Angel Food Cake Fit For A 4-H Recipe Challenge

By Anita McVey, Picnic Life Foodie

Have you ever asked someone for a recipe and, after following that recipe, felt ever so disappointed because what you made looked or tasted different than the original? Why didn’t they turn out the same? Did I forget an ingredient? Why is baking so challenging?

That is exactly what some Iowa 4-H’ers learn when they participate in the “Recipe Challenge” at their local county fair. Several counties in Iowa offer this opportunity for members (ages 9 to 18) to submit a finished baked product for judging, having followed the recipe chosen by county extension coordinators. The entries are judged, and the participants receive ribbons as well as the judge’s comments to help them understand what they did well and what they could do to ensure better results.

Although I was an active 4-H member — decades ago — this challenge had yet to be a glimmer in someone’s creative mind. Intrigued by the concept, I decided to visit three Iowa county fairs to find out which recipe the county officers chose, see the entries and hopefully talk to some of the participants about their experiences.

In Buena Vista County, the challenge was Gold Medal Classic Biscuits. Flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, shortening and milk are the only ingredients. Simple right? Anyone who has ever attempted to make biscuits from scratch knows it’s far from simple. 

The 4-H’ers I talked with had many ideas as to why the entries didn’t all look the same: proper measuring techniques, differences in ovens, how long the dough was kneaded, the type of pan used for baking, etc. They answered my questions like seasoned chefs (pardon the pun!). We talked about the fact that baking powder can lose its efficacy, sometimes ovens need to be calibrated and baking times may vary. Talking with one of the boys who bashfully apologized for his white ribbon project, I assured him that I was only interested in what he learned and if he would try to make the biscuits again. He wasn’t sure. He did, however, like the idea that anyone who could make homemade biscuits and gravy in college would surely be surrounded by happy friends.

Chocolate Chip Zucchini Muffins was the challenge recipe for Franklin County 4-H’ers. Examining these entries, it didn’t take long to see that some of the bakers peeled the zucchini and some did not. Some had a smooth, rounded dome and others had a more textured top. The chocolate chips were evident in some and not in others. 

As I moved between entries, I had a flashback of sitting next to a judge as she critiqued my cupcakes or muffins, holding my breath as she cut into one to examine the texture and praying for the absence of air pockets or tunnels (a sure sign of over-mixing the batter). Looking over the recipe for these muffins, it quickly became evident what might have caused variations in the results. What type of oil (canola, vegetable or olive) was used? How ripe was the banana when it was mashed? Was the excess moisture removed from the shredded zucchini? It is not easy to read between the lines of even the most straightforward recipe.

Two fairs visited, and I was feeling well-equipped to cover this story. It was the third fair that shook my confidence. The Hamilton County 4-H coordinators selected Angel Food Cake for their recipe challenge.

I’m sorry, but THAT’S HARD!

I have never — not even once — attempted to make an angel food cake from scratch. I have pictures of my mom’s mile-high angel food cake sitting in front of me as I posed for my requisite birthday photo when I was about four. There were certain ladies in our church you could count on to bring the lightest, most decadent angel food cakes to a potluck. There is an article on the Fine Cooking website titled, “When It Comes to Angel Food Cake, God is in the Details.” Some things are just out of your control. Humidity in the air, how fresh the eggs are, what defines foamy or stiff or glossy and the technical definition of a fold, stir and cut are all variables that will make or break the perfect cake.

Apparently, no one told the Hamilton County 4-H’ers that angel food cake was hard. On display were at least a dozen beautiful cakes of slightly varying color and size, not a one of which I would turn down if I were presented with a slice (a few strawberries and some chocolate syrup, please?). 

Standing there, admiring the efforts and confidence of these young people, it became clear that 4-H was challenging my baking skills yet again. I wanted to make an angel food cake! God was in the details because my mom was paying us a visit that very weekend and agreed to help me with my first attempt. It was just like the good old days. The two of us working together, laughing at our uncertainty, questioning the next move and sliding the pan into the oven with a quick prayer. It is an angel food cake, after all!

Right out of the oven I knew my first attempt would not earn a blue ribbon. Mom said we wouldn’t need a bottle to hold the inverted cake while it cooled. The cake hadn’t risen above the top edge of the pan, so we could just invert it and let it rest on the pan’s legs. The cake successfully came out of the pan in one beautiful piece, but the brown edges were a telltale sign of a too warm oven.

Aesthetics aside, it tasted wonderful. My family gratefully accepted their slices topped with fresh berries and whipped cream, and bless their hearts, did not make one comment about the size, shape or color of my first endeavor.

The takeaway lesson from this challenge is a good reminder for all of us with whatever challenges we face: Follow the recipe! Research what is unknown. Ask for help. If at first you don’t succeed… make another one. Your efforts will make family and friends happy.

Heavenly Angel Food Cake


Heavenly Angel Food Cake recipe. Photo credit: Anita McVey

  • 1 1⁄2 cups powdered sugar
  • 1 cup cake flour
  • 1 1⁄2 cups egg whites (about 12)
  • 1 1⁄2 teaspoons cream of tartar
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 1⁄2 teaspoons vanilla
  • 1⁄2 teaspoon almond extract
  • 1⁄4 teaspoon salt

Move oven rack to lowest position. Heat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.

Mix powdered sugar and flour; set aside. Beat egg whites and cream of tartar in large bowl with electric mixer on medium speed until foamy. Beat in granulated sugar, 2 tablespoons at a time, on high speed, adding vanilla, almond extract and salt with the last addition of sugar. Continue beating until stiff and glossy meringue forms. Do not under beat.

Sprinkle sugar-flour mixture, 1/4 cup at a time, over meringue, folding in just until sugar-flour mixture disappears. Push batter into a 10x4 ungreased angel food cake pan (tube pan). Cut gently through batter with metal spatula.

Bake 30 to 35 minutes or until cracks feel dry and top springs back when lightly touched. Immediately turn pan upside down onto heatproof funnel or bottle. Let hang about 2 hours or until cake is completely cool. Loosen side of cake with knife or long, metal spatula; remove from pan.

Each angel food cake requires the whites of a dozen eggs for its signature light and fluffy texture. The Iowa egg industry produces enough eggs to make 1.33 billion angel food cakes each year.

That’s a lot of angel food cakes! Talk about divine!

A special thank you to the 4-H coordinators of Buena Vista, Franklin and Hamilton counties for their help during my visits and to the 4-H members for their willingness to challenge themselves.