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Most of you know that I live in Utah at an elevation of about 5,000 feet above sea level. We love living here (the mountains are beautiful) but the high altitude wrecks havoc on baked goods. Since moving here from California in 2007, I have figured out how to get most cookies, brownies, quick breads, and yeast breads to turn out right, but a simple yellow or chocolate cake still eluded me. I wanted cakes that were delicious, rose nicely, that had a moist, tender crumb, and didn't collapse in the middle, either during baking or shortly after coming out of the oven. It became a bit of an obsession. I'm not completely anti-cake mix (though I don't really love them), but I really wanted a good scratch recipe. Here are a couple pages from my recipe test book:
I finally got tired of cake fails that wasted time and ingredients (and my emotional well-being), and last week I ordered "Pie in the Sky" by Susan Purdy. I've known about the book for about a year, and I honestly don't know why it took me so long to buy it (well, I think I really wanted to figure it out by myself). Ms. Purdy is a baking teacher, journalist, book and cookbook author. For "Pie in the Sky" she tested 100 recipes for a variety of baked goods until she had formulas that worked at sea level, 3,000, 5,000, 7,000, and 10,000 feet above sea level. Along the way she learned about the science behind high-altitude baking and shares her knowledge in the book.
"Pie in the Sky" is amazing (if you live above sea level and have trouble baking, this book should definitely be on your cookbook shelf), and it was really nice to have everything I've learned about high-altitude baking validated by someone with Ms. Purdy's expertise. Things like a couple extra tablespoons flour, a few tablespoons less sugar, and buttermilk instead of regular milk really do make a difference.
The morning after the book arrived I made her recipe for a basic yellow cake, formulated for 5,000 feet above sea level. I was so excited and nervous (I know, I need to get out more) and worried that it wouldn't really work. But it did work! Well, OK, I have to qualify this a little: The cake tasted really good, it had a nice yellow color, it didn't sink in the middle, it was moist, and it had a nice, small crumb. But her recipe says to bake it at 375, which is a lot hotter than I bake any thing (other than some cookies, muffins, and biscuits), and the side and bottom crusts were very brown and almost crunchy. I also thought the cake was too dense, almost like a pound cake.
So I tried it again. I re-read everything she explained about how high-altitude effects rising, etc., and changed the eggs from 5 whole eggs to 4 whole eggs and 1 egg yolk, and the baking powder from 2 teaspoons to 2 1/4 teaspoons, and I decreased the oven temperature to 350 and increased the baking time.
Look at that crumb! Totally perfect.
Perfection! It was almost too much to take in, looking at the perfect cake sitting on my counter. My search was over. *sniff* I have to add that when I compared her recipe with the slight changes I made, to the latest version of the yellow cake I was trying to work out, they were really close! I was so close to getting it right, but there were a few things I wasn't doing that would have kept me from ever getting the cake I wanted:
1. I wasn't letting my fridge ingredients (egg, buttermilk, butter) come to room temperature. I hadn't been convinced yet that it mattered. (I'm convinced now.)
2. I wasn't sifting my flour. Pure laziness on my part; I just didn't want to have to.
3. I was melting my butter instead of creaming it with the sugar. I used to cream the two together, but I couldn't see that it made a difference. (I was wrong.)
4. I wasn't adding the dry ingredients alternately with the buttermilk. Again, laziness. I wanted to add all the dry ingredients at once, and then the buttermilk all at once.
So, there you have it. I have changed my lazy, unbelieving ways, and now have the perfect high altitude (for my 5,000 feet) yellow cake recipe. If you live at a high altitude, you should definitely add Susan Purdy's book, "Pie in the Sky", to your cookbook library, you will be so glad you did. In the meantime, give this recipe a whirl!
**I have listed the flour amount in ounces. High altitude cakes are so temperamental, and it's really hard to measure flour accurately with a measuring cup, so I strongly suggest you use a kitchen scale. If you must use measuring cups, 13 3/4 oz is 3 cups plus 1 tablespoon sifted flour, meaning you sift the flour first and then measure it out. I find it is much easier to weight the flour out and then sift it afterward; easier, and by weighing it I'm sure I've got the right amount of flour. (I don't have a flour sifter, I just use a fine mesh strainer, and tap, tap, tap...)
**Make sure your oven is ready when your batter is ready. Once the buttermilk is mixed with the baking powder the chemical reaction that creates leavening starts, so you want to get the batter in the oven right away.
High Altitude Yellow Cake w Lemon Buttercream (adapted from "Pie in the Sky")
13 3/4 oz all-purpose flour
2 1/4 teaspoons baking powder
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup butter, room temperature
2 cups, minus 1 tablespoon, sugar
4 eggs, room temperature
1 egg yolk, room temperature
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup, plus 2 tablespoons, buttermilk, room temperature
additional flour for dusting pans
1. Heat your oven to 350. Use a folded paper towel to generously grease 2 9-in round pans with vegetable shortening. Add 1 tablespoon all-purpose to each pan and shake it around to coat; tap out the excess. Line the bottom with a circle of parchment paper, if you want (this is a good way to make sure the cake doesn't stick to the bottom of the pan. Sometimes I use the parchment paper, sometimes I don't).
2. Sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt; set aside.
3. In a large bowl of a stand mixer, cream the butter and sugar together until well blended. Add the eggs and egg yolk (2 or 3 at a time), and vanilla, scraping down the bowl and mixing well after each.
4. Add the flour mixture and buttermilk in 2-3 batches, beginning and ending with the flour. Mix on low and scrape the sides of the bowl after each addition. Mix on medium for 1 minute, until the batter is smooth and creamy, and thickened up a bit.
5. Divide the batter evenly between the two prepared pans (I use my digital kitchen scale for this, too, so I'm sure my cakes will be the same height.) and spread it evenly. Bake at 350 for 28-30 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean or with just a few moist crumbs stuck to it. Cool on racks for 10 minutes before removing from the pans.
6. To remove the cakes from the pans, run a thin knife around the outside of the cakes to makes sure the sides have come completely away from the pans. Put a cooling rack over the pan, invert the cake onto the rack, remove the pan, and peel off the parchment. Invert the cake a 2nd time onto another rack, and let it finish cooling. (I've also used plates, cutting boards or foil-covered carboard cake circles to do this.) Cool the cakes completely before trimming the tops to make them level (if necessary) and frosting.
Makes 2 9-inch round cakes or 1 9x13-inch cake (You can use 2 8-inch round pans, but you have to make sure they are 2-inch deep pans, otherwise you'll have cake batter all over your oven. You will also need to bake the cakes a little longer. Start at 30 minutes and then check every few minutes until the cakes pass the toothpick test.)
Lemon Buttercream Frosting
1 cup butter, room temperature
1/3 cup vegetable shortening
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 pounds powdered sugar, sifted if from a box
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
3 tablespoons heavy cream
Lemon yellow gel or paste food coloring, if desired.
In a large bowl of a stand mixer, cream the butter and shortening together until well blended. Add the vanilla and mix well. Add half of the powdered sugar and mix on low until well blended; scrape down the sides of the bowl. Add the lemon juice and mix on low until well blended; scrape down the sides of the bowl. Repeat with the remaining powdered sugar and the heavy cream. Add a little yellow food coloring to tint the frosting, if you want. Mix a final time on medium-low to medium until the frosting is smooth and creamy, about 1 minute.
Makes about 5 cups frosting.
To assemble the cake: Put one cake layer on a serving platter, cake plate, or foil-covered cardboard cake circle, trimmed-top side up. Spread just under 1/4 of the frosting on top. Place the second cake layer, trimmed-top down, on top of the first layer. Spread just under 1/4 of the frosting on top. Spread the remaining frosting on the sides of the cake. Use a paper towel to clean up any frosting that gets on your cake plate. (I've never had luck with putting strips of waxed paper under the edges of my cake and then frosting it. My frosting always gets messed up when I pull them out. Now I don't bother and just clean up the plate when I'm done.)