We've given you an array of sweet treats for Valentine's Day. There has been rich, creamy crème brûlée, inventive chocolates, and a whipped parfait of blood orange curd. Here's one last treat: Airy, barely-there angel food cakelets that practically melt in your mouth, topped with a puff of meringue icing colored pink without a single drop of food dye.
I had high hopes of bringing you a full-on all-natural red velvet cupcake for Valentine's this year. I experimented all weekend with beet powder, a magenta fairy dust of all-natural color. But my efforts turned out too, well, beety. And not in a nice way; there was an unpleasant earthiness with a bitter aftertaste in all of my baking experiments.
So I turned back to one of my original ideas: Angel food cupcakes. I did try dying these with beet powder, but again — beety taste. No go. But alone, angel food cake is a true simple pleasure. If you have only had those styrofoam approximations of angel food cake from the grocery, dry and gritty in the mouth, then try again with a homemade recipe. You don't even need a tube pan; these bake up in cupcake form.
Angel food cake is extremely delicate; its airy sponge melts in the mouth and tastes pleasantly of fresh eggs, vanilla, and a touch of sugar. So you don't want to top it with much; it would be crushed under a thick layer of buttercream.
Here I turned again to egg whites and whipped up a simple meringue. Its creamy airiness matches the delicate crumb of the cupcake, and together they make a remarkably light yet satisfying dessert. There isn't a scrap of fat to be found in these, but no one will mind.
I also found, at last, a use for all that beet powder. A single teaspoon in this icing turns it a lovely shade of pink, speckled just a bit. It's completely natural, a little earthy in taste, but not terribly so. In fact, I loved the taste. A teaspoon of beet powder, it turns out, is just enough.
For a final touch, a note of toasty marshmallow, I toasted the tops of some of the cupcakes with my kitchen torch. It gives a slightly burnt taste and balances all that sweetness!
Airy Angel Food Cupcakes
makes between 12 and 15 cupcakes
1/2 cup confectioners sugar 2/3 cup cake flour, sifted 1/4 teaspoon salt 8 egg whites from large egg whites, at room temperature 1/4 cup water 1 teaspoon vanilla extract 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar 1/2 cup granulated sugar
Heat the oven to 325°F. Lightly grease a muffin pan with baking spray. (You can bake these in paper muffin cups, as I did, but be aware that they will stick to the paper cups. For a cleaner look, bake in a nonstick muffin pan.) In a medium bowl whisk together the confectioner's sugar, cake flour, and salt.
In the bowl of a stand mixer mix the egg whites, water, vanilla extract, and cream of tartar. (You can also do this in a large bowl, using a hand mixer.) Mix on low speed until foamy, then turn the speed to medium and begin to add the granulated sugar in 1 tablespoon increments. Add the sugar very gradually over a period of three to four minutes. When all the sugar has been added, turn the speed to high and beat for an additional three to five minutes, or until the mixture forms medium peaks. Don't beat until the mixture is extremely glossy and stiff; it should be modestly glossy, but the very tips of the peaks formed when you dip your finger in should flop over just a bit.
Add the dry ingredients in two installments. Sift the dry ingredients through a fine mesh strainer, tapping them through and into the egg whites. Fold them in carefully, not overmixing. Fold in the second half of the dry ingredients.
Spoon the batter into the prepared baking pan. Bake for 18 minutes or until the tops are slightly golden. Remove from the oven and let cool completely before removing and icing.
Naturally Pink Meringue Icing
makes enough to frost 12 cupcakes
2 egg whites from large eggs, at room temperature 1 teaspoon vanilla 1/4 cup water 1/2 cup sugar Pinch salt 1 teaspoon beet powder
Place the egg whites with the vanilla in the clean bowl of a stand mixer. Whisk the water and sugar together in a small, high-sided saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat and cook for four to eight minutes, or until the syrup reaches 234°F on a candy thermometer.
While the sugar syrup is boiling, whip the egg whites on low speed until they form foamy peaks. When the syrup has reached the correct temperature, slowly drizzle it into the egg whites, turning the speed to medium-high as you do so. Continue to whip until the egg whites form stiff, glossy peaks.
Beat in the salt and beet powder until the mixture is an even, consistent shade of pink.
Fill a piping bag and frost cupcakes. If desired, toast the top of the meringue with a kitchen torch.