Thursday, March 1, 2012

High Altitude Yellow Cake w Lemon Buttercream

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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!

Notes:
**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")
printable recipe

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
printable recipe

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.)

39 comments:

  1. Gorgeous!! Can't wait to try this. And I will add that book to my Amazon wish list for sure.

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  2. I have been struggling ever since we moved to Colorado over 10 years ago to make a homemade cake that is moist. I am so thankful I came across your website. This cake is is fabulous. The frosting is fantastic as well. Thank you and I wish you the best with your endeavors.

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    1. I so hear you! I thought I lost my baking mojo when we moved here ;) Thanks so much for your sweet comment!

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  3. This cake was amazing. My husband loved it because it had the right amount of sugar. I ted to want to give people diabetes :). SInce moving to Colorado I was ready to give up on baking, but I now have a favorite from scratch cake that can be baked at this altitude. Thank you sooooo much. My family loves you.

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    1. Awww! Just when I needed to hear something nice! You were inspired to make a comment today ;) Thanks, and I'm thrilled that it worked so well! :D

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  4. I am going to try this for my daughter's birthday Sat. I want the cake lemon so any ideas for natural lemon flavor? still add the vanilla? the frosting will be blueberry...she picked that. she'll be 4 :)

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    1. In the past I've added lemon zest from two lemons to the batter. It gives the cake a light lemon flavor. If you have one, use a micro-planer zester so your zest is very fine. If you don't have one, mince the zest as finely as you can. Some people add a couple tablespoons lemon juice also, but I haven't tried that at my altitude, so I don't know how it would work with the extra acid. Good luck! I've love to hear how it works for you :)

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  5. How many cups of flour? Sorry - I'm a math idiot.

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    1. lol...No worries about the math, I'm right there with ya ;) It's about 2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour. Measuring flour is problematic for the reasons I mentioned above, so I still suggest you weight it, but if you don't have a scale, it's about 2 3/4 cups. Thanks for your question and enjoy! :)

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  6. what size eggs do you use? Large? Extra Large? Does it matter?

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    1. I always use large eggs. I honestly don't know if it would matter if you used extra large. Thanks for your question :)

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  7. Thank you for this post! I made a from-scratch butter cake yesterday and it was a complete fail (well, not completely; it made a great shortcake). I've been in Colorado 30 years but this was a new recipe and obviously not adapted for altitude. Also, I think my baking powder had expired. I'll make this next weekend!

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    1. If you end up making it I would love to hear how it works for you! :)

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  8. I live about 7,000 ft do I need to change this recipe? Thanks

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    1. I'm not sure if you will or not. High altitude baking can be so tricky. If it were me trying this recipe at your altitude, I'd make it as it's written first, and then make changes if it didn't turn out right. Let me know how it goes for you. If it sinks in the middle or something like that, I'll see what ideas I can suggest for you. Good luck, and thanks for your question!

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  9. Hi Hun, and thank you for sharing this delicious recipe. I have a question can this cake batter be used for cupcakes? I hope you can respond ASAP due to I need to bake some for tomorrow. Thank you dear!

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    1. Thanks for your question :) I haven't used the batter for cupcakes, but I don't see why it wouldn't work. I would just decrease the cooking time a bit, and cook them for maybe 15-18 minutes. Happy baking!

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  10. Do I have to do anything differently at 7,000 ft? I am even higher in elevation than you are! Thanks

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    Replies
    1. Sorry I'm so late in replying. I don't know if you would need to change it...You'd just have to try it and see how it went. If it sinks it needs more structure, so you can try adding an additional egg. Thanks for your question!

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  11. Seven years of failed cakes, countless tantrums and wasted ingredients disappeared Saturday night when I found your recipe and thought I'd give it one last go before I quit forever and resort to store bought birthday cakes.
    Tiffany, THANK YOU!!! This was light, moist, crumbly, tasty, mmmm -mmmm-mmmm. My guests loved it and I love it. You restored my love of baking. I am at 5500 ft and it needed an extra 12 minutes in the oven but I think that might be due to the fact that I realised I had a pizza stone sitting on the shelf above it. Bit of advice to anyone who is a numnuts like me, have a clear oven! Think your baking time would have been sufficient had I not done that.

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    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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    2. Michelle, I know that a lot of people don't think comments are important to bloggers, but they are. Especially this comment. Especially today. I've been seriously considering not blogging anymore--for a variety of reasons--and just this morning was mulling it over again. Thank you for coming back and telling me about your cake. I think I may just keep soldiering on :)

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    3. Please do! Looks like we both helped each other out a little:-) Will be checking out the rest of your site contents and it is now in my "favorites" list. Thanks once again.

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  12. Made this in Denver, found it still to be dense like pound cake and not fluffy, what am I missing?

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    1. Dang...sorry it didn't work for you :( If I was going to start troubleshooting I'd check to make sure you let you butter, eggs, and buttermilk come to room temperature before using them. I know it's a pain, but my cakes didn't turn out until I did it. Then maybe I'd make sure you were alternating the flour mixture and buttermilk when adding to the mixing bowl, and that you were mixing them long enough. I hope that helps a little bit. Thanks so much!

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  13. Do you think this recipe would work if I baked all of the batter in one pan with very tall sides and for longer? Or would you recommend that I halve the recipe if only one pan fits in my oven at a time? Thank you!!!!

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    1. Thanks for your question :) I definitely wouldn't recommend trying to bake all the batter in one pan at the same time. I would recommend mixing up all of the batter and baking half at a time in your pan. Thanks, again!

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  14. Thank you so much for the great recipe. I live in Colorado and find it so hard to bake a good cake. I have tried so many, but none of them turn out the way I wanted. I baked this cake today and it turned out fluffy, moist, and light. I used a 12" round baking pan with your recipe, baked it for 53 minutes and it was perfect. This is a keeper! Thanks a lot

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  15. Hi, I'm about to make this cake, but in your notes you state that 13 3/4 oz of flour = 3 cups plus 1 tbl. Then you reply to a reader that it equals 2 3/4 cup. I'm sure this will make a big difference. Can you tell me which one to use? Thanks.

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    1. Thanks for your question :) Sifted is about 3 cups + 1 tbl; before sifting it's about 2 3/4 cups. Hope that helps!

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  16. Oh my gosh, Tiffiny! This cake is amazing! I've been in Denver for 7 years and have tried NUMEROUS "high altitude" recipes and they have all fallen and been much too dense. This one is so great! Thanks so much for posting it! :)

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  17. After living in Colorado for 4 yrs, this was my first cake from scratch. Turned out pretty good. I added the zest of 2 lemons sprinkled over the iced filling between the two cake layers. That REALLY added to the lemony aspect I was aiming for. Like one of the previous commenters, I too noticed after the fact my baking powder was a yr or 2 past its expiration date. My cake wasn't light and fluffy -a bit on the dense side but really moist. My 9 yr-old birthday boy LOVED it and so did our friends. Thank you! I'll have to check out this Pie in the Sky altitude cookbook. (I wanted to include a photo of my cake but I don't think I can. I added a Minecraft “Mr. Stampy Cat” cake topper to mine. Turned out really cute!

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  18. Love, love, love it! This was my first attempt at baking a cake from scratch and I was kind of nervous since it was for my husbands birthday party. I've tried cupcakes before, but all have fallen flat so the pressure for a great cake was on. I followed the directions exactly (except I forgot to push start on the timer :-/ thankfully I noticed soon enough and was able to just watch it carefully as it baked.) It came out perfect and my husband was so impressed. My mom even thought it was a store bought cake. Thank you so much for posting this recipe! If you have a chocolate cake recipe I would love that also to satisfy the chocolate lovers in my family.
    Thanks,
    Carlie

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  19. I live in Colorado springs. This cake was the answer to all my cake baking problems. It came out phenemonally! I will be using this cake for all my cake needz as long as I live here. Thank u soooo much!

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  20. We're at 8000 ft. Has anyone tried it this high?
    Thanks.

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  21. Loved loved loved this!!!!! Thanl you! This is the first cake I've made that either didn't fall apart of didn't rise right. I didn't add the lemon to the frosting and added more whipping cream. Idk if that was a good idea. It tastes great but it was so hard to ice the cake. Maybe I just need cake decorating classes lol. Thanks again!

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  22. Thank you SO much for this recipe. It's the first really successful from scratch cake I've managed in Denver (and um, I've been here four years). I had given up. This is Perfect! If it helps anyone else I did make some small changes to accommodate a very lactose intolerant household member - used 1/2 cup lactose free margarine + 1/2 cup shortening instead of butter, 1 cup + 2 T lactose free milk ± 1 T vinegar (let sit a few minutes before using) instead of buttermilk. Worked wonderfully. Thanks again!

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  23. Is there a way to convert this to white cake recipe? I was thinking use 6 egg whites and replace half the butter with shortening? If not, do you have a high altitude white cake mix recipe? I tried this yellow cake and it was fantastic. I used it for a pineapple upside down cake and it was delicious and moist.

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    1. This is a very good question. I haven't ever tried to make it a white cake but doing when you suggest is a really good place to start. I might add a bit more vanilla since taking away the egg yolk and half of the butter will take away some of the flavor. I'm so glad that it worked so well for your pineapple upside down cake!

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