Adventures in High Altitude Baking: Part II
One of the main challenges in the baking of the cupcake wedding cake (as if baking 300 cupcakes in one day wasn’t challenging enough) was the fact that we were doing it at 7,300 feet. And when all the recipes were tested at a measly 600 feet, well, I knew the altitude was going to be an issue. How big of an issue, I wasn’t sure, but I knew some adjustments would need to be made.
So as soon as we got to Colorado (after a long and tiring 20 hour drive with a carload of stuff, a cat, and my mangled laptop that we managed to run over somewhere along the way) we immediately started baking, and didn’t stop for the next week and a half.
Batch #1: I immediately cut the leavening in half. From my previous experiments, I knew this alone would make a huge difference. We also used high altitude flour for all our baking, which (as I just learned), has a higher protein content than regular all-purpose flour. It’s like if all-purpose flour and bread flour had a baby. For baking at high altitude, extra protein is needed as it gives more structure and strength to your cake. Weak batter will rise too quickly in the thin mountain air, and then collapse under it’s own weight. It is for this reason you want to reduce the leavening, even though it may seem counter intuitive. Less leavening causes the batter to rise more slowly, giving it time to build a structure capable of supporting itself. And that’s a good thing.
Another variable to take into consideration is the oven. We figured (since we were baking 300 cupcakes), that using the convection oven would allow us to bake more at once. So for this first batch, we had 3 rows of cupcakes. Turns out the convection oven doesn’t bake quite as evenly as you would think, and the cupcakes on the bottom row developed odd shaped bulges. Mutant cupcakes. Not pretty, even with frosting. So we scrapped that idea, adjusted the racks, and baked two rows at a time from then on.
We took good notes. Very scientific.
Second batch of almond cupcakes, looking pretty as ever. Same adjustments, just baked on two oven levels instead of three.
The lemon cupcakes went so smoothly we only had to bake 6 of them. We made the exact same adjustments here, cutting the leavening (baking powder and baking soda) in half and using high altitude flour.
When we got to the Mexican Hot Chocolate cupcakes, however, it was a completely different story. Our first batch didn’t rise enough. Our second batch rose too quickly and then sunk. But the third batch, well, the third batch turned out just right.
Contrary to this image, they actually rose nicely. These pretty green cupcake cups are significantly taller than the white ones. Pay attention to the beautiful domes on these, and just ignore the cracks (there’s always something about this recipe…) This batch was the clear winner, so we recorded the adjustments and moved on with other wedding endeavors. Funny thing is, we made the same exact adjustments on the actual wedding cupcakes, and they came out more like the previous two batches. Sink, sank, sunk. Maybe it was just a fluke, and this batch got lucky. Good thing for us that slightly sunken cupcakes can easily be disguised by more frosting. No one even noticed. Sneaky sneaky.
The final (albeit probably arbitrary) adjustments we made for the Hot Chocolate Cupcakes included cutting the leavening in half, adding 1 teaspoon of vinegar, adding 1 tablespoon of flour, and subtracting 1 tablespoon of sugar. Whether it actually did anything or not I can’t say. But they sure tasted good.
Conclusion? Cupcakes are probably a pretty safe bet for high altitude baking, for the simple reason I mentioned above: sunken cupcakes mean more frosting, and that’s never a bad thing.
So if you are one of the lucky few to live with your head in the clouds and looking for some fail-safe high altitude baking tricks, I don’t have them for you. But, I’d suggest first simply cutting the leavening in your recipes (for us, at 7,300 feet, half seemed to do the trick, but you should adjust accordingly depending on just how high you are). You might get lucky. If that doesn’t work, well, make some extra frosting, and no one will ever know the difference.
And, in case you were wondering, I’ve got myself a pretty new laptop, you know, to replace the one we RAN OVER WITH OUR CAR. Oy.