When my grandfather realized, just a few weeks after his wedding, that his new bride didn’t know how to cook, he sent her to cooking school (my grandmother had been too busy studying law). That school was the Antoinette Pope School in Chicago, where my bookish grandmother learned the base skills that would one day turn her into a kitchen maestro. This cake is a slight variation on the recipe she learned then, and made probably hundreds of times thereafter:
4.5 ounces (1 cup) cake flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 3/4 cups (12 large) egg whites, at room temperature
1 1/2 teaspoons cream of tartar
10.5 ounces (1 1/2 cups) sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon extract of your choice: lemon, almond, orange, etc.. or citrus zest (2 tsp.)
Preheat your oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Whisk together the flour and the salt. In the bowl of a mixer fitted with the whip, whip the egg whites on medium-high until they’re foamy, then add the cream of tartar. Continue to whip the whites to soft peaks, then steadily add the sugar and lastly the extracts, whipping to just shy of stiff peaks.
Remove the bowl from the mixer and sift about a third of the flour mixture into the bowl. Fold it in gently, add another 1/3 of the flour, fold, etc. until all the flour is incorporated.
Scrape the batter into a tube pan (bottomless or if not, lined on the bottom with parchment paper). Tap the pan on the counter and/or gently run a fork through the center of the batter to allow any large air bubbles to escape. Bake about 40 minutes until the cake is golden a springs back lightly when it’s pressed.
Invert the pan and allow it to cool, upside-down, completely. To de-pan, run a knife around the edges of the pan and around the tube to release it. The cake is best the day it’s made.