When the cookie crumbles | VailDaily.com

When the cookie crumbles

Caramie Schnell
Special to The Vail TrailBaking in the high country doesn't have to spell disaster.

Week after week e-mails detailing cooking disasters show up in Vera Dawson’s inbox. Around the holidays the five or six she’s used to in any given week double, sometimes even triple, as people spend more time in the kitchen, elbow deep in dough. Each person usually pleads for Dawson’s help ” “my chocolate chip cookies are flat and dry;” or “I plugged in my sea-level recipe and it’s a disaster. I’m supposed to make it tomorrow ” help!”

“I got an e-mail from a man saying ‘please send a recipe to my wife, she cries every time she makes this holiday pie … there are tears in the house just when it’s supposed to be joyous,'” Dawson said.

Despite the exploded cakes and crusty cookies, there’s hope, said Dawson, a Frisco resident who’s spent nearly 20 years baking. She learned to bake while living in Virginia and California ” essentially at sea-level ” “then I had to find out what worked at 9,000 feet,” she said.

“I can remember having a lot of trouble with cakes and some pies ” anything syrupy would explode in the oven. And drop cookies, like chocolate chip cookies, get really dry up here,” Dawson said.

Kate Davis, a breadmaker at Larkspur Restaurant in Vail, concurs ” baking in the mountains is an adventure, she said. The Pennsylvania native moved to Vail last December and started baking bread this past summer.

“Absolutely, I’ve had disasters. Sometimes it’s a simple thing, like adding too much yeast and it comes out of the bucket it’s in,” Davis said.

One morning Davis went to check on a batch of pizza dough after she let it rise for an hour.

“It was rock hard,” she said, laughing. “I couldn’t even form it into a ball. I had to start all over again.”

The baking rules Davis was used to back home don’t apply here, she said.

“Dough that should rise in three hours takes three-and-a-half, even four hours to rise,” she said. “And it’s more than just reading a textbook ” it’s working it out,” experimenting with recipes until they work, Davis said.

Don’t let the stories frighten you, though. Baking at altitude isn’t impossible, it just demands a little finesse. Dawson writes a twice-monthly baking column for the Summit Daily News and the Vail Daily sharing her reworked sea-level recipes for things like “caramel chiffon tart” and “java cake remake.”

Dawson bakes nearly every day, tweaking recipes like pecan pie to ensure it doesn’t boil over the pie pan and onto the oven. (The secret, Dawson reveals, is to boil the filling on the stove so some of the liquid evaporates before pouring it into the pie crust.) Atmospheric pressure is lower at altitudes above 3,000 feet and drops the higher the elevation. The air is also less humid here than many sea-level locations.

Because of this there are three main things to consider when cooking at altitude, Dawson said.

“The bottom line for baking is the leavening agent (baking powder or soda) expands and liquids evaporate. That’s why a cake will pop, go way up in the air and collapse.” Water also boils at a lower temperature, which “throws everything off,” Dawson said.

“I’ve had more people say ‘I put a roast in an oven with red wine and the wine evaporated but the roast wasn’t done yet.'”

When Dawson first tackles a recipe there are two things she does immediately: “I decrease the leavening and increase the flour. Those are the first two basic steps.”

Dawson usually cuts the baking powder or soda in half if she’s making a cake and by one fourth if she’s baking cookies.

“I also increase the liquid slightly and decrease the sugar a little bit because sugar expands as it melts and that makes it hard for a cake to set. I might even add a bit of an egg, and I usually increase the oven temperature a little bit because I want the cake to set and I don’t want it to collapse when I take it out.”

Dawson almost always slightly increases the amount of flour a recipe calls for ” “If the recipe calls for two cups, I’ll try two cups and three tablespoons.”

If there’s any one word to describe the process of adapting a recipe it’s experiment, Dawson said.

“I guess my advice would be to relax, enjoy it and plan to experiment because very few things will be the same as they were when you baked them somewhere else,” she said. “Baking is supposed to be fun anyway, so don’t get frustrated, don’t get discouraged ” it will come in time.”

>> See baking tip sidebar below

– Be patient when cooking in water.

This means your three-minute egg will take at least four minutes and your pasta, rice and fresh or frozen vegetables will require more time to cook than the cookbook says.

– Keep it moist.

Evaporation is more rapid, so add more water to your oatmeal, more wine to your stew and more broth to your vegetables.

– Give baked meats and veggies more time.

Baked potatoes, casseroles and roasted meats will need more time in the oven. A large braised dish, such as a pot roast or a meat stew, often will need an additional 30 minutes to an hour in the oven at an altitude of 9,000 feet. Allow for a lot of extra time and check frequently for doneness.

– Put dried beans under pressure.

Because of the lower boiling point for water, it is just about impossible to get dried beans cooked the way you want with methods you use at sea level. They do well, however, when cooked in a pressure cooker, following the directions that accompany the cooker.

– Rising bread doughs need a few tweaks.

Start by reducing the amount of yeast in your recipe by about 25 percent. Then, because flour tends to be drier at our altitude, either reduce the amount of flour or increase the amount of liquid to get the dough to the consistency you want. Because the dough rises so much faster in the High Country’s low-pressure atmosphere and flavor is developed during the rise, the dough will need more time to develop maximum flavor. So, either give the dough an additional rise by punching it down an extra time before forming it or cover the dough and refrigerate it for its first rise, which will slow down the yeast action.

– Keep it cooler when deep-fat frying.

Lower the frying temperature about 3 degrees for every 1,000-foot increase in elevation. If you don’t, there is a good chance the food being fried will be overcooked on the outside and undercooked on the inside.

– Put an end to dry cookies and tough crusts.

Because of the dryness at altitude, additional liquid is often needed for drop cookies, tarts and pie crusts to come together.

– Candies and jellies need a temperature adjustment.

Reduce the final cooking temperature by about two degrees for every 1,000 feet of elevation above sea level. If you are using a candy thermometer, place it in boiling water and note the temperature at which water boils. Subtract this from 212 (the temperature at which water boils at sea level). The resulting number will tell you how many degrees to decrease the final cooking temperature for your candy or jelly. For example, if your candy thermometer registers 202 in boiling water, you will subtract 10 degrees from the final cooking temperature suggested in the sea-level recipe.

” Courtesy of Vera Dawson

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