America’s not the only one with a birthday today. Twenty-nine years ago, my parents hurriedly left their town’s Independence Day parade after my mom went into labor with me. (I like to think they were given a police escort to drive through the parade route, but the truth is they probably just took backroads. The story of my birth is much more dramatic in my head.)
Growing up, it was tough sharing a birthday with America. (Isn’t it amazing what you consider “tough” as a kid?) School was always out for the summer by then, so I never got to bring cupcakes to my classroom or walk down the halls getting wished a happy birthday by my classmates. Most people are on vacation or had plans with their families on the Fourth of July, so my celebration was dictated more by the holiday than the birthday. (I’ve run into many holiday birthday-ers who shared similar childhood experiences. There are dozens of us out there, walking amongst you right now.)
We were one of those families who took advantage of the day off from school and work and turned the holiday into a convenient family reunion. So every year my family travels up to Ogunquit, Maine. We hold a family talent show, in which I’m the resident juggler. (The youngest of my cousins is now well into her twenties, but the show just gets more fun every year—especially now that everyone’s of drinking age.) We then walk the length of the Marginal Way, a cliff walk along the water, and come back to my relatives’ house for a big meal.
We do all of these things because it’s a holiday, not because it’s my birthday. So even though I’m not really the center-of-attention type, I do always look forward to the one activity that is purely celebratory of my birthday and not of the day on which it falls. And that activity is eating dessert! Every year, my mom has made me the same birthday dessert from the tattered pages of her copy of “Joy of Cooking”: an angel food cake topped with a pile of whipped cream and fresh strawberries. I’m not sure why that became the cake of choice—most people save angel food cake for Passover and serve up birthday cakes that are fudgy, sweet and dripping with frosting. But my mom started this tradition long before I was even old enough to choose a favorite, and it’s stuck ever since. Turns out light, airy angel food cake is a great thing to eat on your summer birthday. And on the Fourth of July. In that order.
Angel Food Cake
From “Joy of Cooking”
1½ cups sifted cake flour
1 1/8 cups sugar
¾ teaspoon salt
18 cold egg whites
1½ tablespoons water
1½ tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1½ teaspoons cream of tartar
¾ teaspoon vanilla
¾ teaspoon almond extract
1 1/8 cups sugar
1. Preheat oven to 350. Sift together flour, 1 1/8 cup sugar and salt, three times.
2. In a large bowl, beat the egg white mixture on low for 1 minute. Increase the mixture speed to medium (not high) and beat until the mixture increases in volume 4½ to 5 times and resembles a bowl of slightly translucent soft foam composed of tiny bubbles. (This takes anywhere from 1½ to 3 minutes.) The foam will hold a very soft, moist shape when the beaters are lifted. Add vanilla and almond extract. Then beat in gradually (on medium speed) 1 1/8 cups sugar, 1 tablespoon at a time, taking 2 to 3 minutes.
3. When all the sugar has been added, the foam will be creamy white and hold soft, moist, glossy peaks that bend over at the points; do not beat until stiff. If the mixer bowl is nearly full, transfer the mixture to a wide 4- to 6-quart bowl for easier folding. Sift a fine layer of the flour mixture (about 1/8 of the total) evenly over the surface of the batter and fold gently with a rubber spatula only until the flour is almost incorporated. Do not stir or mix. Repeat seven more times, folding in the last addition until no traces of flour are visible. Pour the batter into the ungreased pan and tilt or spread to level the top. Bake until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, 35 to 40 minutes. Let cool upside down for at least 1½ hours, setting the tube over a bottleneck or resting the pan on four glasses.
4. To unmold, slide a thin knife around the cake to detach it from the pan, pressing the knife against the pan to avoid tearing the cake. Using the same procedure, detach the cake from the tube. If the pan has a removable bottom, pull the tube upward to lift the cake from the side. If the pan does not have a removable bottom, invert and tap the pan against the counter to loosen the cake. Allow the cake to drop onto your hand, rack or a serving platter. Let cool right-side up on a rack. Let cake cool completely before frosting.
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