Angel Food Cake, an American Invention (part 1)

454px-Franceschini,_Marcantonio_-_The_Guardian_Angel_-_Google_Art_Project

The Guardian Angel by Marcantonio Franceschini (1648-1729)

The angel-food cake is a light, pale sponge cake made of flour, egg whites, sugar, cream of tartar, but no fat (and no yolks). It is usually baked in a tube pan. The angel cake is thought to be (by food historians) an American invention from around 1880-1885.

Food historians look at old recipes and cookbooks to develop their theories of changes in basic recipes, to create something new and different. Around 1870, cook books from around the eastern seaboard were including a recipe for a different kind of sponge cake dubbed snow-drift, silver, white sponge, and angel. Few of the recipes call for a tube pan, so it can be assumed that the pans used were simple, flat cake pan (aka – cake tin).

It is in Mrs. Porter’s New Southern Cookery Book[1]. That the first white sponge cake appeared in an American cookbook: What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking[2]. In this book the cake was called a “silver cake”.

     Silver Cake — The whites of one dozen eggs beaten very light, one pound of butter, one pound of powdered sugar; rub the butter and sugar together until creamed very light, then add the beaten whites of the eggs, and beat all together until very light; two teaspoonfuls of the best yeast powder sifted with one pound of flour, then add the flour to the eggs, sugar and butter, also add one-half teacupful of sweet milk; mix quickly, and beat till very light; flavor with two teaspoonfuls of the extract of almond or peach, put in when you beat the cake the last time. Put to bake in any shape pan you like, but grease the pan well before you put the cake batter in it. Have the stove moderately hot, so as the cake will bake gradually, and arrange the damper of stove so as send heat to the bottom of the cake first.

In The Original Boston Cooking School Cook Book by Mrs. D.A. Lincoln, there was a,nearly identical, cake which she called an Angel Cake:

     Angel Cake — One cup of flour, measured after one sifting, and then mixed with one teaspoonful of cream of tartar and sifted four times. Beat the whites of eleven eggs, with a wire beater or perforated spoon, until stiff and flaky. Add one cup and one half of fine granulated sugar, and beat again; add one teaspoonful of fine granulated sugar, and beat again; add one teaspoonful of vanilla or almond, then mix in the flour quickly and lightly. Line the bottom and a funnel of a cake pan with paper not greased, pour in the mixture and bake about forty minutes. When done loosen the cake around the edge and turn out at once. Some persons have been more successful with this cake by mixing the sugar with the flour and cream of tartar and adding it all at once to the beaten egg.  

(Fannie Merritt Farmer’s updated version, 1896, of the Boston Cooking School Cook Book, has the same recipe as in earlier versions, but the name was changed from angel cake to angel food cake.)

In the Woman’s Exchange Cook Book[3] (1894) there is a similar white sponge cake that is actually named angel food cake. The pan called for is a Turk’s Head alluding to the shape of a turban, an Ottoman headdress. This is the earliest known cookbook reference that called for a tube pan to bake an Angel food cake in.

     Angel Food Cake — Whites of 11 eggs, 1 teaspoon of flavoring, one and one half cups of granulated sugar, 1 cup of sifted flour, 1 teaspoon of cream of tartar. Put the cream of tartar into the sifted flour and sift it five times. Sift the sugar. Beat the whites of the eggs to a very stiff froth, add the sugar, and mix carefully; then add the flour gradually, stirring allthe while, and last the flavoring. Turn quickly into an ungreased pan and bake in a moderate oven (sa, 260 degrees fahr) for forty-five minutes. Take from the oven, turn the pan upside down on a rest, and let it stand until the cake falls out. It is best to bake this in a Turk’s head. You can then rest it on the tube.

In Our Home Clyopedia[4] published in 1889, there are a number of recipes for multi-egg white sponge cakes. The pan called for is a cake tin, or a brick shaped tin, and, in one, the pan is, first, lined with pastry.

    Delicious Sponge Cake — Twelve eggs, one pound of sugar, twelve ounces of flour, a pinch of salt; flavor. Beat the whites to a very stiff froth, the yolks till the bubbles look fine. Then the yolks are beaten enough to add the sugar and beat until the sugar dissolved; then add the whites, and lastly the flour, and bake immediately in brick shaped tins. This will make two loaves. You will find your cake so much nicer if baked in a paste. Make with flour and water only; roll out on the board same as a pine crust, line your greased tins all over with the paste and pour in the batter. Bake nearly an hour. Do not break off the paste till you want to use it. Your cake will be more moist and keep longer; indeed the cake will be much better a day or two old.

     White Sponge Cake — Sift together one cup of flour, one-half cup of corn starch, one teaspoonful baking powder; add one cup of sugar, one teaspoonful extract of rose, then add the whites of eight eggs whipped to a stiff froth; mix thoroughly and bake in a well-buttered cake tin in a quick oven 30 minutes.

Recipes, especially back then, were spread by one woman handing another woman a handwritten recept (as recipes used to be called), and so-on, like a virus. Newspapers and magazines had contests for “the best” of various categories along with exotic sounding names and creative adaptations. Sometimes there were cash prizes, but often, the reward was they were published, with citations. These recipes were compiled into various cookbooks that were sold or given away (sometimes, also, as prizes for submitting a winning recipe) which further spread the recipes. Food historians trace the published nuggets, and analyze the subtle difference, to come up with theories as to the origin, including the use of pans.

[1] By M.E. Porter, Published 1871

[2] Abbey Fisher, a former slave from Mobile Alabama, was the first Black American to write a cookbook in 1881

[3] No author is identified. This book appears to be a book that is a compilation of recipes published elsewhere.

[4] No author. This is another collection of recipes, household, and medical tips, that appear to have been cobbled together from other publications.

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