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Baking With Altitude
by Elliot Essman
Waking up in a cold sweat one night, I realized I'd had another one of those culinary nightmares. No, this one was worse than that nightmare about the avocados that were ripening at different rates, thus dooming my guacamole. The dream went back to the mid-1940's, to the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, New Mexico, a few hours from my present home in Albuquerque. Scientist after scientist assured me that I couldn't bake a proper cake at such an altitude. "You had better settle for something easy like a quick-bread," they told me, "or cookies."

"If you can split the atom," I countered, "you bet I can make a cake no matter what the altitude."

"You can't repeal the laws of physics," one of them quipped.

"You people certainly plan on doing it," I countered.

They sneered, made some comments in an unintelligible foreign language, then went back to their research.

To make a successful cake at high altitude, you don't need scientists, but you do need to understand some science. When heat is applied to a leavening agent like baking powder, it generates carbon dioxide gas that causes the cake to rise. At higher altitudes, because of the lower air pressure, your cake will tend to rise too much. So we reduce the leavening agent by an eighth at 5000 feet, by a quarter at 7000 feet. We also slightly increase the amount of flour the agent has to leaven, just to give it more work; add three-quarter tablespoons per cup of flour at 5000 feet, a full tablespoon at 7000 feet. Decrease sugar by one to two tablespoons at 5000 feet, two to three tablespoons at 7000 feet. Also, to compensate for the lower atmospheric pressure, we need to add about 25 degrees more heat.

Because water turns to steam at a lower temperature at altitude, we tend to run out of it before the cake is finished baking. The steam reacts with the flour in our recipe to generate the cake's gluten structure, which helps the cake stay up once it rises. So we must add liquid. Increase liquid two to three tablespoons per cup in the recipe at 5000 feet, three to four tablespoons at 7000 feet. In egg-based cakes such as sponge cakes, the eggs provide much of the liquid. It's tough to add an extra quarter of an egg, but you can always add either a yolk or a white, depending on your attitude toward fat. I'm a yolk man myself and enjoy the extra richness. You can also try using extra large eggs to benefit from their additional liquid.

Butter-based cakes have a better reputation for success at high altitude than do egg-based sponge cakes. For that matter, they're probably easier to make at sea level as well. When you whip air into eggs, you simply add another variable to the already complicated physics of cake rising. But a good sponge cake, airy and evanescent, is enough to make your spirit soar to altitudes out of the scope of breathing, much less baking.

As you may well be telling yourself, you've done all the above and still your cakes don't work. It could be your oven. It could be your own cooking habits, or the ingredients you use. If your cake has a sunken center, it may indicate you're using too much sugar, too much baking powder, too little heat, or too short a cooking time. A charred or sticky cake top usually indicates too much sugar. If your cake arrives with too high a peak or dome, you may have over-baked. The peaking may also be caused by too much gluten development, say if you used all-purpose flour instead of softer cake flour (try mixing the two). If your cake ends up with too close a texture, or too chewy and not cake-like enough, you may have over-compensated for the altitude.

Finally, watch your ingredients. Fresh eggs contain more water than stale eggs. When an egg floats when submerged in water, it means it's filled with air and is stale, losing both water content and flavor. Eggs are cheap; buy new. Baking powder becomes ineffective quite easily. Try pouring a quarter cup of hot water over a half teaspoon of your baking powder. If it doesn't bubble impressively, it's stale. Use cake flour by all means, but avoid self-rising cake flour, since this contains you-don't-know-what amount of leavening agent of you-don't-know-what potency. Sift your flour and other dry ingredients like cocoa for more precise measurement and better results.

Ultimately, successful cake baking at any altitude depends on knowing your oven, on keeping your ingredients fresh, and on mastering some seventh grade science. Respect the fact that the laws of physics, at least as they relate to baking, cannot be repealed. Before art, skill, intuition, or "feel," baking is always science. As to the Los Alamos physicists back in my dream, they never did get around to developing atomic power. It seems that one of them accidentally bit into a locally grown habaņero pepper and realized instantly that a more powerful energy source was at hand. Top -- Food Articles Home

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