Sunday, August 29, 2010

Pound Cake, Take I

The first cake I ever baked at 7,000 feet was a pound cake that my grandmother used to make. Simple. Basic. Disastrous. It was an overly sweet, heavy mess. I never baked another one ‘til now. This morning, I decided to begin my adventures in high altitude baking by returning to the pound cake.

NOTE: I have decided that I will always make a sea level recipe as it is written first, without changing anything, to give me a “control” cake. Then I can experiment with variables later in further attempts.

One of the challenges of this whole enterprise is that I have no standing mixer. I’m fairly certain that the sheer volume as well as the weight of pound cake batter would be better served by a stand mixer than by a hand one, but that experiment will have to wait a while. The recipe is as follows:

1 pound butter, softened
6 eggs, room temperature
3 cups sugar
4 cups cake flour
¾ cups milk
1 t vanilla
1 t almond extract

1.     Cream butter and sugar until fluffy.
2.     Add eggs one at a time.
3.     Add flour, alternating with milk
4.     Add flavorings

Bake at 300F for one hour or until done. This can be made in one or two Bundt pans, or loaf pans.

I followed this recipe to the letter and put the cake in the oven. One hour later, it was nowhere near done. Another half hour and still going. Finally after one hour and fifty minutes, I pulled it out of the oven.

I let it rest for 7 minutes before attempting to unmold it. Of course half of it stuck to the pan, despite my furious pounding on the bottom of the pan with a sturdy wooden spoon. ARGH!!!!! That’s so annoying! I feel I am to blame, though, not the cake. I have recently learned (thanks to my sister and my brother-in-law) that a rubber mallet is essential kitchen equipment for unmolding recalcitrant cakes. You flip the pan over on the cooling rack and then beat on the bottom of the pan with a rubber mallet. Don’t be tentative and girly with it; you have to really MEAN it. If you do this with proper conviction and vigor it works like a charm. Unfortunately, I could not find my rubber mallet and so improvised, and I think I lacked real commitment because I didn’t want to break my good spoon.

Anyway, the flavor of the cake is good but the texture, while not terrible, is a little on the heavy side. Next time, I am going to increase the oven temperature and see if that helps. Also, it might just not be possible to make this without a standing mixer because they’re so much more powerful and incorporate so much more air. I’ll have to test that too. 

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Baking With Altitude

For those of us who began our baking life at sea level, attempting our favorite recipes at high altitudes is generally a rude awakening. Recipes that usually turn out light and fluffy are like lead. Cookies spread out across the pan and a mildly sweet cake can taste as overly sugary as a spoonful of straight Karo syrup. Baked goods of all kinds have an incredibly annoying tendency to turn out dry, coarse, and generally unappetizing.

Baking is essentially chemistry. Certain ingredients must be combined in very precise ways and then subjected to very specific amounts of heat in order to render the desired result. It is, in many ways, a science, and it is not forgiving. Add too much of X ingredient to a stir-fry, and you can easily correct it. Add too much of X ingredient to a soufflĂ©, and you’re doomed. There are very specific reasons that baking at high altitude is difficult (more on this later) but though the problems are identifiable, the exact solutions are not. They vary too much with the recipe, the precise elevation and even the weather.

Plenty of excellent cookbooks (see sidebar) provide tested recipes for baking at higher elevations. There are also any number of suggestions for how to adjust sea-level recipes, but I have never found any of these satisfying or especially useful. When I want to make my grandmother’s favorite Christmas cookies I want to use HER recipe, not a similar one adapted to altitude. And when I see a great cake recipe in a magazine (most magazine recipes are created for sea level baking), I want to try it, not find something vaguely like it adjusted for altitude in a special cookbook.

Mostly, though, what I find I lack is any way to systematically discover HOW to modify recipes. I know there are a few tricks and things you can try, but almost every book/blog/magazine says you have to just test a recipe multiple times in order to get it right. So I have decided to do just that. I intend to just start baking. And I’ll do each recipe again and again until I get it right. What I want, ultimately, is the final result of a perfect cake or cookie, but what I’m after in the interim is a way to assess the problem, so I can extrapolate from one recipe to another and not be constantly floundering.

I lived at near-sea level (Florida, New York City, Washingotn, DC, Seattle) all my life until four years ago when I found myself 7,000 feet up in Santa Fe, New Mexico. It’s high, it’s dry, and it’s not an easy place to make a pound cake. There are some excellent bakeries in town and I have come to rely on them if I need a dessert for a special occasion. This being the case, I know that it IS possible to bake very successfully at altitude. People have been doing it for generations – hundreds of generations in the case of the Native Americans – but the most successful bakers I know grew up here or use only recipes that have been formulated for high altitude. And getting treats from a bakery, no matter how delicious, is just never the same as baking something yourself. Baking and cooking are acts of time and attention and care, and nothing makes me happier than sharing that with the people I love. I miss that and I want to bring it back to my life. So herewith, this blog, in which I plan to document my trials and tribulations with my oven and hopefully gain and share some useful knowledge.