Fit For Angels

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“That’s a lot of eggs.”

My son watched as I cracked open a dozen and separated the whites from the yolks.

“Well, if we were having this conversation in a kitchen during the 19th century instead of in this kitchen today, we’d have a lot of chickens. Lots of chickens means…”

“Lots of eggs.”

I can’t say I was surprised when none of the kids could definitively say that they’d eaten angel food — even though it’s a classic cake, its popularity seems to have waned. They only recognized it after I showed them a photo.

“Why do they call it angel food?”

I explained that this simple cake made of only six ingredients, baked up so light, white, and fluffy that people claimed that it was “fit for angels.”

It’s harder to pin down the origins of the cake. Perhaps it is a variation of one of the already existing egg white cakes: the Lady Cake, Silver Cake, Sno-Drift, or even a version of a white sponge. Angel food differs from those in that it is made without a trace of butter or oil; the cake is completely fat-free.

“So it’s healthy!” I joked. The kids knew better.

Another theory is that prudent members of the Pennsylvania Dutch community, unwilling to see perfectly good food go to waste, created the cake to use up the leftover egg whites on noodle making days. Scans of early 1800’s newspaper ads from southeastern Pennsylvania show offers for the tube pans used in baking angel food cake.

“If the Pennsylvania Dutch had been baking a version of this cake since the early 1800’s, why didn’t it become widely popular until the second half of the century? The first published recipe for Angel Food Cake is from 1878.”

The 1856 patent of a simple yet ingenious invention probably had a lot to do with it.

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Prior to the 1850’s, bakers would have had to whip their eggs by hand with a fork, a slotted spoon, or even a tree branch, (the Shakers thought that a branch from a peach tree imparted a peach flavor to the cake). The rotary eggbeater made whipping a dozen egg whites so much easier!

We took a look at an amazing collection of these mechanical devices.

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Now I know I am partial to vintage kitchen stuff, but some of the old beaters were downright beautiful in design.

One more contribution by the world of industry popularized angel food cake — the mass production of baking pans. Swan’s Down (1894) even offered tube pans to customers as a gift with a purchase of cake flour.

Now there was no reason not to bake an angel food cake!

Because the mixing of this cake proceeds quickly, it is best to have all the ingredients scaled out before beginning to whip the egg whites.

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Using superfine sugar and sifting the dry ingredients a couple of times ensures that the cake will be nice and light.

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We reviewed the rules for success when whipping egg whites:

There should be no trace of egg yolks in the whites.

The beaters, bowl, and/or whisk should be squeaky clean — any grease or fat will keep the whites from whipping.

Room temperature whites will whip to a greater volume than cold whites — you can gently warm them over hot water or a low flame.

Add sugar gradually to avoid collapsing the foam.

Avoid over whipping the egg whites and sugar — look for a soft serve ice cream-style curve to the peak rather than a pointy and stiff peak.

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Once we had a smooth and billowy meringue, we scooped it into a large bowl so that we would have enough room to fold in the dry ingredients.

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Down through the center, up the side…”

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Angel food batter needs to cling to the sides of the baking pan, so there was no need for the usual greasing and flouring. This is also why non-stick pans are not suitable for angel food cakes.

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Because the cake has no fat, I usually like to balance it out with a richer topping. Also, I had twelve egg yolks in the fridge.

A sabayon is always easy, impressive, and delicious. We chose to make use of the red grapefruit and cara cara oranges we had in the fruit bin.

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Second French word of the day: bain marie, also known as a double boiler. The kids took turns whisking the egg yolks, sugar, and citrus juice together over the simmering water until the sauce was thick.

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We knew it was ready to come off the heat when we could make a ribbon with the mixture.

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Whisking the sabayon until it is completely cool will keep it from deflating or separating. I added a little bit of whipped cream to the sabayon because I like it that way. Did I mention that there is no fat in the cake? It’s all about balance.

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Angel food cake should be left to cool, upside down, to set the structure. Our pan had feet for this purpose; the whole thing looked a little like a UFO.

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I don’t know if our cake was fit for angels, but it was definitely fit for an angel of a birthday boy.

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Angel Food Cake, one 10″ tube pan, serves 12 – 16

1 cup Unbleached Cake Flour
1 1/2 cups superfine sugar (alternately, you can buzz some regular granulated sugar in a food processor.)
12 large egg whites, at room temperature
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 teaspoons cream of tartar

Preheat the oven to 325°F. Don’t grease or flour your angel food cake pan.

Place the flour and 3/4 cup of the sugar together in a sifter set over a bowl or a piece of parchment. Sift a couple of times and return the mixture to the sifter. Set aside.

In the bowl of a standing mixer or a large mixing bowl, combine the egg whites, salt, and extract. Whip until the mixture is just frothy, then sprinkle the cream of tartar on top and continue beating until the mixture forms soft peaks.

Gradually add the remaining sugar, a few tablespoons at a time, and continue beating to just shy of stiff, glossy peaks. There should be a little curl to the tip, like a soft serve ice cream cone. Sift 1/3 of the flour mixture over the meringue and fold the two together until the flour just starts to disappear, then repeat the process two more times.

Spoon the batter into the pan. Run a skewer or thin knife through the mixture to break up any large bubbles. Bake the cake for 40 to 45 minutes, or until it’s golden brown and the top springs back when lightly touched.

Remove the cake from the oven, and set it upside down on the pan’s feet or with a bottle through its center cone. Let the cake cool for 1 1/2 hours for as long as possible around four eager kids.

Loosen the edges of the cake with a knife, and remove it from the pan.

Use a serrated knife to cut into slices.

 

Citrus Sabayon

6 egg yolks

1 cup of sweet citrus juice, (any combination of grapefruit, tangerine, orange, etc.)

1/3 cup of sugar, (more or less to taste depending on the sweetness of the juice)

1/2 cup of heavy cream, optional

Whisk to blend the yolks, juice, and sugar in a stainless-steel bowl. Rest the bowl in a saucepan over hot water. Whisk constantly for 4 to 5 minutes or until it has the consistency of lightly whipped cream. Clear the bottom of the bowl constantly with the whisk so that the eggs do not scramble, and adjust the heat as needed. When thick, foamy, and tripled in volume, remove from heat. Over an ice bath, continue whisking until cool. Whip cream and fold into sabayon.

 

For more in this historical cake series:

Cake As a Lens

I Vote For Cake

Redemption of a Sad Paste

Chocolate and Elbow Grease

Best Laid Plans

Chocolate Cake for a Devil, Hold the Sauerkraut

 

 

 

 

 

Puffed

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“Soufflér. That means to puff, or to breathe.”

The past participle of soufflér is soufflé. And that’s what we were making.

Most of the kids had eaten a savory version of a soufflé before; only one had not.

“It’s kind of fluffy.”

So we talked about how a soufflé becomes so fluffy or puffed up.

“What do you guys think? How do we get all that air in there?”

They had great responses:

“Yeast?”

“Baking soda and vinegar?”

“Baking powder!”

“A bicycle pump?”

I was incredibly happy they remembered that all those things, aside from the bicycle pump, were leavening agents.

“What about eggs?” I asked. “Remember when we made the meringue mushrooms? Or the chocolate cloud cake?”

“Oh yeah!”

“We were able to whip those egg whites until they were nice and fluffy, right? The proteins in the whites formed a network that trapped a lot of air. That is exactly what we’ll use to leaven our soufflés; all those air bubbles will expand in the heat of the oven and cause our soufflés to push up.”

But first, we needed to make the base. This one would be made with pastry cream and flavored with bananas.

They had made pastry cream once before.

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They combined the egg yolks with sugar, flour, and salt to form a kind of thick paste.

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Then they whisked in a bit of milk that we had heating on the stove.

“Do you guys remember why we don’t just dump everything into the pot of hot milk?”

“Because the eggs will get clumpy?”

“Right! So we introduce the heat gradually, that’s called tempering the eggs, then we cook everything together.”

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Once the mixture had thickened and come to a boil, they strained the resulting custard into a bowl.

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We set the pastry cream aside while we prepared the soufflé dishes.

“Straight-sided dishes are best because they will help the soufflé rise up, not out. And we need something for the soufflé base to cling to as it climbs the sides, so we’ll brush the insides of the ramekins with soft butter and coat them with sugar.”

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With the dishes ready, we turned our attention back to finishing the base.

Of bananas.

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They mashed the fruit into the pastry cream and added some vanilla.

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We inspected our egg whites.

“No goldfish, right?” Meaning there were no bits of yolk floating around in the whites. “The yolks contain fat, which would interfere with the whites’ ability to form that network we talked about — the one that traps the air. Any fat will make it difficult, or even impossible, for the whites to whip.”

We started whipping the whites, and when we could see that the whip was leaving trails as it passed through the egg whites, they began adding the sugar.

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It took only a few minutes for the meringue to reach a firm peak. Actually, we could have whipped it even less, we were just on the edge of being over whipped. A little dipping of the tip of meringue, like a soft serve ice cream cone, would have been better. 

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They took turns folding the meringue into the soufflé base.

“Remember, when you’re folding, down through the middle and up the sides.”

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“It’s better to have a little bit of whites still streaky through the base than having an overfolded soufflé. The more you fold it, the more air you knock out of it.”

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We portioned the mixture into the sugared ramekins, filling them to the brim.

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I leveled them off with a spatula so they would have a nice, flat top.

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“You can run your thumb around the inside of the dishes so that the mixture doesn’t stick on the edge as it’s baking and give you a lopsided soufflé.”

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We popped the tray into the hot oven, and after about 10 minutes I called everyone over to take a peek.

“That’s amazing!”

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Soufflés, especially those made from a starch or chocolate base, are not as temperamental as the movies would have you believe. You can even take one out of the oven, test it for doneness, and put it right back in.

These were ready though.

Everyone sat down and we passed out the soufflés. They had their choice of raspberry or chocolate sauce to pour in.

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Or both.

And they were eaten before they even started deflating.

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Banana Soufflés adapted from a recipe in Room For Dessert by David Lebovitz

Note: These can be made a few hours in advance and held, unbaked, in the refrigerator.

4 servings (can be easily doubled or tripled)

2 medium bananas (equal to about 1/2 cup mashed banana pulp)

2 t vanilla

1/2 t lemon juice

1/2 c pastry cream

4 large egg whites, at room temperature

pinch of cream of tartar

1/8 t fine sea salt

2 T sugar, plus more for coating the ramekins

Position the oven rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 400 degrees. Butter the insides of four 4-ounce ramekins and coat with a fine layer of sugar. In a large bowl, mash the bananas into the pastry cream and add the lemon juice, vanilla, and salt. In the bowl of a standing mixer, whip the egg whites on medium speed until frothy then add the cream of tartar. Increase the speed to medium-high and continue whipping until soft peaks form. Begin adding the sugar and whip until the meringue forms a firm but not dry peak. Add about 1/3 of the meringue to the banana mixture and fold gently to lighten it. Fold in the remaining meringue until combined. Spoon the mixture into the prepared dishes, filling them to the rim. Level the tops with a spatula and use your thumb to create a shallow indentation around the inside of the ramekin. Set the soufflés on a baking sheet and bake for about 10 minutes or until the tops are nicely browned and the soufflés are firm but still slightly jiggly. Remove from the oven and serve immediately.

Pastry Cream  (makes about 1 cup)

1 cup whole milk

3 T flour

4 T sugar

1/8 t fine sea salt

3 large egg yolks

1/4 t vanilla

Warm the milk in a saucepan. Meanwhile whisk together the flour, sugar, salt, and egg yolks. When the milk is hot, whisk about 1/3 of it into into the egg mixture. Pour everything back into the pot and cook over moderate heat, whisking constantly, until the mixture is thickened and just begins to boil. Remove from heat and strain into a bowl. Stir in the vanilla. Cover and refrigerate for up to 3 days.

 

Spring Strawberries, Fractions, and Harry Baker

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“Careful, those are sharp.”

I had just passed my six-year old son a handful of steak knives to distribute to the other kids. Don’t worry, they’ve had a class in knife skills.

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They made short work of the strawberries while we talked about what we’d be baking.

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“Chiffon…what is that?”

They were happy to hear that it was a kind of cake, and even happier to hear that we would be topping the cake with the lovely strawberries they were preparing.

I tossed the berries with some vanilla sugar and set them aside to macerate.

Me: “Prior to 1948, cakes were traditionally classified as either butter cakes or sponge cakes. Chiffon cake is neither. In fact, a chiffon cake is its own special thing, somewhat of a hybrid of the two.”

“Hybrid, you mean like a hybrid car?”

Me: “Exactly!”

I reminded them how we creamed butter with sugar to make a butter cake. But we were using oil for this cake. We all agreed that the oil wouldn’t be able to trap air the same way that butter would.

Me: “What other ingredient do we have that could trap air?”

“Eggs?”

Enter the sponge cake component of our hybrid: whipped eggs, specifically whites.

We turned our attention to the recipe.

Me: “This recipe makes way more cake than we need, so we’ll have to cut it in half. It calls for 11 ounces of cake flour…”

“So we need 5 1/2 ounces!”

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They took turns weighing and measuring the dry ingredients, helping each other with the appropriate calculations. Some were harder to figure out, half of 3/4 teaspoon or half of a tablespoon for example.

I pointed out that they needed to reserve some of the sugar, 1/2 cup for a full recipe. They recalculated.

“This is kind of like a math lesson too.”

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The dry ingredients were sifted together into a large bowl.

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The wet ingredients minus the egg whites would go into another.

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As they finished scaling out the ingredients, I laid some cake trivia on them.

Me: “So this kind of cake was developed in the 1920’s by a guy named Harry Baker. He worked on the recipe and kept it secret for 20 years! Then he sold it to General Mills so they could market it and make a bunch of money.”

They found this funny.

Me: “What do you think this guy did as a profession?”

“Was he a baker?”

I thought they’d guess that. I also thought they might say scientist or something of that nature.

Me: “He was an insurance salesman.”

They knew nothing of insurance. This resulted in so.many.questions. I promised we would revisit the topic…but first, back to cake!

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I explained why chiffon cake was such a hit when it came out. People liked them because they were very moist due to the oil in the batter, and since oil is liquid even at cooler temperatures, chiffon cakes do not tend to harden or dry out as traditional butter cakes might. This makes them better choices for fillings that need to be kept refrigerated, like cream or mousse, or even frozen, like ice cream.

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Wet ingredient were added to dry ingredients and whisked together until smooth.

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Then we whipped up the egg whites with the reserved sugar.

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They remembered the different stages of whipped egg whites, and helped keep an eye on them as the mixer did its thing.

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We checked the meringue to make sure we were at a nearly stiff peak.

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We used about a third of it to lighten the batter in the bowl, then gently folded in the rest.

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About 30 minutes later…

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Once the cake had cooled, we added our sweetened strawberries and a dollop of whipped cream. I’m pretty sure Harry Baker would have approved.

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As I said, this recipe makes enough for two tall 9″ layers, or one large tube pan. (We used a 10″ round by 2″ tall pan to make our single layer, which gave us twelve slices) Do not grease your pan, the batter needs to cling to the sides to rise properly. If you are making layers, simply line the bottoms with parchment.

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Orange Chiffon Cake

11 oz    cake flour

2 c        granulated sugar, reserve 1/2 c

1 T        aluminum-free baking powder

3/4 t      fine sea salt

6           large eggs, separated

1           orange, zested and juiced

3/4 c     liquid, (juice from the orange plus enough water to make 3/4 cup)

1/4 c     neutral tasting oil like safflower

1 1/2 t   vanilla

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Fit a round of parchment into the bottom of a cake pan. Do not grease the pan.

Sift dry ingredients together into a large bowl. Combine egg yolks with the zest, juice and water, oil, and vanilla. Whisk the egg mixture into the dry ingredients until smooth. Whip the egg whites with the reserved 1/2 c sugar to a nearly stiff peak. Fold 1/3 of the meringue into the batter to lighten it, then gently fold in the remaining meringue. Place batter in pan and gently smooth the top. Bake for about 30 – 35 minutes or until the cake takes on a light gold color and springs back when pressed in the center. Cool completely before using a thin knife or spatula to release the cake from the sides.

Fluffy White (and One Chocolate!) Clouds

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“Is that it?”

My son was concerned about the minimal ingredients I had placed on the table to use for our baking project.

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Butter, chocolate, sugar, eggs. Do you ever really need more than that?

I pointed to the photo of a Chocolate Cloud Cake.

“Ooooh!”

All concerns went right out the window.

We made sure the oven was heating and cut out a circle of parchment for the bottom of our cake pan.

The next step was to separate the egg yolks from the whites.

“Does anyone remember what ‘leaven’ means?”

I could see the wheels turning. And finally…

“To put air into something?”

“Yeah, kinda! It means to lighten something. Like when we lightened our pizza dough with yeast. Or a cake with baking powder and/or baking soda. What else? What about our cream puffs? What did we use to leaven those?”

“Eggs?”

“Yep, we added eggs, which in the hot hot oven, created the steam that provided lift to our cream puff dough. So we’ve used yeast, chemical reactions, steam, and now…foam.”

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They had separated eggs once before, and needed little encouragement to jump in again.

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I recommended that they crack the eggs on the table instead of the side of the bowl, so that any wayward shells would land on the table instead of in their egg whites.

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Each kid separated their egg over a small bowl and then combined that white with the rest of the whites needed for the recipe, thus avoiding ruining a whole batch of egg whites with one broken yolk.

For example…

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“Those are what we call goldfish. We want to keep those bits of yolk out of the whites.”

Fat, as in the case of the egg yolks, would keep our egg whites from foaming. For this reason, we would also make sure our whisks were very clean and would avoid using plastic bowls.

It was a good thing we had plenty of eggs on hand.

But back to this foam-as-leavening idea.

I explained that egg whites are mostly water, 90% to be exact.

“Can we make a foam with just water?”

They each tried whisking a bowl of plain water. We got some bubbles, but as expected, no foam.

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Then we tried whisking one egg white.

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That was more successful.

So besides water, what was in an egg white that could create a foam? We looked at it at and agreed that it was definitely thicker than water. Vocabulary word for the day: viscous.

I pulled out some bits of string and coiled them up to represent the remaining 10% of an egg white: protein.

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“So these protein molecules are usually all wound up. When you guys whisk the egg white, the proteins unfold. One end likes the water, the other likes the air; they continue to open as they are exposed to the air you are incorporating with that whisk, and they trap it like so…”

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“But they also like to stick to each other. So you end up with this network of many little bubbles. The more you whip, the stronger the network gets…to a point.”

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We continued whipping by hand so that they could see the egg white go through the different stages.

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At soft peak the whites will just start to hold shape, but will melt back into themselves after a second…

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At medium peak or firm peak, the whites will form more distinct ridges but the tip will fold back onto itself. I like to think of a soft serve ice cream cone…

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And at stiff peak the point will stand up proudly…

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The trickiest part to whipping egg whites is taking them to the correct stage; too little whipping results in poor volume or collapse of the foam, while too much looks…

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grainy, curdled, not smooth. The whites take on a dry appearance as the network gets tightened up so much that the water is essentially squeezed out.

Now that we were clear on the different stages of whipped egg whites, we could start mixing our cake.

Chopped chocolate was gently melted in a bowl set in a pan of barely simmering water.

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We added soft butter to the chocolate and…

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Well, just trust me that we mixed in the butter.

The kids whisked the whole eggs and yolks together with half of the sugar…

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…some salt…

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and added the chocolate and butter mixture.

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They were pretty much ready to eat it as is, but I convinced them that the cake would be so. much. better.

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The kids had had enough whipping by hand, so we chose to use the mixer to make our meringue. We waited until the egg whites were foamy, then began slowly adding the sugar.

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Once it had thickened and began showing streaky paths from the beater, we pulled the attachment off to check…

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Not quite ready yet. Back on for a sec…

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Bingo.

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They were tickled that, once whipped to a stiff peak, we could turn the whole bowl of egg whites upside down.

I lightened the chocolate mixture by folding in about a quarter of the meringue. They reminded each other how to fold as they took turns mixing in the rest.

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The batter went into our parchment-lined pan and I slid it into the oven.

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Like sharks I tell you. Sharks.

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About 35 minutes later we had our chocolate cloud.

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Ahh, but we had to wait for it to cool!

We used the time to whip up another cloud, this time with very cold cream, a pinch of sugar, and a splash of vanilla.

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I explained that the stages of whipping cream were similar to those when whipping egg whites.

Me: “What do you think we would get if we over whipped this cream?”

“Butter?”

Yep. Still delicious, but not what we wanted to top our cake.

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After it had cooled a bit, the middle of the cake had sunk in just enough to leave us with the perfect place to cradle some cream.

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A little white cloud of cream on top of slightly warm chocolate. Best thing ever.

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Chocolate Cloud Cake adapted slightly from Richard Sax’s Classic Home Desserts

Makes one 8-inch single-layer cake; serves 8 to 12

Cake

8 oz best-quality bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, coarsely chopped (we used 72%)

1/2 c (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened

6 large eggs at room temperature: 2 whole, 4 separated

1 cup sugar

1/4 tsp fine sea salt

1 tsp pure vanilla extract

Whipped Cream Topping

1 1/2 cups heavy cream, well chilled

sugar to taste

1 tsp pure vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line the bottom of an 8-inch springform pan with a round of parchment paper; do not butter the pan. Melt the chocolate in a bowl set in a pan of barely simmering water. Remove from heat and whisk in the butter until melted; set aside.

In a bowl, whisk the 2 whole eggs and the 4 egg yolks with 1/2 cup of the sugar just until blended. Whisk in the salt and vanilla. Whisk in the warm chocolate mixture.

Using a standing mixer with the whip attachment, or in a bowl with an electric mixer, beat the 4 egg whites until foamy. Gradually add the remaining 1/2 cup sugar and beat until the whites form firm to stiff but not dry peaks. Fold about 1/4 of the meringue into the chocolate mixture to lighten it; gently fold in the remaining whites. Pour the batter into the pan and smooth the top.

Bake until the top of the cake is puffed and cracked and the center is no longer wobbly, about 35 – 40 minutes. Do not overbake.

Cool the cake in the pan on a wire rack; it will sink as it cools forming a crater with high sides.

At serving time whip the cream with the sugar and vanilla until not quite stiff. Run the tip of a knife around the edges of the cake and carefully remove the sides of the pan. You can choose to fill the crater of the cake with the whipped cream, pushing it gently to the edges; it looks very pretty that way. Or, if you are fighting off a crowd of impatient children, cut it into slices and top each piece with cream as it is running by.