Posts Tagged Food History
Angel Cake – The original Boston Cooking School Cook Book – 1884: “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 a half of fine granulated sugar, and beat again; add one teaspoon of vanilla or almond, then mix in flour quickly and lightly. Line the bottom and funnel of a cake pan with paper not greased, pour in the mixture, and bake about forty minutes.”
“Hey, Granny Wise,” asked Sharyn Dimmick of The Kale Chronicles, soon after posting a recent article titled Tangerine Curd and Angel Food Cake, “Want to do some research on angel food cake? A couple of people have said they think it is a North American thing… Do you know?”
“How about this,” I spontaneously suggested, “Would you like to research ancient recipes and ingredients and I will research the history. How does this sound?” “Okay. You’re on. Granny,” was the prompt reply. “Huh Ho!” said Granny.
It is nearly impossible to talk about Angel Food Cake without talking about cake in general, its history and the advances in technology that made modern cakes possible. Cakes date back to ancient times. They were more bread-like then. They also included dried fruits and nuts and were characterized by what we call “long shelf life” today. Essentially, they were food that could be taken on long journeys without spoiling. Advanced baking skills are attributed to the Egyptians who prepared foods not only for journeys but also for leisure.
Before we go on, one question demands attention. Why are cakes round anyway? Precisely, because they are a variation on ancient bread-making techniques. In ancient times, dough was shaped into round balls and baked on heart stones. As they baked, they relaxed into round shapes, naturally. Food historians believe that the round baking pan, then, is mostly a matter of assisting an observed natural process. However, we must not overlook the symbolic meaning of the round cake. In earlier times, breads and cakes were used in religious ceremonies. In some cultures, round shapes represented the cyclical aspects of nature and life.
Speaking of the cyclical nature of life brings to mind the very provenance of ingredients. Our grand-mothers and their grand-mothers before them, grew a surprisingly large amount of their own food. This changed drastically with the development of urban lifestyles. Today, increasingly, some of the ingredients we bring to the kitchen to prepare meals and sweets come from personal crops raised on a few acres or in small seed houses, cold frames and greenhouses. We have brought some of the harvest closer to home again. In some ways, we have even made it more portable.
17th century bakers began using metal or wood rings into which dough was placed for baking. At this time also, ingredients such as refined sugars became more readily available and advances in technology lead to more efficient ovens. Creativity and resourcefulness set the course from then on. Thus one theory concerning Angel Food Cake, which is made with a large quantity of egg whites and no leavening or shortening, is that it was in fact made from leftover egg whites in an attempt to not discard valuable nourishment.
…”I offered her some curd,” writes Sharyn Dimmick in her Blog post,” She wanted eight jars. Eight jars! …See Sharyn scurrying around the garage, looking for empty jars of an appropriate size. ..See Sharyn making angel food cake from scratch to use those first twelve egg whites.” Making curd, then, presents a sweet opportunity, for one must surely make good use of the leftover egg whites.
“Thrifty Pennsylvania cooks …considered it sinful to waste anything,” remarks American Food: The Gastronomic Story, 2nd ed. Thus, some trace the origins of Angel Food Cake specifically to Southeastern Pennsylvania due to the abundance and variety of cake molds that were manufactured in that region in the early 1800′s. In fact, the introduction of the cake mold to the American household is largely attributed to the Pennsylvania Dutch.
Other historians suggest that African-American slaves were most likely to have made this sort of cake. First, because they prepared food for their masters and second because it is a very labor-intensive cake, requiring a strong arm for vigorous whisking. In addition to this, Angel Food Cake is a mainstay in the traditional African-American post-funeral feast. Perhaps this is because they were allowed very few ingredients for personal use.
The first hand-cranked, counter-rotating whisks egg beater was invented in 1870. By the late 1890′s, egg beaters could be purchased from the Sears catalog for 9¢. Today, by comparison, we have expanded the arsenal of kitchen implements exponentially. Think about this, today’s grand-mothers, to use a common image, will be teaching their children and grand-children very different cooking and baking strategies. They are using modern food dehydrators for fruits they add to cake mixes, sauce makers for the preparation of fruit toppings and cleverly designed specialty tools like cherry pitters that can stone as much as 30 pounds of cherries per hour.
The name Angel Food Cake appears for the first time in American Cookbooks around the late 19th century. An updated version of The Original Boston Cooking School Cook Book recipe at the beginning of this article appeared in 1896. This is the first recorded evidence of the full name, “Angel Food Cake.”
As for that actual origin of the name, some explain that, simply, the cake was said to be the “food of the angels” by virtue of its airy lightness. One must wonder if perhaps it did not acquire that name rather by virtue of being a special treat for the slaves who were allowed to prepare it for themselves on rare occasions. That is a plausible explanation as well, especially in light of their use of Angel Food Cake when honoring a deceased loved one.
Only one question remains to be resolved. What of the whole in the pan? Why a ring? Ingenuity, no less. This cake mold is also called a “tube pan.” Its shape allows the batter to rise higher because it can cling to all sides of the pan. There is no middle, so the middle cannot collapse on itself. I think it also makes it possible for delicious frosting to wrap itself around the cake. Isn’t that the best part?