The classic story behind the name “Angel Food Cake” is that this dessert is so white, light, and fluffy it must be fit for angels. Who thought up this name? No one knows. It is known from the study of old cookbooks that cake recipes with the name “angel food” began showing up in American cookbooks sometime in the late nineteenth century. This coincides directly with the introduction of mass-produced bakeware on the popular market.
The making of a proper angel food cake requires a special tube pan or cake mold. Some food historians speculate the Pennsylvania Dutch were probably the original makers and coined the name “angel food cake” though this connection has not been fully documented. In support of the theory, one of many culinary traditions introduced to America by the Pennsylvania Dutch was the cake mold, a special metal pan for creating festive cakes in unusual shapes. A recipe for “Amanda’s Angel Food Cake” is included in the Pennsylvania Dutch Cook Book of Time Old Recipes, Culinary Arts Press in 1936, but is not listed in Pennsylvania Dutch Cookery by J. George Frederick in 1935.
Evan Jones in his book American Food: The Gastronomic Story” theorized that:
“…angel (or angel food) cakes, may have evolved as the result of numerous egg whites left over after the making of noodles, and may or may not be the brainchild of thrifty Pennsylvania cooks who considered it sinful to waste anything.”
Prior to the recipe in 1936, recipes for cakes similar to angel food (primarily related to Angel Food Cake because the recipes called only for egg whites) were known by different names, such as this recipe for Silver Cake from “What Mrs. Fisher Knows about Old Southern Cooking” published in 1881 by the first American ex-slave to author a cookbook:
“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.”
Whatever the source, this “so-light-it-can’t-be-sinful” cake continues to be popular around the world!