Kitchen Lab: Shrinking Angels

Aww, yeah, we’re back, baby! I’ve got a working oven again, so I can once more bumble my way through random recipes on a whim. And because I can’t possibly make things easy for myself, I decided that the inaugural baking for the new oven would NOT be something simple and familiar like chocolate chip cookies or whatever. No, whyever would I want to check how my shiny new oven works on something I already know what it’s supposed to look like? Nah, I gotta go full-on never-tried-this-before like I’m new or something… controlling variables? What’s that?

Worst. Science. Ever.

So sure, let’s try angel food cake. As cupcakes… what could go wrong? (hint: a lot.)

As anyone who’s read a Kitchen Lab post or three probably knows, I’m not really subtle about how I go about my baking. Everything in a bowl! Mix it up and bake! Eat and repeat! But angel food is a delicate beastie. It knows if you haven’t sifted your flour well. It knows the difference between stirring and folding. It gets cranky when you add ingredients out of order, or when you stir it a few extra times “just for good measure.” And it holds onto these minor infractions, letting them build up until the very end and then it sulks because you didn’t notice anything was wrong. O, learn from my ham-fisted ways!

For reference, this is the recipe I tried. Halved, because I don’t need three dozen cupcakes in my apartment unless there’s a party and also I only have two cupcake pans. Perhaps the halving was my first mistake? Baking is a touchy thing of proportions and chemical reactions and oven-rack placement, maybe I mismeasured something or divided incorrectly.

6 12 large egg whites

3/4 1 1/2 teaspoons cream of tartar

1/4 cup + 2 tbsp 3/4 cup  granulated sugar

1 2 teaspoons vanilla extract

3/4 cup + 2 tbsp 1 3/4 cups sifted powdered sugar (sift before measuring)

1/2 cup + 1 tbsp 1 1/8 cups sifted cake flour (sift before measuring)

1/8 1/4 teaspoon salt (I may have kinda ish-ed this, heh)

Okay, let’s go.

Let egg whites sit at room temperature for about one hour before beginning.

Now, as much as it may go against the American way of keeping one’s eggs refrigerated, if a recipe calls for room-temperature eggs (or butter, or milk, or whatever) you should probably get over it and let your ingredients “rest” on the counter until they’re room temperature. Letting just the egg whites come up to room temperature was rather faster than letting whole eggs warm up, so separate ’em beforehand. Throw the yolks in some weird protein shake or just make eggnog with ’em, I’m not gonna judge your seasonal foods.

While eggs are resting, measure out powdered sugar and flour, then sift powdered sugar, flour and salt together. Set aside.

Something else I may have done wrong: I sifted all the stuff that was supposed to be sifted, but I don’t remember whether I sifted them TOGETHER. Maybe I did? I don’t know, there was an awful lot of sifting because my sifter is but a wee thing I got as a gift. Sift sift sift. Now it doesn’t even look like a word.

Line a cupcake tin (or two) with cupcake liners.

Wait, doesn’t this recipe say it makes THREE DOZEN cupcakes? How many cupcakes fit in YOUR tins? Yeesh. Counting is hard, IDK.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F and place rack in the bottom third of oven.

Y’all, this shiny new oven has FIVE positions for oven racks and so many oven settings that I had to search for the various setting symbol pictures for a zanussi.

Using an electric mixer, beat egg whites until frothy.

Frothy just means little bubbles. Your mixer is blowing bubbles into the egg whites. Yes.

Once frothy, add in cream of tartar, then beat at medium speed until soft peaks form. This took me about 5-6 minutes.

Get comfortable, folks, that mixer feels heavier than you might expect after a couple of minutes. Keep going. Nope, not yet. You can do eet!

Also, the peaks don’t just form magically while you’re beating; you’ve gotta pull the beaters out of the mixture to see if the peaks stay standing. I highly recommend turning OFF the mixer before trying this…

looks like dis

Gradually add granulated sugar with the mixer still on medium speed, continuing to beat until egg whites thicken a bit more with opaque, soft, droopy peaks.

This is where using a heavy bowl comes in handy, so you can hold the mixer in one hand and sprinkle the sugar in gradually with the other. The weight of the bowl will keep everything tidily on the counter like you want; the vibration and movement of a mixer tend to make lightweight/plastic bowls wander across the counter if you don’t hang on to ’em while the mixer is running.

Once there, beat in vanilla extract.

“Opaque, soft, droopy peaks” look like the top of soft-serve ice cream, or your hair when you try to make shampoo mohawks in the bath. Recipes don’t generally say how long to beat in vanilla and it always seems to be added in by itself, so I just go until I can’t see it anymore or whenever the hell I feel like it’s probably spread around enough.

Remove the bowl from the mixer and sprinkle 1/4 of the dry ingredients over the egg whites.

Oh, they’re talking about a fancy stand mixer here. I don’t have one of those, no wonder my arm got tired earlier. Anyway, it’s probably safe to guesstimate what “1/4 of the dry ingredients” is. I did read up on this later and apparently, you don’t want the peaks to collapse when you dump the dry ingredients on top of ’em so sprinkle gently, folks.

Fold gently with a spatula until combined completely.

Folding is NOT the same as stirring, and I’m still trying to figure out how to do it right. This, and possibly overmixing, likely contributed to the Incredible Shrinking of Cupcakes, since going too rough on your batter basically pops all the nice enfloofening air bubbles you’ve spent so long beating in. So here’s a good explanation of folding, and also a video if you like that sort of thing.

Continue with the rest of the dry ingredients – I did this in three increments.

You might want to add the dry ingredients in even smaller increments if it looks like the weight is deflating your egg whites. It’ll take longer, but you’ll maintain more of the floofiness you want.

Once batter is smooth, use a 1/4 cup measure to pour heaping scoops of batter into each liner.

I actually only got one cupcake tin filled, which should have already indicated something about my imminent failure.

Bake for 18-19 minutes, or until tops are golden brown.



…oh, wait.

Let cool completely, then frost as desired.


Seriously, these things shrunk in every direction INCLUDING UP. They sucked in the sides of the cupcake wrapper, and the bottom of each one shrunk itself probably 1/4 inch up from the bottom. It was a weird thing, y’all… but don’t get me wrong, I still ate them.

I didn’t bother going pretty with my frosting, in part because at this point it was getting late and I also knew I wasn’t gonna be showing these stunted things off to anyone. It is, however, chocolate.

om nom nom

So I do think I’ll try angel food cake again, only probably as an actual cake next time. Which apparently requires some elaborate cake pan with a hole down the middle and little feet so you can let it cool upside-down… because GRAVITY IS AGAINST YOU HERE.

Who on earth came up with this ludicrous cake, anyway? (She asks while shoving cupcakes into her mouth)

Beth Voigt

Beth is a graphic designer in Chicago, a superhero in her own mind, and absolutely nothing on TV. She wrangles fonts professionally, pummels code amateurishly, and has been known to shove fire in her face for fun. Fond of volunteering, late-night bursts of productivity, and making snacks, she dislikes grocery shopping and sticky public transit and is only on her second smartphone. Her opinion is that you should try everything twice; if you don't like it, you were probably doing it wrong the first time around. If external links are your thing, here are links to Twitter and Instagram, and you can support her ongoing weirdness by buying her a coffee or six.

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