High-altitude baking guru Susan G. Purdy uses kitchen science to rescue blown-out cakes and flattened muffins—and help woo your Valentine.
Above: Ginger-infused cupcakes will win hearts at home and your next bake sale.
AS A COOKBOOK AUTHOR, artist, and baking teacher working all across the United States, I always yearned for a single cookbook that could give me the right recipe, from the seashore to the ski slope. But an all-altitude book didn’t exist. My cakes too often fell, my soufflés slumped, my muffins were miserable. Out of frustration some years back, I finally decided to take about 100 of my favorite sea-level recipes and adjust them for altitude. As I eyed my previously published traditional cookbooks, I knew that I faced ever more serious challenges. Research shows that folks are living (and cooking and baking) at near or above 3,000 feet of elevation in 34 of the 50 states.
It is no accident that many of the world’s flatbreads, such as tortillas and naan, were developed in high, thin-air elevations where it is difficult to get doughs and batters to rise. Just take your grandma’s devil’s food cake recipe to a Taos ski chalet and you will see what I mean. At altitude, cakes can rise surprisingly high in the oven, then collapse on the counter. What’s going on? I had to figure it out.
My dream was to work in a Santa Fe kitchen. With family and friends there, I had often been a visitor. I was entranced by the town itself, and blithely assumed that the recipes I had so carefully developed in my Connecticut kitchen (elevation 540 feet) would, if slightly tweaked, behave in 7,000-foot Santa Fe. I knew the basic high-altitude guidelines, and I counted on them.
One of my earliest attempts to solve the baking-at-altitude puzzle had actually begun earlier, when a Santa Fe cookware shop invited me to teach a children’s Easter baking class. To ensure my recipes would work, I traveled to Santa Fe on a recipe-testing mission—cake pans, pie plates, oven thermometer, dashboard altimeter, even potholders on board.
I began by whipping up a chocolate buttermilk cake, one of my most reliable recipes, adding a few altitude adjustments from an all-purpose bakers’ bookmark. My two layers rose dramatically in the hot oven, but crashed as they cooled. While guests sat expectantly in the dining room, I frantically stuck the layers together, slathered them with whipped cream, and called it pudding cake. From that point on, I experimented systematically, making a serious study of the high-altitude baking phenomenon.
My first big success was that Easter class. After many trials, the recipes worked, the cakes rose, and I was hooked. A few months later, I came back to New Mexico, borrowing a friend’s kitchen to develop a new group of recipes for use in Santa Fe’s rarefied air. Once I felt that I was on the right track, I proposed a second class, billed in a Santa Fe New Mexican article as an interactive, problem-solving high-altitude baking workshop. To my surprise, the response was overwhelming. Longtime New Mexicans and sea-level transplants crowded into the kitchen. All had nearly given up on baking at home. Some said they had loved baking before moving west, had always made their families’ birthday cakes, and felt that baking desserts with their own hands made celebrations more festive. They missed the praise and the pride in presenting a party’s grand finale. When they saw the results of our class demonstration, they couldn’t wait to try the recipes at home.
We discussed the fact that boxed mixes were not a solution because their altitude instructions often failed and certainly didn’t consider the highest elevations. We compared my new recipes with the participants’ old ones, learning how to “altitude” (a new verb) the sea-level formulas in conventional cookbooks. They volunteered to help test, if I would take on the challenge and write a book of reliable altitude recipes.
That was my “a-ha” moment. When I got home, I picked up the phone and called my former cookbook editor and her husband at their Santa Fe house. Enthusiastic bakers and foodies, they were thrilled with the idea. Also, luckily, they were about to leave for a long trip. “Come bake in our kitchen,” they generously offered. “Stay for opera season and Indian Market, and by the way, would you mind cat-sitting?” I was in heaven. Their sunny kitchen—well organized, spacious, and designed for two people who loved to cook together—was perfect for testing. I couldn’t wait to get started.
Above: Cookbook author and teacher Susan G. Purdy takes a break during a Santa Fe School of Cooking class.
Soon, though, I was near burnout. I decided it was time for another set of hands and a few laughs, so I called my chef friend Stacy Pearl (who’s since relocated to New York). Patient, analytical, and very good-humored, she offered to help me “altitude“ my sea-level recipes for use at 7,000 feet, one ingredient at a time. Together, we adjusted, re-baked, re-timed, re-calibrated, and re-tasted. We took a couple of bites, snapped photographs, compared samples, and froze leftovers. What were we looking for? A well-risen, sea-level-like product, no also-rans or near misses, nothing too dense, too dry, too moist, or lopsided. Our original goal was to find a quick fix, an easy adjustment of ingredients that would work in all cases. Our biggest surprise: There was no one-size-fits-all solution. Every recipe was unique, with success achieved by varying the formula by as little as a teaspoon more flour or a tablespoon more liquid, or using a slightly higher temperature or a longer baking time.
Since then, I can confidently conclude that home baking is alive and well, no matter the altitude. The continued popularity of my 2005 book Pie in the Sky confirms that this subject is important, the material needed. On my website, I get questions daily from people from as far away as the Andes Mountains. Here’s good news: If you live in the high country and your baking doesn’t turn out as you hoped, you can blame it on the altitude.
I urge you to bake, though, wherever you live. Baking is a way to share abundance, to be creative, to nourish families, to enrich friendships, and—absolutely—to romance the one you love.
—Connecticut resident Susan G. Purdy teaches cooking classes throughout the United States, most recently at the Santa Fe School of Cooking. Learn more at highaltitudebaking.com.
Susan G. Purdy offered a few of her favorite recipes to give a homemade Valentine’s Day dinner an unforgettable finish. We’ve included her tips for adjusting the recipes for different altitudes. The best sources, though, are her books, especially Pie in the Sky, which includes cakes, pies, cookies, breads, and pastries that work from sea level to 10,000 feet in elevation. These recipes go to 7,000 feet.
Chocolate Buttermilk Cake with Bittersweet Chocolate Icing
Makes one 2-layer, 9-inch cake; serves 8–10
This old-fashioned, moist chocolate cake has a fine grain and tender crumb. It is sensational at sea level and made-to-order for high elevations because it contains buttermilk, a favorite high-altitude ingredient that contributes moisture and tenderness as well as extra acidity to help the batter set quickly. For Valentine’s Day, bake it in heart-shaped metal cake pans (see recipe instructions). Fill the layers with your favorite raspberry jam and frost with Bittersweet Chocolate Icing (recipe follows). This recipe is written for sea level, with altitude adjustments in parentheses.
- 4 ounces unsweetened chocolate, chopped
- 2 cups sifted all-purpose flour (add 2 tablespoons for 3,000 feet, 3 tablespoons for 5,000–7,000 feet)
- 1½ teaspoons baking soda (1¼ teaspoons plus 1/8 teaspoon for 3,000 feet, 1 ¼ teaspoons for 5,000 feet, 1 teaspoon for 7,000 feet)
- ¼ teaspoon salt (½ teaspoon for 3,000 feet and above)
- ¼teaspoon ground nutmeg ½ pound (2 sticks or 1 cup) unsalted butter, room temperature
- 1 3/4 cups sugar (1½ cups plus 3 tablespoons for 3,000–5,000 feet, 1½ cups plus 2 tablespoons for 7,000 feet)
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 4 large eggs, room temperature
- 1 1/3 cups buttermilk (1½ cups for 3,000–5,000 feet, 1½ cups plus 2 tablespoons for 7,000 feet)
- Position the rack and preheat the oven: lower third and 325° for sea level; center and 375° for 3,000–5,000 feet; lower third and 350° for 7,000 feet. Coat two 9-by-1-inch metal round or heart-shaped pans with butter-flavor vegetable spray or shortening. At 5,000 feet and above, line with baking parchment or wax paper. Grease again, then dust greased pans with a bit of sifted cocoa powder; tap out excess.
- Put the chocolate in the top of a double boiler set over simmering water (at sea level to 3,000 feet) or boiling water (5,000 feet and above) and heat, stirring occasionally until smooth. Remove from heat and set aside to cool.
- In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda, salt, and nutmeg. Set aside.
- In the large bowl of an electric mixer, cream together the butter and sugar. Scrape down the bowl and beater. Beat in the vanilla and then the eggs, adding them 2 at a time. Beat well, then scrape down bowl and beater.
- With the mixer on the lowest speed, alternately add the flour mixture and the buttermilk. Stir the chocolate to make sure it is smooth, then scrape it into the batter and beat until no streaks of color remain.
- Divide the batter evenly between the two pans; smooth the tops. Bake 35–45 minutes for sea level; 25–27 minutes for 3,000 feet; 25–30 minutes for 5,000 feet; and 30–32 minutes for 7,000 feet—or until the cakes are springy to the touch and a cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean.
- Cool layers in pans on a wire rack 10–15 minutes, then run a knife along the sides. Top each with a foil-covered cardboard cake disk or a plate, invert, and remove the pan. Peel off the parchment, if used, and cool layers completely. Fill and frost as desired.
Bittersweet Chocolate Icing
Makes 2–3 cups.
This classic ganache works the same at all altitudes.
- 8 ounces semisweet or bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
- 1 cup heavy cream, more as needed
- 2–3 tablespoons liqueur, brandy, or rum, or 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- Combine the chocolate and cream in the top of a double boiler set over simmering water (sea level to 3,000 feet) or boiling water (5,000 feet and above) and heat, stirring occasionally, until smooth. Remove from heat, set aside to cool.
- Whisk the flavoring into the chocolate. If using a glass double boiler, transfer the mixture to a metal bowl.
- Prepare an ice-water bath and set the bowl in it. Beat with a handheld electric mixer for a few minutes or until the icing is cool, lighter in color, and nearly doubled in volume. It should be thick, creamy, and of spreading consistency. Add a little more cream to soften it, if necessary, or refrigerate (or freeze, wrapped in plastic wrap) to firm.
- Spread the icing on the cake with an icing spatula. At first you will see lots of bubbles in the icing, but as you work the spatula over the surface, the texture will smooth out.
- Optional: Decorate with chocolate roses. (Recipe follows.)
Edible Chocolate Roses
Makes 6–8 1½-inch roses
This recipe works at all altitudes.
This simple mixture comes together quickly but needs to cool and be kneaded before shaping; prepare it at least an hour before use. Wrap and store it in the fridge for several months. It turns into edible “clay” when warmed with your hands until flexible. Perfect for elegant cake decorations, edible dough is also fun to make with children, molding animals and playful figures. Do not overheat when melting or chocolate will separate.
- 7 ounces semisweet chocolate or a high-quality Swiss white chocolate, chopped
- ¼ cup light (Karo) corn syrup
- Unsweetened cocoa (for working dark chocolate; sifted cornstarch or confectioners’ sugar for working white chocolate)
- Paste or powdered vegetable coloring (optional, for white chocolate)
- Edible gold powder (optional and preferably Wilton; available at craft or cake-supply shops)
- A few drops of spirits or rum (optional, for gilding)
- Place chocolate in top of double boiler over simmering water and stir until melted and smooth. Cool 4–5 minutes.
- Pour corn syrup into chocolate all at once, stir hard with wooden spoon about 2 minutes until mixture thickens, looks dull, and pulls away from pan.
- Turn chocolate out onto plastic wrap, press into a flat packet, wrap. Set in cool place about 1 hour, to chill and firm. In hot weather, refrigerate. (Dough can be refrigerated up to several months.)
- After firming, chocolate must be softened slightly, rolled out, and kneaded to develop plasticity. If too stiff, unwrap and microwave a few seconds. Roll out on a surface dusted with cocoa, cornstarch, or confectioners’ sugar. When chocolate is flexible, model it as you would clay.
- Form a cone for the base. Cut petal and leaf shapes from rolled-out dough, wrap around base of the cone, pinch at bottom, and flare out edges. Blend gold powder with a drop of spirits to liquefy; brush on edges of molded chocolate rose petals.
Bite-You-Back Gingerbread Cupcakes with Rum-Lemon Icing
Makes 4 cups batter for eight 3-inch or 21 2-inch cupcakes, or 32 mini-cupcakes
Created for baking at about 7,000 feet in Santa Fe (with altitude adjustments in parentheses), this recipe contains a triple bite: powdered ginger, grated fresh gingerroot, and pepper; add more or less spice to suit your taste. Without the icing, you can dust the cupcakes with sifted confectioners’ sugar; with icing, top with slivered candied ginger. This recipe is a dinner-party winner and bake-sale or picnic favorite.
- 1½ tablespoons freshly grated peeled gingerroot, or more to taste 2½ cups all-purpose flour, unsifted
- ½ teaspoon baking powder
- 3/4 teaspoon baking soda (1 teaspoon for sea level)
- 3/4 teaspoon salt (½ teaspoon for sea level to 5,000 feet)
- 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon ground ginger, or to taste
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- ¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper (or ground white pepper)
- Pinch cayenne pepper, optional
- ½ cup unsulfured molasses
- 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons very hot water (1 cup for sea level through 5,000 feet)
- 8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
- ½ cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
- 2 large eggs (1 egg for sea level), room temperature
- 2/3 cup full-fat sour cream (½ cup for sea level to 3,000 feet)
- Garnish: About cup candied ginger, finely chopped or slivered
- Rum Lemon Icing (recipe follows)
- Position a rack in center of the oven and preheat to 350°. Line cupcake/muffin pans with paper liners or generously grease and flour the pans. Grate gingerroot and set aside.
- In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and spices.
- Combine the molasses and hot water in a 2-cup measure and stir until dissolved.
- In the large bowl of an electric mixer, cream together butter and sugar until very well blended. Scrape down bowl and beater. Beat in eggs, sour cream, and grated gingerroot. Scrape down bowl again. With mixer on lowest speed, alternately add the flour mixture and the molasses liquid. Scrape bowl, beat a few seconds longer. Batter will be soft.
- Spoon batter into prepared cups; fill about 2/3 full and bake for about 20–24 minutes or until tops of cupcakes are well risen and a cake tester or toothpick in the center comes out dry. (Time varies depending on cup size and elevation.) Cool pans on wire rack. Store completely cooled cupcakes in airtight containers. Let cool completely before adding icing or peeling off paper liners—warm cakes are fragile. Garnish icing with slivered or chopped candied ginger.
Makes 1 generous cup—enough for larger cupcakes; double recipe for mini-cupcakes.
- 2 ounces (about 4 tablespoons) cream cheese, room temperature
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter, room temperature
- 3 cups sifted confectioners’ sugar
- 1 tablespoon dark rum
- 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
- Pinch of salt
- In food processor, blend cream cheese and butter, add sugar, and pulse. Add remaining ingredients and pulse until thick and smooth. Add more sugar or rum/lemon to adjust texture and taste if needed. Icing thickens when refrigerated.
- Pipe onto cupcakes through a decorating tube fitted with star tip or spread with knife.
- Read recipes carefully; don’t substitute essential ingredients—“spreads” for butter, for example.
- Use the recommended pan sizes and prepare pans as directed so baked goods do not stick or overflow.
- Use level, accurate measurements.
- Keep an auxiliary thermometer (inexpensive, sold in hardware stores) inside your oven chamber for accuracy; most ovens are inaccurate.
- Small adjustments make a big difference: A little more liquid improves a batter or pie dough in dry air.
- Since less air pressure at altitude makes baked goods rise easily, reduce leavening agents slightly, allowing nature to do some of the work.
- To keep items up once risen, strengthen protein content: an extra egg, more flour, or less sugar.
- Flavors can be bland in high, dry air. Add just a little more extract, citrus zest, or a pinch of salt.
- Water boils at lower temperatures as you go higher (1.9° cooler per 1,000 feet of elevation).
- Use recipes specifically developed for your altitude.
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