pale yellow and very bubbly. Add the cream of tartar, and continue beating until the egg whites swell into thick, velvety clouds. While still beating, sprinkle in remaining sugar by spoonfuls, scraping down the bowl often, and beat until the egg whites have a soft, substantial shape and hold curled peaks. Beat in the vanilla and orange zest. I used a juicy tangelo, a season-friendly hybrid of tangerine and grapefruit.

Finish the batter by carefully folding in the flour mixture in four batches. Use a rubber spatula or a large wooden spoon, folding gently each time only until the flour barely disappears. Take care to not deflate the airy mixture.
Carefully scrape the batter into the ungreased tube pan, smoothing the top and then running a table knife through center of the batter, going all the way around the tube, to break up any large air pockets. Bake at 325 for 40 minutes, until golden brown and fairly firm in the center.

Remove the cake from the oven and turn it upside down over a wine bottle or another tall, slender glass bottle; or balance it on the metal extensions protruding from the pan for this very purpose, if you have such a pan. Let your angel food cake hang upside down until it is completely cool, one hour or more.
To remove the cake from the pan, gently run a table knife around the sides of the cake and along its bottom, loosening it from the pan. Turn out onto a cake plate or stand, top side up.

Poke several holes in the top of the cake with a toothpick or skewer. Mix orange juice and confectioner’s sugar in a small bowl until fully combined. Drizzle over cake, allowing it to seep into the holes and dribble down the sides.
You can dig in right away or, to ensure a prettier slice, let the glaze set for at least 30 minutes before serving. With a serrated knife, use a gentle, sawing motion to cut the cake.


  1. Oh, Jill! 1) Happy Birthday to you!!! and many more 2) What a fabulously written post (and not just because SoCakes shows up w kind words). Your writing here is so good just gives off sparks. Wow. Privilege to subscribe; write on, Birthday Girl.

  2. Happy Birthday! And you have way better grocery store conversations than I do. Looking forward to a year of your great stories with #letslunch!

  3. Happy birthday! What a lovely cake! I remember Carvel cakes (and those chocolate crunches) but these days, this cake would be much more up my alley.

  4. Happy Birthday! So glad you got to make the cake you love :)

  5. Happy Birthday and what a beautiful post.... I loved reading this. I haven't had an angel food cake in decades...

  6. Thank you, friends, for these kind comments. I'm grateful that you took the time to write. Do try Nancie's recipe - the original did not include the orange zest or glaze.

  7. This cake recipe of Nancie looks unbelievably easy and I'm sure it was delightful. Thanks for sharing this and your lovely story. Happy Birthday!

  8. Carvel! Pin the tail on the donkey! There is no better act of birthday self-love than to make your favorite cake for yourself and share it with your family. Love that you've measured your whites in cups vs. in number, and that you've suggested a use for the yolks. I wish more recipes would do that. Wishing you happiness all year round, my cousin-friend!

  9. It's your birthday and you can have any cake you want! I grew up eating chiffon cake which is similar to angel food cake and I've always been too intimidated to make it at home. Nancie's does look simpler than most recipes I've seen. I'll have to give it a try!

  10. Happy Birthday! My birthday cake (and my mother's) is also angelfood (with chocolate chips, buttercream frosting, and chocolate glaze), but I've never made it from scratch, which seems ridiculous now that I think about it. I'll have to do a REAL angelfood cake next time!