Thanks for the lessons, Tahoe

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This is my final weekend in Tahoe. I am moving back to Seattle this week, and I am so excited about that. I was thinking about what my final post at high altitude should be, and I’ve decided to talk about what I’ve learned. Here are the top five changes I consider when trying to make a recipe work at high altitude:

Reduce the leaveners. Cutting the baking soda or baking powder by about a half teaspoon is one of the most important changes I’ve learned to make. Leaving the full amount in for breads and cakes has caused so many baked goods to rise and fall. By reducing the amount you use, you’ll be giving your recipes a better chance at success.

Add more flour. After having sheets of cookies spread out and end up like one giant cookie instead of a dozen, I learned that the cookies needed more flour to balance the butter. Reducing the baking soda and adding flour helped tremendously.

Add more liquid. Recipes tend to require more liquid at high altitude because things dry out more quickly. For example, the French Onion Soup I made could have used some additional liquid so it was more soupy. Make sure that you use more of a liquid that is already required by the recipe. If it calls for chicken stock, add more chicken stock instead of water. Water will only cut the flavor of anything you add it to.

Use more extract and salt. If a recipe requires extract, use about one-half teaspoon more. If a recipe calls for one-half teaspoon salt, double it. The flavors need a bit more help to shine through at high altitude.

Grease your pans and liners. The first few times I made breads or muffins at high altitude, I couldn’t get them out of the pans and muffin liners. Things really stick at high altitude, so be sure to grease and flour your pans and spray your liners with some kind of cooking spray. Muffins are much more enjoyable when they come out of the wrapper, and breads are much more appealing when they don’t have to be pried out of a bread pan in chunks.

While I’m thankful for the education, I’m also relieved to not have to worry about making changes to every recipe anymore. For those of you who have struggled with baking at high altitude, I hope this helps. I’ll be taking the next two weeks off while I get situated, so look for my next post on March 30.

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Countdown cupcakes suited for a celebration

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Some kind of cake tends to be present at most celebrations. One of my college friends’ families can attest to that. There is always cake to be had when something good happens in their household.

One of my friends had her engagement party yesterday and, as usual, I wanted to bake something for the occasion.

I have struggled with making cakes at high altitude so, instead of taking a chance on a regular recipe and trying to make it work, I turned to the few high-altitude cake recipes that the Joy of Cooking had to offer. I settled on the 1234 cake, which got its name because its formula at sea level calls for 1 cup butter, 2 cups sugar, 3 cups flour and 4 eggs. I call them countdown cupcakes because I always remember the recipe in the reverse order. The recipe below notes the changes for the cake at 7,000 feet.

I’ve previously said that I dislike decorating baked goods, and I hold to that, but I do believe there’s a time and place for it. This was one of those instances. I came up with the frosting I wanted, but wanted to do something appropriate for the celebration. I wanted to work hearts into the decoration, so I used a box cutter to cut a heart out of a piece of parchment paper. I placed the cut-out on each cupcake and used a sieve to sprinkle powdered sugar over it. I was really pleased with the way it turned out. For the mini cupcakes, I cut a smaller heart out of a piece of parchment paper and put the larger piece of paper on each cupcake so it served as a sort of stencil. They were adorable. My friend loved them.

This recipe made 16 full-size cupcakes and 24 mini cupcakes, but could easily be turned into all regular-size cupcakes or all mini cupcakes. For mini cupcakes, bake 8-10 minutes.

With Valentine’s Day less than a week away, I hope you find something delightful to make for your loved ones.

21234cupcakes020914Cupcakes
3 cups plus 1 tablespoon sifted all-purpose flour (add two more tablespoons at 7,000 feet)
2 teaspoons baking powder (1 1/2 at 7,000 feet)
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
2 cups minus 1 tablespoon sugar (subtract 2 tablespoons at 7,000 feet)
2 teaspoons vanilla
5 large eggs
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons buttermilk or heavy whipping cream

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F (350 degrees F between 6,000 and 7,000 feet altitude). Line a muffin tin with paper liners. If at high altitude, spray the liners with a nonstick spray such as Pam.

Whisk flour, baking powder and salt. Set aside.

Combine butter, sugar and vanilla in a large bowl and beat until well blended. Scrape down the bowl and beat for 1 minute. Add three eggs and beat again, scraping down the bowl afterward. Add remaining two eggs and combine until well blended.

Add flour mixture to butter mixture in two parts, alternating with buttermilk. Beat on high speed for about 1 minute, or until batter is smooth and creamy.

Fill each cupcake in the pan three-quarters full of batter. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until lightly browned and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.

Frosting
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
2 1/2 cups powdered sugar
1 tablespoon sour cream
1/4 cup cocoa powder
1 teaspoon orange extract
1 teaspoon salt

Beat butter until creamy. Add powdered sugar, cocoa powder and sour cream and beat until combined. Add extract and salt and frost cupcakes.

Banana pancakes to savor for brunch

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I like to take my time getting up on weekends, when my cat lets me, and making a big breakfast before starting my day. I usually go for omelets or silver dollar pancakes, but sometimes I like to try something new.

I had a couple bananas ripening on my counter last week, but wasn’t in the mood to make banana bread. So I transformed them into these banana pancakes from Williams-Sonoma. Of course, just reading the recipe got Jack Johnson’s “banana pancakes” song stuck in my head, so I had to dig it up to play while I got to work in the kitchen. It set the tone for a lazy Sunday.

These were the best banana pancakes I’ve ever made. They were fluffy and — because I chose not to completely mash the fruit — had tiny chunks of banana in them. I used almond milk because I didn’t have regular milk on hand and it worked surprisingly well.

I cut the recipe in half since I was only cooking for myself and it made six pancakes, so I had them for two breakfasts. They were beyond delicious both times.

So get your Sunday started right by heading to the kitchen and making a batch of these pancakes. You’ll be glad you did.

Ingredients
6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) unsalted butter
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons sugar
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder (use 2 teaspoons if at high altitude)
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 small, very ripe banana, peeled
1 cup milk (almond milk can also be used)
2 eggs
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
Maple syrup for serving
Sliced bananas for serving

Cut the butter into 3 equal pieces. Put 2 of the butter pieces in a small saucepan and set the remaining piece aside. Set the pan over medium heat and stir with a wooden spoon until melted, 1 to 2 minutes. Using a pot holder, remove the pan from the heat and set it aside to cool.

In a bowl, combine the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt. Mix with a fork until well blended.

Put the banana in a small bowl. Mash with a fork until almost smooth. Add the milk, eggs and vanilla and stir with the fork until well blended. Pour the banana mixture and the melted butter into the flour mixture. Mix gently with a rubber spatula until the batter is just blended. The batter should still be a little bit lumpy.

Put a griddle over medium heat until hot. To test if the griddle is hot enough, flick a drop of water onto it. It is ready if the drop dances quickly and evaporates. Put half of the remaining butter onto the griddle and spread it with a metal spatula. Drop the batter by 1/4 cupfuls onto the griddle, spacing them about 3 inches apart.

Cook until a few holes form on top of each pancake and the underside is golden brown, about 2 minutes. Carefully slide the metal spatula under each pancake and turn it over. Cook until the bottom is golden brown and the top is puffed, 1 to 2 minutes more. Using the spatula, transfer the pancakes to a serving plate.

Repeat with the remaining batter. Serve the pancakes while still hot with maple syrup and sliced bananas. Makes 12 4-inch pancakes.

Seasonal cake worth celebrating

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It’s time to jump on the pumpkin bandwagon. Pinterest is exploding with fall recipes and Starbucks has its Pumpkin Spice Latte back in stores. Two occasions at the end of October provided a good reason to bust out my cans of pumpkin puree. The first was my sports editor’s last day. The second is my dad’s birthday, which falls on Halloween.

My sports editor loves pumpkin-flavored things, so the week before she left I started brainstorming about what to make for her. I came across this recipe for pumpkin-spice cake and knew it would fit the bill. The problem was that I hadn’t yet successfully made cupcakes at high altitude. Every time I previously tried, the tops sank in or didn’t rise, or I had to cook them longer to see if they would get there, and then the outside would be overcooked. But, it was about time to give it another go, so I put on my apron and got to it.

I only wanted to make a dozen cupcakes, so I cut the original recipe in half. I made all the alterations based on the adjustments that I’ve learned work at high altitude. I used a bit more flour, less of the leaveners and more salt. It worked. The cupcakes had a beautiful crumb and rose exactly as they should. They are, by far, the best cupcakes I’ve made at high altitude, and definitely make the top five of all time.

Since the cupcakes were such a hit with my staff on my sports editor’s last day on the job, I decided to also use the recipe to make my dad’s birthday cake. A while ago, I saw an idea on Pinterest for a pumpkin cake. Upon closer examination, I realized they used a pumpkin pan, but I decided to play off that creation by making two smaller bundt cakes and turning one on top of the other. It is one of the best cakes I’ve ever made — though, to give credit where it’s due, my best friend came up with the idea on how to create the pumpkin-like ridges in the frosting, and he drew the leaves. Decorating is not my thing, but it can be fun to learn a trick or two.

This dessert has a double dose of pumpkin, as both the cake and frosting contain it. But it isn’t overwhelming, and neither are the spices in the cake. The flavor is balanced, which is why I enjoyed them so much.

I’ve provided the cupcake recipe at high altitude and the cake recipe at regular altitude. However, if you want to make a cake at high altitude, double the cupcake recipe below. If you want to make one dozen cupcakes at regular altitude, cut the cake recipe in half. Or, if you want to make two dozen, leave it as is.

Happy Halloween, everyone. Happy birthday, dad!

2pumpkincake102713One dozen cupcakes (at high altitude)
1 2/3 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoons ground cinnamon
3/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon salt
1 1/3 cups granulated sugar
1/2 cup vegetable oil, plus more as needed
2 large eggs
1/2 of a (15-ounce) can pumpkin purée

Heat the oven to 350 degrees F and arrange a rack in the middle. Line a 12-muffin pan with paper liners and coat the liners with vegetable oil or cooking spray; set aside.

Place the sugar and measured oil in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Beat on medium speed until the sugar is incorporated, about 1 minute. Stop the mixer and scrape down the sides of the bowl and the paddle with a rubber spatula.

Return the mixer to medium speed and add the eggs 1 at a time, beating well after each addition, about 1 1/2 minutes total mixing time. Reduce the speed to medium low, add the pumpkin, and beat until just combined, about 30 seconds. Stop the mixer and scrape down the sides of the bowl and the paddle with a rubber spatula.

Add the flour, baking powder, cinnamon, cloves, allspice, nutmeg and salt and beat slowly until almost completely incorporated, about 1 minute. Remove the bowl from the mixer and fold in any unincorporated flour at the edges with a rubber spatula, making sure to scrape to the bottom of the bowl.

Fill the muffin wells three-quarters of the way (about a heaping 1/4 cup per well). Bake for 15 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in a cupcake comes out clean.

Meanwhile, make a half batch of frosting (recipe below).

Place the pan on a wire rack and let cool for 5 minutes. Remove the cupcakes from the pans and cool completely on the racks. Frost.

3pumpkincake102713Cake (at regular altitude)
3 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cloves
1 teaspoon ground allspice
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon fine salt
2 3/4 cups granulated sugar
1 cup vegetable oil, plus more as needed
4 large eggs
1 (15-ounce) can pumpkin purée (not pie filling; about 1 3/4 cups)

Heat the oven to 350 degrees F and arrange a rack in the middle. Grease and flour one regular-size bundt pan — or two, if you have them.

Place the flour, baking powder, cinnamon, cloves, allspice, nutmeg, baking soda, and salt in a large bowl and whisk to aerate and break up any lumps; set aside.

Place the sugar and measured oil in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Beat on medium speed until the sugar is incorporated, about 1 minute. Stop the mixer and scrape down the sides of the bowl and the paddle with a rubber spatula.

Return the mixer to medium speed and add the eggs 1 at a time, beating well after each addition, about 1 1/2 minutes total mixing time. Reduce the speed to medium low, add the pumpkin, and beat until just combined, about 30 seconds. Stop the mixer and scrape down the sides of the bowl and the paddle with a rubber spatula.

Turn the mixer to low speed, slowly add the flour mixture, and beat until almost completely incorporated, about 1 minute. Remove the bowl from the mixer and fold in any unincorporated flour at the edges with a rubber spatula, making sure to scrape to the bottom of the bowl.

Put half of the batter into the bundt pan. Bake the cake for 40-55 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean.

Let the cake cool for 5-10 minutes, or until you are able to remove the cake from the pan cleanly. Let cake cool on a plate or wire rack. Leave the oven on and let pan sit for another 5 minutes, then grease and flour pan again and put remaining half of batter in it. Bake the cake for 40-55 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean.

Meanwhile, make frosting (recipe below).

Once cakes have cooled, turn so the part of the cake that was facing up when it was baked is once again facing up. Using a bread knife, cut convex part off, so top becomes flat. Set cake scraps aside. Repeat on other bundt.

Put frosting on the flat side of one bundt. Top by turning over the other bundt and placing it on top. Fill the hole in the middle with the scraps. Spread frosting all over cake. To achieve effect shown in photo, drag the back of a spoon from the bottom to the top of the cake. Repeat around entire cake. To create leaves, add about 10 drops of green food coloring to remaining frosting. Use a knife to make leaves. Use a piping bag or plastic bag filled with frosting to draw tendrils.

Pumpkin-and-Cream-Cheese Frosting
4 cups powdered sugar, sifted
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
12 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
8 tablespoons unsalted butter (1 stick), at room temperature
1/3 cup pumpkin purée (not pie filling)

Place the sugar, cinnamon, and nutmeg in a medium bowl and whisk to combine; set aside.

Place the cream cheese and butter in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment and beat on medium speed until fully combined and smooth, about 1 minute.

Reduce the speed to low, slowly add the powdered sugar mixture, and beat until fully incorporated and smooth, about 3 minutes. Stop the mixer and scrape down the paddle and sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula.

Turn the mixer to medium speed, add the pumpkin, and mix until fully incorporated and smooth, about 1 minute. Use immediately.

Banana bread that’s a breeze to make

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Everyone has a favorite banana bread recipe. It’s one of those classic things that most people have on hand, even if baking isn’t something they do on a regular basis.

I love my mom’s banana bread, but it didn’t translate well at high altitude. I also tried the Banana Bread Cockaigne from the Joy of Cooking, which is my second favorite recipe, but that had issues, too. So, I toyed with it until it came out perfectly.

While three bananas work well at much lower altitude, they make the bread overly mushy at altitude. So, I reduced the number of bananas to two and used less baking powder as well. I checked the bread 45 minutes into the baking process and, while it looked done, it wasn’t fully cooked inside. I left it in for another 10 minutes and it turned out just right. It stayed moist and the crust was not overcooked.

If you’re in the mood to put a spin on the bread, you can add seeds from one vanilla bean. I’ve done that before and it can be a nice change if you’re looking for a more dynamic loaf. The original recipe also suggests adding 1/2 cup chopped nuts or 1/4 cup finely chopped dried apricots.

Ingredients
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder (use 1 teaspoon at high altitude)
1/2 teaspoon salt (use 1 teaspoon at high altitude)
2/3 cup sugar
6 tablespoons butter, softened
2 large eggs, beaten
2 ripe bananas, mashed

Grease a loaf pan and preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Beat sugar and butter in a large bowl at medium speed until creamy. Add eggs and bananas. Add dry ingredients. Mix until just combined.

Scrape the batter into the loaf pan. Bake the bread for 50-55 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center of the loaf comes out clean. Cool slightly, then take out of pan and cool completely on a rack.