Ryan Summerlin July 27, 2005
Traveling baking teacher Susan Purdy experienced her first culinary disaster when trying to bake a chocolate buttermilk cake in Santa Fe at 7,000 feet. The layers crashed as they cooled, so she scooped up the mess, topped it with whipped cream and served it as a pudding cake. Delicious as the disaster may have tasted, it was quite an embarrassment for a professional baker. She couldn’t teach a class to Santa Fe students with recipes that were faulty. Purdy registered the set back as a challenge. She then dedicated the next five years of her life to researching – and mastering – the complexities of baking at high altitudes. Considering a lot of mountain residents often migrate from lower altitudes, the frustrations Purdy experienced are common among at-home bakers. Grandma’s recipes just aren’t as tasty, cookies bake thin and crispy – and brownies? Forget about it. It’s enough to throw in the oven mitt all together. Purdy has written a cookbook, “Pie In The Sky,” that systematically demystifies baking in the mountains. The book shows how closely related science is to baking. Each recipe includes a chart showing how the ingredients and their ratios change from sea level up to 10,000 feet, and the beginning of each chapter explains why. Purdy did all the research herself, traveling the country, staying at friend’s homes in different altitudes and on different coasts and sometimes trying a recipe 20-30 times before getting it right. “There are some theoretical things that always happen,” Purdy said. “It’s three major things. With a rise in elevation, the less atmospheric pressure, and the lower the boiling point of water. With reduced air pressure, the leavening gases expand more quickly. And the higher the altitude, the faster liquids evaporate.” These three factors are the main reasons bakers should alter recipes for high altitude or use recipes specifically designed for mountain baking. Purdy warns, however, that there’s not one quick fix, but a basic understanding of what happens in the oven when you’re at 3,000 feet and above will lead you to baking tastier treats.
Temperature – a tough factorBecause water boils at a lower temperature, it’s harder to get your oven temperature correct for baking – usually it’s not hot enough. However, raising the heat isn’t always the answer. “Do not raise the temperature,” said Randi Levin, aka The Muffin Lady and author of “Baking at High Altitude.” As opposed to Purdy’s scientific cookbook, Levin of Evergreen has written a very simple one, using a lot of the recipes she found her grandma’s tin box. “The top will become rougher before the center is even done. But if you lower the temperature and cook it longer, it will dry out whatever your baking before it’s finished. Use the temperature the recipe calls for, whether it’s from a book, index card or out of the newspaper.”Purdy said you can lower the temperature, especially with chocolate chip cookies. They will bake slower, she said, and you’ll get a better texture. But the true problem, Purdy said, is most ovens aren’t accurate when it comes to temperature.”My own is 50 degrees off,” Purdy said. “Buy an auxiliary thermometer. There are so may variables at altitude, that’s one you really have to pay attention to.”Purdy also recommends using a tube pan, or bundt pan. The funnel of hot metal in the middle really helps a cake bake evenly, she said.
Loss of liquid a problem for High Country bakersLevin’s biggest baking concern is loss of moisture. She hates a dry muffin. So most of her recipes call for canola oil instead of butter, which she said, will dry muffins right up. Levin’s other moisture trick is to use frozen, not fresh, fruit in muffins because frozen fruit usually has more juice.”I personally think the juice add more fruit flavor, too,” said Levin, who calls her recipe development time play time. “Mixed into the batter, the juice makes the muffin not taste as bland.”Besides a dry, bland treat, there’s something else going on when liquid evaporates faster in the high altitude. According to Purdy’s “Pie in the Sky,” as liquid evaporates it is leaving high concentrations of other ingredients, like sugar and fat, which will throw off most batters.”Sugar is there for flavor and taste,” Purdy said, “But it also has the ability to weaken the gluten in flour.”Weak batter can cause a cake to fall or brownies not to set or for cookies to thin as they bake and become crisp. One of Levin’s first baking disasters was when she moved from Philadelphia to Denver. Her baking reputation preceding her, Levin was asked to make chocolate chip cookies instead of paying rent.”The first batch I made in Denver looked like lace cookies with little, itty bitty chocolate mounds sticking out. That’s when I figured it out,” Levin said.
Common solutions to strengthen batter – especially useful if you’re trying to adjust a recipe in general for high altitude – is to cut the sugar, add a little flour, being careful not to make it too dry, add an egg for protein, which strengthens batter, or cut the fat, which, like sugar, can weaken the gluten in wheat four. Purdy also suggests reducing the leavening – baking soda and powder.Altitude working in your favor – kind ofPurdy’s leavening rule of thumb is less is more. The lower air pressure at high altitudes allows leavening gases to expand so quickly that they can push the batter to rise before it has tie to set, which results in something similar to a High Country cliff drop when the batter cools. Ingredients that work as leaveners are baking soda, baking powder and yeast.”The higher I went the less baking soda I used,” Purdy said. “Cut the leavening back, cut the yeast and let the atmosphere work for you.” Experience the true baking tool
Mary Lou Croisant of Eagle, who owns 300 cookbooks, has been baking for over 60 years and runs the Eagle Flight Days Bake-off each year, said she remember having too many problems in her baking when moving from Illinois to Denver to Eagle.”I learned by trial and error. I bake an awful lot,” Croisant said. “Short the sugar, increase the flour, increase the liquids. It varies a lot with what you are making.”Experience is Croisant’s baking tool, who during an average morning can have made an angel food cake, half dozen pecan rolls and a batch of cookies by 6 a.m. As opposed to Purdy and Levin, Croisant said you can increase your oven temperature. She’s learned to leave cakes in the oven for longer or they’ll sink. And it really depends, she said, on what type of dish you’re using.”I rarely bake in a glass dish, unless I’m baking a pie,” Croisant said. “I have a cake pan that I got for my wedding in 1950 that I’m still using. It’s old aluminum, not that tinny junk you have today.”Besides experience, Croisant’s other baking secret is good old fashion love for the trade.”I’m not an artsy crafty person, I’m absolutely no good at it. Baking I am good at it, and I enjoy it. And that makes a difference too. It’s not working for me. It’s a choice of what you’re good at and what you’re not.”
Where to buy”Baking at High Altitude,” by Randi Levin: e-mail email@example.com or contact local bookstores Verbatim Booksellers at 476-3032 or The Bookworm in Edwards at 926-7323.”Pie in the Sky” by Susan Purdy: contact local bookstores Verbatim Booksellers at 476-3032 or The Bookworm in Edwards at 926-7323.Arts and Entertainment Editor Cassie Pence can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 618, or firstname.lastname@example.org.Vail, Colorado