Why does high altitude affect baking?


Image courtesy of Mathanki Kodavasal at flickr.com

You have read in my past baking tips posts my hints for high altitude baking. I mention the lower air pressure and low humidity levels, but I don’t dig into the explanations. For science nerds, I will delve a little deeper. For non-scientists, my explanations are short enough – grab a cookie; it will be over soon.

The lower atmospheric pressure makes a noticeable affect in baked goods. “Leavening agents such as yeast, baking powder or baking soda will have more rising power. That’s because the thinner air offers less resistance to the gases created by the leavening agent. Therefore, you should use less leavening (about 20 percent less at 5,000 feet) as your elevation increases.” If you use sea level amounts of leavening agents they will create more gasses, expanding and rising more quickly. It sounds good until you look in the oven and watch your gorgeous creation rise too fast and then fall, to ultimately suffer with the dreaded sinkhole.

Another consideration for high altitude bakers is that “above 2,500 feet, the atmosphere becomes much drier. The air has less oxygen. … Moisture quickly evaporates from everything.” The problem arises when moisture loss is not accounted for when baking at altitude, so liquids are added to recipes to counter this. Another thing to keep in mind is that all high altitude areas are not created equal. I baked in New Mexico, an area with extremely low moisture in the air. Moving to Colorado, where the air has a slightly higher moisture content, improved not only the texture of my skin but that of my baked goods, too.

A high altitude change that affects cooking more than baking is that water boils at a lower temperature. “As the altitude increases, the atmospheric pressure pushing down on water decreases, which allows the water to boil at lower temperatures. A lower boiling point means that food cooks at a lower temperature, despite the fact that the water is boiling.” When food cooks at a lower temperature in water it takes longer thus requiring lots of patience to boil potatoes. Bakers will feel it most when they are cooking above water, such as when melting delicate ingredients like chocolate.

Now that you have been armed with the scientific knowledge behind some high altitude baking alterations, you can see why changing recipes at altitude is so crucial. You can also gain insight as to why it can take six tries to perfect a high altitude recipe. At least you can enjoy eating the trial batches – we do!

Chocolate Chip Blondies

chocolate chip blondiesWhen I first started my baking blog I decided to go easy on myself. This recipe was given to me at a high altitude baking class I attended when I first moved to Santa Fe. It was already adapted for high altitude, it just needed to be veganized.

First, I substituted vegan margarine for butter. Then I swapped bananas for eggs. While I was changing the recipe, I made it healthier by using whole wheat flour in place of some of the white flour. I also added extra chocolate chips because, well, you can never have too much chocolate.

These bar cookies turned out perfect on the first try! They were moist and dense, but still slightly crumbly. Years later, while adjusting the recipe to the lower altitude of 5000 feet, I decided to try some other tricks I learned. Let me just say that many attempts were made and many sub-par blondies were eaten until I decided to go back to the one I had made before. Here is that recipe that had worked out so well.

Chocolate Chip Blondies
1/2 cup vegan margarine
1 cup organic sugar
1/3 cup light brown sugar
2 TBS vanilla soy yogurt
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 cup mashed ripe bananas
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup whole wheat flour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
6 oz chocolate chips
Heat oven to 350F. Grease a 9 x 13″ metal pan. Cream margarine and sugars. Add yogurt, vanilla and bananas. Mix well. Sift together flours, baking powder and salt. Mix half of the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients. Mix in other half of dry ingredients. Stir in chocolate chips. Spread mixture into the prepared pan. Bake 32-35 minutes. Cool and cut into bars.

Until next time, happy baking!

How to Measure Ingredients for Baking

How to Measuring Ingredients

Image Courtesy of Didriks at flickr.com

In baking, accurate measuring is crucial. I often add a tablespoon or two of flour for high-altitude baking, but if you get a few extra spoonfuls of flour it can result in a tough baked good. So, how do you ensure that your measurements are accurate?

It helps to know how the recipe writer measures. For dry measuring, I spoon the ingredient into the cup and then swipe across it with the flat edge of a knife. I have seen recipes that call for dipping into the container and then swiping. Both methods can be used, but they lead to differences in measurement. It’s best to measure how the writer did.

An interview with baking guru Dorie Greenspan included the following dialogue:
“(Interviewer) You can get into a 1-cup measuring cup anything from 3 ounces to 6 ounces of flour, depending on how you actually measure. What are different ways that you measure with those dry measuring cups?
DG: There are two schools of dry measuring. School one is the spoon-and-sweep method. …You lightly spoon it into the measuring cup until it’s overflowing, and then you sweep it.
Then there’s the scoop-and-sweep school. That’s the school that I belong to. I have a big bin of flour and I aerate it — I stir it around with a knife or a whisk before I start measuring. Then I scoop my measuring cup into the flour bin, get it until it’s overflowing and then sweep it. There is a difference. … It can be about a quarter of an ounce difference between spoon-and-sweep and scoop-and-sweep.”

Another thing to take into account is when to pack the ingredient into the cup. Packing down flour is never good – it bakes best when light and fluffy. However, cocoa powder can come out of the package in clumps and needs to be packed down to get an accurate fill in the cup. A general rule is if it starts light then don’t pack it down (flour, baking powder, salt, sugar). If it is dense and forms clumps, then pack it in to make sure there are no air holes (cocoa powder, brown sugar, ground flax seeds, sliced dates).

With liquids I always use glass measuring cups. More sage advice from Dorie: “Measuring liquid is an exercise in deep-knee bending. You need to have a see-through measuring cup — I like to use glass. You pour in the liquid, then don’t lift the measuring cup up to eye level. … Bend down so that you’re at eye level with the measurement and see that you’re on the line.”

That takes me back to science class in high school. Remember the meniscus? It curves up at the edges and down in the center so be sure that the curved bottom of the meniscus is in line with the desired measurement on your liquid measuring cup.

Enough science. I need a cookie.

Audrey’s Naked Chocolate Cake

Audrey's Naked Chocolate CakeThis baking experience began as a friend’s Facebook post. She showed a photo of a Naked Chocolate Cake and I took that as a challenge to make it high altitude and vegan. I enjoy a challenge, and it looked yummy. Also, I had some new cake pans that I needed to test.

To make the cake at altitude, I added flour and milk and reduced the baking powder. To take into account the short, layer-cake pans, I sliced the strawberries so they wouldn’t topple the cake. I baked at a lower temperature for a shorter time. And, with the small layers, I tried one to see if the cake came out. This will make four layers, or three layers and a snack.

The original recipe called for homemade whipped cream. I couldn’t achieve a thick enough cream to hold up the cake without using coconut cream, which I don’t like, so I used the vegan stuff in a can. I made up for it by making my own chocolate syrup. Feel free to use store-bought syrup, or you can make your own, too.

Audrey’s Naked Chocolate Cake adapted from The Food Network
1/2 cup coconut oil, melted
1/2 cup dark brown sugar
1/4 cup unsweetened applesauce
3/4 cup vanilla soy yogurt
2 tsp vanilla extract
1 cup + 1 TBS whole wheat flour
1 cup + 1 TBS all-purpose flour
1 3/4 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp sea salt
1/2 cup cocoa powder
3/4 cup + 1 TBS soy milk
1 cup chopped semisweet chocolate
1/2 pint fresh strawberries, sliced
1/2 pint fresh blueberries
1/2 pint raspberries
whipped cream
chocolate syrup (recipe to follow)
Preheat oven to 325 F and spray four round, mini layer-cake cake pans. Pour coconut oil into a stand mixer with a paddle attachment. Add in brown sugar, applesauce, yogurt and vanilla extract, and mix until combined. In a separate bowl sift together flours, baking powder, baking soda, salt and cocoa powder.
With mixer on low, slowly add a third of the dry ingredients into the applesauce mixture, alternating with milk. Keep alternating until dry ingredients and milk are gone. Remove bowl from stand mixer and fold in chopped chocolate by hand. Divide batter between cake pans. Bake for 17 to 19 minutes or until an inserted toothpick is removed clean. Cool cakes in pans for 5 minutes then transfer to a wire rack.
To assemble, place a cooled layer of cake on a cake plate and cover in whipped cream and some chocolate syrup. Take fruit and spread it on cake out to the edges. Pay attention to how you place fruit on the edge so it looks nice and doesn’t fall out. Once cake is covered in fruit, place next layer of cake on top. Fill in with whipped cream, chocolate syrup, and fruit. Place final layer of cake on top. Place a mound of whipped cream and fruit on top. Drizzle chocolate sauce over the cake and chill.
Chocolate Syrup
1 cup dates, sliced
2 TBS cocoa powder
Place dates in a bowl with water to cover. Soak for 5 minutes. Put dates and their soaking water in a high speed blender. Add cocoa powder and blend until a syrup forms. Add extra water as needed. You will probably have some leftover, but that’s not a bad thing.

Until next time, happy baking!

How to Read and Write a Recipe

how to read and write a recipe

Image courtesy of Heather aka Molly at flickr.com

During a food writing workshop I attended, I mentioned that recipes drive me crazy when the ingredients aren’t listed in order of use. Despite my explanation the looks I got implied that others thought I was insane. But it makes sense, just hear me out.

First of all, I retrieve the ingredients from throughout my kitchen and place them on the counter in the order listed in the recipe I am following. That way I can ensure I have all the ingredients ready before I start to cook.

Second, I move an ingredient to the side after I’ve used it. If I get interrupted while I am cooking then I don’t have to remember which ingredient I was on. This was the idea that sent withering looks my way, but I have heard another method that’s really odd. The author said she put each ingredient in the bowl in different sections so that she could see each one separately and know if anything was forgotten. Personally I can’t tell baking soda from baking powder when they are placed on top of flour.

Lastly, I have seen recipes that forget to mention an ingredient in the steps leaving the cook to wonder how to combine it with the rest. It’s easier for me to proofread my own recipes when I have listed the ingredients in order of use, and I find it easier for someone to follow a recipe that has been written that way.

I hope you enjoy my methods and that you use the tip mentioned in the second remark. It has saved me on many occasions when the phone rang or my husband really needed me while I was in the middle of creating a masterpiece in the kitchen. It can save your masterpieces, too.

Coffee Shop Coffee Cake

coffee shop coffee cake

So, donuts. I was going to make donuts but I had no luck. I first tried to bake them years ago in the special donut pan I bought for the occasion. They were a dense disaster and I gave away the pan to another sucker. When I recently approached the idea of making donuts I was more optimistic as I had found a recipe for donut holes. Okay, I can do this, I thought. But no, massive failure again. Hence today’s post on coffee cake. I’ll save donuts for another day when the frustration dies down.

I had never made coffee cake before but I figured I’d give it a go. I’d also never baked with gluten-free flour, but I decided to attempt that as well. I’ll just say that gluten-free baking is also something I’ll save for another day. However, the coffee cake was a success and it smelled great while it baked.

For the coffee cake, I based it on several recipes. I used the cake portion of the gluten-free recipe I tried and combined it with different topping and filling ideas. Some changes were to sour the milk with the apple cider vinegar first – this makes a “buttermilk” that works as a leavener in vegan baking. For high altitude I reduced the baking powder and increased the flour. And because I love cinnamon and wanted a delicious filling, I used a smaller cake pan so I could layer cake and filling and then cake and topping.

Coffee Shop Coffee Cake by The Decadent Vegan Baker
1/2 cup organic sugar
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 TBS ground cinnamon
3 TBS vegan margarine, melted
1/2 cup light brown sugar
2 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
3/4 cup + 1 tsp soymilk
1 tsp apple cider vinegar
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/4 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1/3 cup organic sugar
1/4 cup unsweetened applesauce
2 TBS canola oil
1 tsp vanilla extract
Preheat oven to 350°F. Line a 9″ round cake pan with parchment paper and lightly grease the paper. Start the cake by stirring together the milk and vinegar. Let it sit for 10 minutes. Make the topping by whisking together the sugar, flour, and cinnamon. Add the melted margarine and stir with a fork until well combined. Make the filling by mixing together the brown sugar and cinnamon. Finish the cake by sifting together the flour, baking powder and salt. Stir in the sugar. In a mixing bowl, whisk together the soured milk, applesauce, oil and vanilla. Add the flour mixture and mix until combined.
Pour half of the cake batter into the prepared baking pan. Sprinkle the filling evenly over the batter. Spread the remaining batter over the filling. Use a knife to gently swirl the filling through the batter. Crumble the topping over the batter. Bake until it’s dark golden brown around the edges and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, 33-35 minutes. Remove the cake from the oven and let it cool for 15-20 minutes before serving.

Until next time, happy baking!

Date Nut Bread a la The Ranch House

date nut breadI have wanted to bake the Date-Nut Bread from the Ranch House Restaurant in Ojai, CA ever since I first tasted it. At the time I didn’t even like dates, but this quick bread was pretty decadent. Sweet, moist, and great slathered in butter. The cookbook from that restaurant has been collecting dust on my shelf for many years, so it was finally time to conquer it.

The original recipe is neither vegan nor high-altitude and has a few quirky directions. It took me several tries to come up with a bread that not only tasted (and smelled) fantastic but also had the right texture. I did a few basic veganisms – oil for butter and tofu for egg. I added in some whole wheat flour to make it more healthy, while adapting for altitude by using regular baking powder instead of double-acting.

There is one step I didn’t change. It says to line the bread pan with brown paper. Just do it. I was using a non-stick pan so I thought I only needed a light oiling of the pan – it was a bad idea. The bread cooked perfectly except around the outside where it remained gooey and refused to release from the pan. I got smart on the third attempt and used lightly greased parchment paper. Some directions were written to be followed exactly.

Date Nut Bread adapted from Vegetarian Gourmet Cookery by Alan Hooker
5 ounces chopped pitted dates
3/4 cup boiling water
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup whole wheat flour
1 1/4 tsps baking soda
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 cup blended silken tofu
1 1/4 cups vegan sugar
2 1/2 TBS vegetable oil
1/4 cup almond milk
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 cup chopped walnuts
Preheat the oven to 350F. Prepare a mini loaf pan by cutting parchment paper to fit three of the four sections. Lightly brush the pieces of paper with shortening and insert the paper into each of the three sections. The fourth section will not be used.
Put dates in a bowl and pour boiling water over them. Let sit for 10 minutes. Meanwhile, sift together the flours, baking soda, baking powder and salt. Combine the tofu and sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer. Add the dates with their water, oil, milk and vanilla and beat again. Blend in the flour mixture in two batches. Add in the walnuts and mix well.
Divide the batter between the three prepared sections of the loaf pan. Bake for 33-35 minutes, or until the tops rise up and crack a little. Remove loaves from pan and place on a rack to cool.

Until next time, happy baking!