The Real History of Angel Food Cake with Recipes

Think angel food cake is a recent invention? Angel food cake has been around a very long time, and the author of The American Pastry Cook, Jessup Whitehead, goes into detail about its origins way back in 1894, and makes you appreciate this gem of a cake. His tips, which are still put to use in today’s kitchens:

  1. Deep molds are best for angel food cakes.
  2. Molds should not be greased.
  3. When the cake is done, turn it upside down to cool.
  4. The rule for angel food cake in large quantities: a pound of sugar, pound of whites, half a pound of flour, an ounce of cream of tartar.

angel-food-cake

According to Whitehead, here is the remarkable story and history behind this fancy but very simple cake. And with what eventually happens to the originator to the recipe, it makes you think the recipe was eventually cursed, or he simply went insane with the knowledge that his prized cake was now an American icon.

Angel food, as this peculiarly white and light sponge cake is fancifully named has quite a history to be recorded. It originated in St. Louis a few years ago [This book was first published in 1894] and is seen oftener in the hotel bills of fare [Menus were ‘bills of fare’] of that city than anywhere else. S. Sides, who kept a large cafe or restaurant there invented it and did not fail to make the most of his discovery, and it soon came into such a great demand that not only was no fine party suppler complete without it but it was shipped to distant cities, orders coming even from London. For some time the method of making it was kept a profound secret but at length the inventor yielded so far as to sell the receipt for twenty-five dollars, having it understood that it could not be made without a certain powder that could be obtained from him alone. It did not take long to discover that the powder was nothing but cream of tartar and the receipt once communicated gradually became common property. Many of the caterers for parties make a specialty of it, for it is still sufficiently difficult to make always alike to prevent its becoming utterly common, and a considerable number of the cakes are sent out packed in boxes to surrounding towns, and occasionally to the east and south. The difficulty such as it is, that makes the caterers say this cake has been more trouble to them than anything else, and leads to the use of special molds to bake it in is the tendency to fall in at the centre after baking. The mold not being greased holds up the cake up to its shape until cold. The lamb’s-wool texture of it may be made finer by stirring after the flour is added. The cake will be better when a day old than when first baked, but to keep the outside from drying and to make it better eating, as it has no richness to the ingredients, it is always covered with a flavored sugar glaze or icing. It may have no direct connection with it, but Sides, who originated angel food, afterwards lost his reason and was taken to an insane asylum, his wife continuing the business he established.

This contrasts with what others have said about what the origins of angel food cake are. Popular historical theories:

  • It was adapted from a ‘silver cake’, which contains creamed butter and powdered sugar.
  • It was a form of a ‘snowdrift cake’ which contains milk, lots of flour, and uses baking soda for leavening.
  • It was a lightened pound cake.

Since the basis to angel food cake are that the ingredients are nothing more than egg whites, a bit of flour, sugar, cream of tartar, and some flavoring, give Jessup Whitehead’s account more credence, since it lives up to the original recipe without change or adulteration.

His original recipe keeps in tune with his accounting of the history of the cake, and with what everyone knows the recipe to be, although current times call for the cream of tartar to be added to the whites, and his glaze for angel food cakes.

Jessup Whitehead’s Angel Food Cake Recipe

Angel Food Cake, or White Sponge Cake (Jessup Whitehead's Recipe)
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Ingredients
  1. 11 egg whites
  2. 10 ounces fine granulated sugar
  3. 5 ounces flour
  4. 2 rounded teaspoons cream of tartar
  5. 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Pearl Glaze for Angel Food (See below for precautions)
  1. 1 cup icing sugar
  2. 2 whites of eggs
  3. 2 teaspoons flavoring
Instructions
  1. Sift flour and cream of tartar together seven times. Whip the whites enough to bear an egg, put in the sugar, add the flavoring, then stir in the flour lightly without beating. As soon as mixed, put the cake into the oven.
For the Pearl Glaze
  1. NOTE: While common in the 1800's-1900's, this is not safe for current times as the egg whites are used raw. Use his variations below using water instead of the whites.
  2. Mix together in a bowl. As soon as the sugar is fairly wetted it is ready, but may be whitened by beating one minute. It dries pearl white. Spread it over the angel food cake. It does nearly as well with the sugar only slightly wetted with water instead of egg whites, and it dries white. It may also be colored.
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Using Cream of Tartar in the Flour Rather than Egg Whites

While it is common practice now to add the cream of tartar to the egg whites, authoritative ‘Desserts’ by Olive M. Hulse, uses the above method of adding it to the flour in her angel food cake recipe, from 1912. Instead of being used as an egg white stabilizer, it helps with the baking structure of the cake itself. So, are we in modern times ruining the original intent of the finished product? Hmmm….

Angel Food (Hulse’s Recipe)

Sift a teaspoonful of cream of tartar with a quarter of a pound of flour five or six times. Beat the whites of ten eggs to a stiff froth, add a cupful and a half of sugar, and mix carefully. Add the flour, gradually stirring all the while, and, last, the flavoring. Turn quickly into an ungreased pan three-quarters full, and bake in a moderate oven – 260 degrees F – for forty-five minutes. Take from oven, turn pan upside down on a rest, and let stand until the cake falls out. Coat with white icing.

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