High Altitude Baking

Although I spend most of the year at sea level in Massachusetts, 2-3 months of my year are spent in a small Colorado town, the elevation of which is 8,750ft.  My first experience with high altitude baking was a birthday cake for one of my sons.  Oblivious as I was to the effects of altitude, it was a baking flop.  It ended up looking more like a science experiment than a baking project; shaped like a volcano, the batter never baked through so it just bubbled up, overflowed, and dripped all over the oven floor.  It was not only too sweet, but criminally undercooked.  Extensive online research proved to be helpful, but even more helpful was experimentation.  I'm proud to say that I've finally come up with some recipes that not only work at altitude, but are absolutely delicious.  If you're reading this, you probably live at a high altitude, so you know as well as I do that altitude-altered recipes include: 1) less sugar (baked goods taste sweeter up there because of the increased evaporation), 2) less leavening (thinner air makes the leavening react more strongly), and 3) more liquid (the drier climate increases the evaporation which makes a drier baked good).

Keep in mind that my recipes have only been tested at 8,750ft, so if you live at a higher altitude (I can't even imagine) or more likely at a lower altitude, you might need to make some additional adjustments.  It all depends on the extent of the altitude difference.  I have altered every one of these recipes significantly before being sufficiently satisfied to post them here.  Like hiking up a mountain, the journey is enjoyable, but it requires a lot of work to reach my destination.  So bear with me as I slowly but surely fill out my repertoire of high altitude recipes.

High Altitude Sweet Potato Lime Snack Cake

Adapted from a recipe by Erika Bruce of Milk Street Cafe, who adapted it from a traditional Macanese dessert called Batatada, this flavorful cake excels at any time of day. The sweet potato and ground coconut flakes add moisture, richness, and incredible flavor, while the lime juice’s tartness balances it out. Honestly, I could eat it for breakfast and as an afternoon snack, and still not get enough of it. Read more.

High Altitude Vanilla Cake

For me, vanilla cake with chocolate frosting is the quintessential birthday cake. It is the perfect combination of two of the greatest flavors in the world of desserts. When I was in elementary school, every year my Mom made this combination for my birthday, and I remember loving it so much that I would often eat it for breakfast the next day.

I love frosting, but not when it’s too sweet. For this recipe, I have decided to use a cooled and then whipped chocolate ganache, which lends it a perfect balance of fluffiness and fudginess. I have also opted for bittersweet chocolate, but I would recommend semisweet if you plan on serving it to children.

Oftentimes vanilla cakes can run a bit dry. To offset the dryness, I’ve found that substituting a small amount of the butter for oil does the trick. This gives the cake a much needed moistness without sacrificing the buttery flavor. Read more.

High Altitude Chocolate Cake

A good chocolate cake can hold its own, but it can just as easily play well with others. This rich and moist chocolate cake is a perfect example; it can succeed with just a dusting of powdered sugar, or as part of a frosted triple layer cake. Even better, it’s easy to make and requires little mess; all you’ll need is a bowl and a rubber spatula. The ingredients are also relatively basic; the only unusual one is the potato flour, which is available at most grocery stores anyways. I use boiling water for this recipe, but you could just as easily substitute hot coffee in order to amp up the chocolate flavor. Read more.

High Altitude Mustard Green Pesto Pan Pizza

Over the years, I’ve come to realize that almost any leafy green vegetable can be made into a pesto. I’ve especially found this to be true of mustard greens; they are flavorful, healthy, and not too overpowering. I prefer to top this pizza with just the pesto, but it is also wonderful with shredded cheese.

This dough recipe is identical to the one found here, but with different quantities in order to fill a half sheet pan. This pizza dough is very hydrated because it uses the bread making method known as Tangzhong.  Read more.

High Altitude Pizza Dough

Regarding yeast doughs, there are a few primary differences that distinguish high altitude baking from its sea level counterpart. These include: the need for more water (due to the dry air), a shorter rise time, and less yeast (due to less atmospheric pressure). The pizza dough I most love to make is wet and use small amounts of yeast, so it lends itself perfectly to high altitudes with a minimal amount of adjustments. I’m a big believer in eating pizza at least once a week, so this recipe was one of my first high altitude adaptations.

This pizza dough is very hydrated because it uses the bread making method known as Tangzhong.  Popular among Japanese and Chinese bread makers, the Tangzhong method results in an incredibly light and moist dough.  The method is simple: whisk together 5 parts water with 1 part flour (by weight), then heat the mixture.  It should thicken and become gelatinous.  I like to add some of the extra water at this point to the still hot gelatinous mixture to speed the cooling process as well as thin the mixture which helps it better incorporate into the flour mixture. Let it cool briefly (so as not to kill the yeast), then add it to the remaining ingredients. Read more.

High Altitude Gingerbread

This recipe was adapted from Claudia Fleming’s own gingerbread recipe from the Gramercy Tavern, which has been floating around the internet for quite some time now. I adapted the recipe for the high altitude here, but I also toned down the ground ginger a bit, as I prefer a strong cinnamon presence (my favorite of the warm spices) and a less prominent ginger flavor; however, I left the original spice quantities in parentheses for anyone who prefers a spicier gingerbread. If you’re after something even stronger, adding 1 teaspoon of ground black pepper and/or reducing the granulated sugar to 3/4 cup should do the trick. But be warned… even with the toned down spices, this gingerbread packs quite a punch. It’s not the sort of dessert I’d feed to children, but rather the kind I’d serve at an adult dinner party with vanilla ice cream or a dollop of cinnamon whipped cream. Read more.

High Altitude Marbled Banana Bread

Everyone has their own opinion regarding the ideal ripeness of a banana. For me, it’s a very small window. I’ve always believed that the perfect banana is completely yellow except for a tiny bit of green around the stem (and absolutely no brown speckles). I erroneously believed that everyone felt this way until my son, Tyler, stopped me from tossing some overripe (or so I thought) bananas into the compost, commenting that they would be perfect for his oatmeal. Now I know that the perfect banana is not a universally agreed upon notion. This topic came up again this past July, when we were vacationing with extended family. I caught sight of my niece’s husband, Isaac, grabbing a very ripe (and very sad) banana to eat, so I interrogated him a little bit. He explained that “overripe” bananas are sweeter, and shouldn’t we aim to eat fruits at the apex of their sweetness? That really gave me pause for thought. I mentally cycled through every other fruit, and sure enough, ripeness and sweetness always lined up. Could it be true? Could a sweet and speckled banana really be better? It’s a difficult question, but one thing is certain: the best bananas for baking are the most overripe ones. When making banana bread, I always reach for the brownest bananas I can find. Read more.

High Altitude Banana Bread

I know there are kids out there who can be called “great eaters”: the ones who try new foods without hesitation. None of my boys were those kids. They were picky eaters, and to be honest, they took some of the fun out of dinnertime; on more than a few nights, the first thing I heard after putting dinner on the table was, “I’m not eating that.” So, whenever one of my boys loved something, I embraced it.

Bananas, for example. My son Oliver’s childhood love for them can be better classified as an obsession. It started way back when he was an infant, before he could even talk. Through trial and error, I realized that I could get him to eat baby food, cereal, or anything at all if I simply added some mashed banana to the bowl. This continued for years. It escalated to the point that, as a kindergartener, he’d talk about opening a banana store someday (where he planned to sell banana-centric items only). I’m sure banana bread would have played a starring role there; it was an absolute favorite of his. When Oliver was younger, there were years when I made banana bread on a weekly basis. Those years are behind us now, and thankfully my sons have all graduated from picky to great eaters, but I still always smile when I think about Oliver and his “bananarama” store (Oliver back then). Read more.

High Altitude Wild Plum Cake

I have always believed that Marian Burros’s Plum Torte should be made exclusively with Italian plums (also known as prune plums), because they enhance the cake with a wonderful combination of tartness and sweetness. Until now. Just last week, I was at a farmers’ market in Colorado when I happened upon a stall selling wild plums (or chickasaw plums); after tasting a sample, I was quickly convinced that these tiny, sweet, and very tart plums would work perfectly in a cake. A few altitude adjustments later, my husband and I were happily enjoying this wild plum cake, which has officially won us over. Read more.

High Altitude Chocolate Chip Cookies

Chocolate chip cookies are universally loved, which of course means I bake them for pretty much any occasion that calls for cookies. I love chocolate chip cookies so much that I have numerous versions, and this high altitude adaptation is always one of the first things I bake after arriving at my 8,750ft destination in Colorado (after I’ve adjusted to the exhaustingly thin air, that is). High altitude baking can be frustrating, but it has its advantages as well; cookies that are chewy on the inside but crispy on the outside (my favorite kind) are easier up here thanks to the drier air. Trading out some of the butter for cream cheese helps to soften the center. Read more.