I have had a major love-hate relationship with cake since we moved back to the Denver area. I love it, of course, because I love to eat it. I hate it because most sea-level cake recipes produce cupcakes that either (a) have sunken-in tops or (b) practically explode all over the muffin tin. I’ve had some moderate success with the “standard” high-altitude recipe adjustments (oh, if only there truly were standard adjustments), but most of my attempts have resulted in failure.
Recently, I inherited a high-altitude baking cookbook – High Altitude Baking (original title, eh?) by Patricia Kendall – from my friend Hilary. I knew from my experience with Pie in the Sky by Susan Purdy that recipes don’t necessarily work well at altitude just because they’re published under that claim… While I had great success with her Independence Pass Brownies, the 1-2-3-4 Cake was dry, dense, and practically inedible. I wanted to make cupcakes for the Super Bowl, though, so it was time to take a chance on a new recipe. I chose Chocolate Sour Cream Cupcakes as the first recipe I would attempt from High Altitude Baking, mostly because I had all the ingredients except an easy-to-purchase cup of sour cream. My first rumbling of trouble came when I realized that I had purchased light sour cream (habit!) instead of full-fat for the recipe. I forged ahead with the recipe anyway and ended up with predictably less-than-fantastic cupcakes: while they did have decent crowns, they were exceptionally airy and almost chewy from the lack of fat.
Dr. O had put in a request for a few more Super Bowl snacks and we needed to head back to the store, so I decided I’d pick up some full-fat sour cream and try the recipe again. This time, I ended up with delicious but ugly results; the cake was far more moist, but the batter had overflowed (even with the cups only half full!) and the tops of the cupcakes were crusty and misshapen. (Sigh.) Even with lots of icing, there was no covering that up.
Thankfully, I had also replenished my supply of baking cocoa while we were at the grocery store, which meant I had everything I needed to try one more recipe from the book: Chocolate Cupcakes. After my two sour cream cake failures, I had higher hopes for this recipe because it had a traditional ingredient: oil. (The only fat in the sour cream recipe came from two squares of chocolate and the sour cream itself.) I followed the hand mixer instructions (see below), baked them for 23 minutes (instead of 25) and guess what? I had beautiful, moist little cupcakes – with crowns!
I frosted them with my favorite icing (see below), topped them with sprinkles, and added them to the Super Bowl spread. Mmmmm.
I think I might have preferred chocolate icing with these cupcakes, so I’ll try that next time. I was just so freakin’ excited about finding a high-altitude cupcake recipe that worked, though, that I would have happily eaten them without icing. I’m looking forward to making these again and again… Cupcakes, minus the frustration!
2 cups sifted cake flour
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 cup sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
2/3 cup vegetable oil
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 large eggs
1 cup milk (I used whole milk)
Preheat oven to 375F. Grease and flour two 9-inch cake pans, one 9 x 13-inch baking pan or muffin cups. Mix and sift flour, cocoa, sugar, and baking powder together into a bowl. Add oil, vanilla, eggs, and milk; beat for 30 seconds with a mixer at low speed, scraping the bowl frequently. Beat for 7 1/2 minutes more with a stand mixer at medium speed or 6 minutes with a hand mixer at high speed, scraping the bowl 4 – 5 times. Pour batter into pans. Bake for time recommended below, or until a toothpick inserted in center comes out clean.* Remove cakes from oven and cool in pans for about 12 minutes. Remove cakes from pans and finish cooling on a wire rack.
*Two 9-inch cakes: About 28 minutes.
One 9 x 13-inch cake: Lower oven temperature to 350F. Bake for 30 – 35 minutes.
24 cupcakes (1/2-full): About 25 minutes.
(Update 12/31/10: Based on several visitor comments, I would recommend checking your cupcakes at the 18- or 20-minute mark if you bake them at 375F. If they need more time, just put ’em back in.)
6,500 – 8,500 feet: Decrease baking powder to 1 3/4 teaspoons.
8,500+ feet: Decrease baking powder to 1 1/2 teaspoons. Increase milk by 1 tablespoon.
Source: High Altitude Baking by Patricia Kendall (Amazingly, this link displays the entire cake section of the cookbook for free!)
Toba Garrett’s Decorator’s Buttercream Icing
Make 2 1/2 quarts (2.37 L) (This is an absolute ton of icing! Feel free to cut it in half or even quarter it.)
2 cups (1 pound or 454 grams) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup (230 grams) vegetable shortening or hi-ratio shortening
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice or 1 1/2 teaspoons lemon extract, pure vanilla extract, or almond extract
3 pounds (1.36 kilograms) 10X confectioners’ sugar
1/2 cup + 1 tablespoon (4 1/2 fluid ounces or 135 millilitres) water, milk, or clear liqueur
3 tablespoons meringue powder
1 teaspoon salt
Cream shortening and butter with an electric, handheld, or paddle-whip mixer. Add flavoring and salt. Gradually add sugar, one cup at a time. Add meringue powder. (The mixture will appear dry.)
Add liquid of choice and beat until light and fluffy (approximately 5 to 8 minutes). Keep the bowl covered with a damp cloth or plastic wrap.
Store the icing in an airtight container and freeze for up to 3 months.
Source: The Well-Decorated Cake by Toba Garrett