Angel food cake – a simple confection of whipped, sweetened, and stabilized egg whites – is one of the easiest sweets to make at home. Perfect served plain with tea, with a coulis or fresh fruit and whipped cream after supper. Happily, for the season it also a Lenten cake, one of few the cakes baked without the use of any fats — neither oil, or butter, or egg yolk.
On Thursday, we baked two cakes to taste test a packet of cloth-bolted White Lammas cake flour that had been ground and mailed to us the prior Tuesday.
The flour, from Anson Mills in Columbia, South Carolina is an heirloom variety of soft white winter wheat originally grown in England, sometimes called “Hudson’s Bay.”
Bolting, the process of sifting the stone-ground flour, is accomplished by hand at Anson Mills — a small mill launched in 1998 by Glenn Roberts to produce heirloom flours.
Anson Mills touts White Lammas as “the royal class of wheat grown for flour to make grand celebration cakes and fine Madeira teacakes in colonial Virginia and Carolina” stone-ground and cloth-bolted to leave a “whisper of honeyed sweetness, the subtle scent of fresh cream, and faint but persistent field flavors.”
Whether that’s just good marketing or reflects real added value to a product usually bought and sold, like milk, as a cheap commodity was what we wanted to know, because the answer, I believe, is at the heart of how and whether agriculture can work in Connecticut.
With its small patchwork farms and rocky soil, Connecticut can hardly compete on cost with mass-market Florida milk or Kansas flour where the average farm size is 781 acres. Which means that aside from simply supporting your local farmer, a nice thing to do, but hardly a viable business strategy – or regulatory requirements for certain business segments to buy local – the reality is that the state needs to bring added value by appealing to niche markets and competing on quality.
For dairy farmers, the solutions are closer at hand – cream-line and higher-fat Jersey milk, organic and raw milk, value-added ice cream, cheese, and cultured butter – but for growing grain? If not, the answer in many cases, particularly in the north-central part of the state, will look like this.
In the South there is already something of a tradition of popular favorite and better flours, fine-ground “cream” flours used in biscuit-making, and stone-ground corn for skillet cornbread, which is part of the reason that we reached out to Ansom Mills first, but in the North these so-called micro-mills and small malting businesses are sprouting up more and more to supply breadmaking and small breweries.
Tasting the two angel food cakes side by side, using an identical recipe, one with mass-market flour and the other with fresh-ground White Lammas, the results were notably, frankly, surprisingly different.
The White Lammas cake was pleasingly rustic, with not quite the lift, a tender cream-colored crumb, and layers of flavor that brought the wheat front and center. The mass-market flour on the other hand produced a cake that was like its citified cousin – a pale white sponge of a cake, not so tender, and tasting mainly of sugar – not actually a bad result, particularly with fruit or a sauce, but unexceptional.
Worth the cost — nearly $15 for two pounds? Absolutely, if your recipe, like angel food cake, is straight forward. I have to say, I can’t wait to try the Red May wheat flour for pancakes and biscuits.
Angel Food Cake
1 ½ cups fresh egg whites (or the whites of twelve eggs)
1 ½ cups cake flour
1 ½ cups superfine sugar
1 tsp cream of tartar
½ tsp fine sea salt
½ tsp vanilla extract
A wine bottle
10-inch angel food cake pan
- Allow a dozen eggs to reach room temperature and separate, keeping the whites
- Sift together the flour and half of the sugar
- Line the base of a 10-inch angel food cake pan with a parchment paper round
- Preheat an oven to 350 degrees
Making the batter
Using a stand mixture beat the egg whites, cream of tartar and salt with a whisk attachment at low speed until the mixture mounts into very soft peaks. Increase the speed to medium and gradually add the remaining ¾ cup sugar and vanilla extract.
After a minute or two of beating, the mixture should resemble a glossy meringue with stiff peaks. Try not to overbeat.
Detach the bowl from the mixer. Gently sift and fold in the sugar-flour mixture, roughly a third at a time.
Once well incorporated, pour the batter into an angel food cake pan, and give it a quick rap on the countertop to reduce air pockets. Smooth the top, if necessary, with a spoon.
Bake in a preheated oven at 350 degrees for 35 minutes, or until golden brown and the cake has slightly separated from the edges of the pan.
Remove from the oven and invert and cool upside down in the pan on neck of the wine bottle. When cool, about two hours, turn right side up and run a thin knife or spatula along the edges of pan, freeing the cake.
How it works
The classic recipe calls for equal parts eggs whites, flour and sugar by volume. The sugar helps stabilize the egg white foam and produce a tender crumb. The cream of tartar also stabilizes the white egg whites and lends a pale color to the end result. Not buttering the pan helps the mixture rise supported by the sides. And inverting the cake helps keep the confection from collapsing before it has had time to cool.