December 20, 2011

Hummingbird Bakery Vanilla Cupcakes Recipe (Adapted for High-Altitude)


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Ingredients

For the Vanilla Cupcakes:
(enough for 10 cupcakes)
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • a scant 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder (increase to 1 1/2 teaspoons for sea-level)
  • a pinch of salt
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon of whole milk (decrease to 1/2 cup for sea-level)
  • 1 large egg
  • 1/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

For the Vanilla Buttercream Frosting:

(enough for 12 cupcakes)
  • 2 cups powdered sugar, sifted
  • 5 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 2 tablespoons whole milk
  • a couple of drops of pure vanilla extract
  • edible sprinkles for decoration
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The Hummingbird Bakery Cookbook's Vanilla Cupcakes Recipe
(Adapted for a high-altitude environment of approximately 5,000 ft)
  1. Preheat the oven to 375 (F); for sea-level, decrease the oven temperature to 325 (F).

  2. Put the flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, and butter in a freestanding electric mixer with a paddle attachment (or use a handheld whisk) and beat on slow speed until you get a sandy consistency and everything is combined.

  3. Gradually pour in half the milk and beat until the milk is just incorporated.

  4. Whisk the egg, vanilla, and remaining milk together in a separate bowl for a few seconds, and then pour into the flour mixture and continue beating until just incorporated.

  5. Scrape any unmixed ingredients from the side of the bowl with a rubber spatula and continue mixing for a couple more minutes until the batter is smooth. Do not overmix.

  6. Spoon the batter into the paper cases until two-thirds full and bake in the preheated oven for 20-25 minutes, or until light golden and the cake bounces back when touched. A skewer inserted in the center of each cupcake should come out clean.

  7. Let the cupcakes cool slightly in the pan before turning out into a wire rack to cool completely.

  8. When the cupcakes are cold, spoon the vanilla frosting on top and decorate accordingly.


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The Hummingbird Bakery Cookbook's Vanilla Frosting Recipe
  1. Beat the powdered sugar and butter together in a freestanding electric mixer with a paddle attachment on medium-slow speed until the mixture comes together and is well mixed.

  2. Turn the mixer down to a slower speed.

  3. Combine the milk and vanilla in a separate bowl, then add to the butter mixture a couple of teaspoons at a time. Once the mixer has been incorporated, turn the mixer up to high speed.

  4. Continue beating for at least 5 minutes or until the frosting is light and fluffy.

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Tips & Addendums
  • All spoon measurements are level and unsifted, unless otherwise specified. To level the ingredients, take the back of a knife and run it across the top of the measuring cup until the excess ingredients are scraped off.

  • Liquid and dry measuring cups are different; please make sure you use the appropriate measuring cup for each ingredient.

  • When creaming butter and sugar together, always make sure you keep creaming until the mixture is light and fluffy (this will usually take around 5 minutes). This helps the cupcakes rise nicely in the oven.

  • After adding flour to the mixture, don't overbeat as this will overwork the flour and make the cake dense -- simply beat or stir until the flour is just incorporated. In my opinion, making sure you don't overbeat the batter is one of the hardest parts about baking.

  • Don't open your oven until at least the minimum time recommended has passed. Too much cold air coming from a frequently opened oven door causes irregular oven temperatures that affect the baking process.

  • Specifically for the vanilla buttercream frosting: the longer the frosting is beaten, the fluffier and lighter it becomes.

  • Add your extra decorations (e.g., sprinkles, nonpareils) immediately after you have frosted the cupcake; if you wait to decorate the cupcake, the frosting will harden and the decorations will not stay on the cake.
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December 19, 2011

High-Altitude Hummingbird Bakery Vanilla Cupcakes, Pt. 6: Cracking the Recipe

(iPhone Camera)

BOOM, BABY!

I do believe these are Hummingbird Bakery vanilla cupcakes, high-altitude style.

Recall my last post in which I increased the oven temperature of the recipe since following the original instruction of 325 (F) for 20-25 minutes resulted in pale, gummy, undercooked cupcakes. Increasing the temperature to 375 (F) resulted in golden cupcakes with tops that sprung back when touched (odd, but this is the way the Hummingbird Bakery Cookbook describes their perfectly cooked vanilla cupcakes), but also compromised the cupcakes flavor by drying them out drastically.

This time around, I added an extra 1 tablespoon of milk to the half cup that the recipe called for in order to avoid the dry results from last time. The additional milk resulted in these beautiful babies:

(iPhone Camera)

Aww, yeah.

I know they don't look all that different from my last two previous attempts, but believe me -- they are dramatically better.

Even with the reduced baking powder, I had always hovered over by the oven window, panicking and fighting the urge to open the oven. There were always times in which some cupcakes' batters had risen too quickly, at first overflowing past their allotted spaces and then appearing more bloated than what was necessary.

After I had adjusted the recipe to bake the cupcakes at a significantly higher temperature and fix the undercooking and the overbloating, a new problem occurred -- now I hovered over the oven window to monitor the cupcakes in order to prevent them from burning!

Not this time though.

With the addition of this extra tablespoon of milk, the cupcakes rose slowly in a controlled fashion. This gradual rise of the batter contrasted severely from my previous attempts, even after I had reduced the baking powder dramatically. The addition of milk also seemed to slow down the browning/burning process -- while I immediately pulled the previous batch (that is, the batch without extra milk cooked at 375 (F)) from the oven at 20 minutes because I worried they looked dry/burned, I was comfortable leaving this batch in the oven for a few more minutes to achieve the perfect brown-ness.

And what about the taste?

I'm happy to report that it tasted exactly like the way I remember Hummingbird Bakery vanilla cupcakes tasting. The cupcakes had a tender crumb and density, light but with the distinctive, VERY subtle crunch of Hummingbird cupcakes.

S'RIGHT BITCHEZ!

So what do I have to say now that I've achieved my first success?

Admittedly, the entire process was quite a bit more monotonous than I had expected -- running through the same steps multiple times, seeing the same mistakes and results happen more often than I would have liked, grumble grumble grunt.

Experimenting with a recipe also requires you to go through the process as a whole to see just one effect -- for instance, take my temperature experiment. I was able to make one batch of cupcakes, and then cook a couple of them at several different temperatures, making the experimenting process more efficient since I could run multiple experiments using just one batch. This was not often the case with the other tweaks and changes -- I had to go through the entire baking process several times, using all the resulting cupcake batter just once to see the results of such a minor change. It's admittedly an incredibly wasteful process. I'm embarrassed to tell you how many boxes of unsalted butter I've been through these last few weeks.

Then I came across another unexpected and rather comical problem -- after tasting all my failures and ever-so-close approximations, I found myself forgetting what the original Hummingbird Bakery cupcakes actually tasted like.

What the fuck, right?!

So take it with a grain of salt when I present to you the final, adapted-for-high-altitude recipe for Hummingbird Bakery vanilla cupcakes in my next post. While I think they're a great approximation of what I've been trying to achieve, I have to admit that it's been so long since I've had a perfect Hummingbird Bakery vanilla cupcake.

Luckily, I'll be going to Manila, the Philippines (elevation: approximately 52 ft, suck it) where I will be inevitably mass-baking for my mother's Christmas and New Year's parties. There, I'll recalibrate my tastebuds and be able to report back on how, uh, legitimate this final recipe is.

December 17, 2011

High-Altitude Hummingbird Bakery Vanilla Cupcakes, Pt. 5: Temperature

Last post, I came really close to cracking the recipe. By reducing the amount of baking powder by a half teaspoon, I was able to create actual, solid cupcakes that were starting to resemble the Hummingbird Bakery's vanilla cupcakes. Unfortunately, the cupcakes still weren't perfect; they seemed gummy and undercooked.

So this time, I decided to play with temperature.

Truth be told, I was reluctant to mess with temperature because Susan Purdy of the frequently cited Pie in the Sky: Successful Baking at High Altitudes advises against it. At the beginning of the book, she discusses 12 "High Altitude Myths" -- that is, highly unreliable high altitude baking tips found in a variety of different sources -- and dispels such conventional wisdom.

One of the myths that Purdy discussed was the rule that bakers at higher-altitudes had to increase the recipe's oven temperature by 25 degrees. Interestingly enough, this was the advice that I received the most when I first started my project -- first given by my boyfriend's grandmother and my officemate, both of whom had lived in Colorado for almost all of their lives, and then by my recently transplanted colleague, who had recently moved from New York to Denver and was in the same process of translating his bread recipes to work at higher altitudes.

However, despite this seemingly conventional wisdom, Purdy explains that:

"[Raising the oven temperature by 25 degrees] doesn't always work, and in fact, it is often better to leave the temperature the same or even reduce it, baking at a more moderate heat for a longer time. It depends on what you are baking. Raising the heat by 25 degrees to bake cookies and cakes works very well at 5,000 feet, but at 7,000 and 10,000 feet, the oven may be too hot, crusting over the top of a cake before the inside bakes through. Instead of changing the temperature, it is often better to change the position of the rack in the oven, so your cake is closer (or farther away from) intense heat."

I wish Purdy had provided a rationale for why she thinks it's better to leave the temperature unaltered; I suspect it has something to do with the fact that moisture evaporates at a faster rate in higher altitudes. But from my point of view, it seems like changing the position of the oven rack would yield highly inconsistent and unpredictable results. Most ovens, especially gas ovens, are pretty inaccurate and have internal temperatures that vary greatly depending on where the source of the heat is located and how the oven actually circulates that heat. There's a great chapter in Paula Figoni's How Baking Works that teaches you how to figure out where the hot spots in your oven are and how to adjust for such flaws accordingly.

For my purposes, I wanted to alter the recipe in a way that would generalize it -- that is, I felt that if I followed Purdy's advice and just altered the oven rack positioning, a random person following the final recipe from this blog probably wouldn't get the same results simply because of the differences in our oven heat. And, as Purdy laments, oven temperatures are especially critical in high altitudes -- a variation of 15 to 25 degrees can make the difference between a cake that rises and one that falls. I felt that altering temperature would be able to provide a more realistic method for following my recipe accurately, especially if one were to use an oven thermometer.

The original Hummingbird vanilla cupcakes recipe called for a bake time of 20-25 minutes at 325 degrees Fahrenheit. The end result, according to the Hummingbird Bakery Cookbook, yielded "light golden" cupcakes with tops that "spring back when touched".

However, following those instructions resulted in cupcakes that were sticky-topped (there was definitely no spring-back action), pale, undercooked, and gummy-tasting:

(iPhone Camera)

I therefore upped the temperature to 350 degrees (note: an increase of 25 degrees, as recommended by conventional wisdom) and, after 25 minutes exactly, was greeted by these attractive suckers:

(iPhone Camera)
Hey! Not bad!

The cupcakes definitely looked more "golden" than the cupcakes I had cooked at 325 degrees. The tops still looked and felt a little sticky, but there was definitely some "spring-back" action starting to happen:

(iPhone Camera)

Despite their good looks, I wasn't fully satisfied by the results. When I first peeked at the cupcakes at exactly 20 minutes, they definitely still looked undercooked:

(iPhone Camera)

I had then decided to leave them in the oven for the full 25 minutes, the last possible minute of the suggested bake time. They still looked a little pale at that time, despite the browning edges. I definitely felt more comfortable increasing the oven temperature up to 375 degrees to see what would happen.

This is what the cupcakes looked like at 375 degrees after 20 minutes:

(iPhone Camera)

Hey! That looked a LOT better. I was actually confident that the cupcakes were COOKED:

(iPhone Camera)

Every single cupcake had a golden color, with perfectly-domed tops that sprung back when touched:

(iPhone Camera)

Just like what the Hummingbird Bakery Cookbook described!

...but what about the taste?

To be honest, I had definitely compromised the cupcakes' flavor during my temperature experiment. Despite the fact that they actually looked like Hummingbird cupcakes, they tasted... well... dry.

A taste test between the batch cooked at 350 degrees versus 375 degrees revealed that the cupcakes that were baked at the higher temperature were significantly drier.

This was not particularly surprising. Recall that at higher elevations, water boils at a lower temperature, meaning that it takes less energy for water to evaporate in higher altitudes. Combine this with the fact that the new higher temperature of the recipe probably increased the amount of evaporation that occurred during the baking process. To get super-geeky for a second and talk about middle-school science, for molecules of a liquid to evaporate, they have to have enough kinetic energy to transform from a liquid to a gaseous phase. Molecules have a higher kinetic energy at higher temperatures, increasing the rate of evaporation.

So long story short: the higher temperature caused a faster evaporation rate of the liquids in the batter, drying out the cupcake.

Okay. Still, a lot of progress. I can deal with dryness -- all I have to do is increase the amount of liquids in the batter to compensate for this temperature change. Yep. That's what I'll do in my next post. And hopefully, HOPEFULLY, that'll be it.

Fingers crossed.

December 15, 2011

High-Altitude Hummingbird Bakery Vanilla Cupcakes, Pt. 4: That Pesky Baking Powder

In my last post, I came dangerously close to actual, edible-looking cupcakes simply by reducing baking powder. Would it be too optimistic to say that maybe all I need to do is reduce the amount of baking powder in the recipe?

Let's find out.

Recall in my last post that I took out the rather awkward amount of 3/8ths a teaspoon of baking powder; the cupcakes, although actually distinguishable as cupcakes for the first time, ended up ever-so-slightly cratering as they cooled. This meant that they still had risen too quickly in the oven (indeed, they had looked a little bloated when I first pulled them out of the oven) meaning that I still had used too much baking powder.

This time, I decided to reduce the recipe by a more normal amount -- that is, half a teaspoon. Since the original recipe called for 1.5 teaspoons of baking powder, I simply reduced it to just 1 teaspoon:
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • a "scant" 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1 teaspoon of baking powder
  • a pinch of salt
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1/2 cup whole milk
  • 1 egg
  • 1/4 tspn vanilla extract
This is what they looked like when I first pulled them out of the oven:

(iPhone Camera)

BOOM!

(iPhone Camera)

Not bad, eh? They actually look like perfectly cooked cupcakes. There was none of the bloating or overfilling into other spaces evident in the previous batches. Plus, check out these perfectly-domed tops:

(iPhone Camera)

They even stood the so-called 'Test of Time' -- that is, as I let them cool and returned to them 20 minutes later, they hadn't sunken in at all like the previous batch:

Batch #1 with 3/8 teaspoon reduction

Batch #2 with 1/2 teaspoon reduction
(iPhone Camera)
Nice.

But what about the flavor?

(iPhone Camera)

To be honest, the cupcakes tasted a little... gummy. They were definitely undercooked. The Hummingbird Bakery Cookbook describes perfectly cooked vanilla cupcakes as having a "light golden" color with cupcake tops that "spring back when touched".

These cupcakes were definitely a pale yellow, with a sticky top that did NOT spring back when touched.

Hm. I smell an experiment relating to temperature soon.

But I'm close. SO close.

December 12, 2011

High-Altitude Hummingbird Bakery Vanilla Cupcakes, Pt. 3: Decreasing Baking Powder

This is the third part of a three-step control group experiment attempting to get the Hummingbird Bakery's vanilla cupcakes recipe to work in the high altitude environment of Denver.

Since I started this oh-so-fruitful experiment, I have long since suspected that baking powder is responsible for the majority of the recipe's failure.

Recall that baking powder is a leavening agent; that is, baking powder is a chemical that produces carbon dioxide in the cupcake batter, causing the batter to rise when baked. Since air pressure lessens at higher altitudes, there is less air pushing down on the cake batter, causing it to rise much more easily. The higher the elevation, the less air resistance, the more easily the baking powder will work.

Now note that Hummingbird Bakery's original recipe calls for an extraordinarily large quantity of baking powder -- 1.5 teaspoons for 12 cupcakes, as a matter of fact. To compare, Thomas Keller's Ad Hoc recipe for white cupcakes calls for 2 teaspoons for 24 cupcakes. That means that the amount of baking powder in a Hummingbird Bakery recipe is nearly as much as the amount of baking powder in a recipe that yields twice as many cupcakes!

Susan Purdy of Pie in the Sky: Successful Baking at High Altitudes recommends subtracting 1/8 - 1/4 a teaspoon for every teaspoon of baking powder in the recipe. I wanted to be conservative, so I heeded her advice and started by taking an 1/8 of a teaspoon away from each of the teaspoons in the Hummingbird Bakery recipe. Which meant I was subtracting a rather awkward amount of 3/8 of a teaspoon of baking powder from the recipe:
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • a "scant" 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder minus 3 x 1/8ths a teaspoon of baking powder
  • a pinch of salt
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1/2 cup whole milk
  • 1 egg
  • 1/4 tspn vanilla extract
I know, I know. It's a really weird, awkward amount. What I ended up doing was first scooping the 1.5 teaspoons of baking powder into a small bowl, and then subtracting 1/8 of a teaspoon from the pile three times. (I recommend using Endurance's Metal Measuring Spoon Set for the task; it's a decently-priced, high-quality set of measuring spoons with a 1/8 tsp piece.)

These are what the cupcakes looked like when I checked them after the recipe's original cook time of 20 minutes:

(iPhone Camera)

Wa-hey! Not bad!

This is the first time I've made cupcakes here that have come out with dome-like tops as opposed to the sunken, cratered centers. This time, there were also no overspilling, save for a couple bloated ones here and there.

I decided that, despite their pleasant shape, the cupcakes still looked undercooked. I decided to leave them in for another five minutes. This is what they looked like after the additional five minutes of baking time:

(iPhone Camera)

Hey! Not bad! Check out these domed-tops:

(iPhone Camera)

Okay, maybe not that domed -- to be fair, they still looked a little flat-topped. But a definite improvement from the cratered centers of my previous attempts. Even the additional flour didn't yield cupcakes this good looking!

Now it was time for the second test -- the cooling process. Most of the sinking and cratering actually happens during the cooling process as warm molecules evaporate, inflating the cake artificially and causing it to sink when it cools. I waited with bated breath for the cupcakes to cool, leaving the room and returning 20 minutes later to find this:

(iPhone Camera)

Wait a second. They don't look THAT much different from when they were warm. Check it:

(iPhone Camera)

Same angle, twenty minutes later. Nearly indistinguishable from the above photo when the cupcakes were still warm.

NICE!

Okay, okay, to be fair, I exaggerated a little bit -- the cupcakes did flatten out a bit as they cooled. The end results were still a little too flat for my liking, but they were at least starting to look like actual, solid, edibles. I think I was a little too conservative with the reduction of baking powder -- next time, I think I'll reduce the baking powder by a full 1/2 teaspoon and see where that takes me.

So how did the cupcakes actually taste?

(iPhone Camera)
Hm.

They tasted... fine. Definitely not Hummingbird flavor -- still way too sticky and moist. A little gummy even. Erlend suggested that the gummy flavor might be a result of being undercooked -- truth be told, the cupcakes do look a little pale (they're supposed to be a golden color as opposed to the pale yellow they are now). I guess this means that I'm going to have to start playing with temperature soon. But not after I keep messing with the baking powder.

All in all, I feel good about this, guys. Things are starting to look good. Finally.

December 11, 2011

High-Altitude Hummingbird Bakery Vanilla Cupcakes, Pt. 2: Decreasing Sugar

This is the second part of a three-step control group experiment attempting to get the Hummingbird Bakery's vanilla cupcakes recipe to work in the high altitude environment of Denver.

Recall that I determined that I could do three things to adjust the recipe:
  1. Add flour, to strengthen the recipe's batter and prevent it from collapsing into a puddle of goop during the cooling process.

  2. Decrease the amount of sugar, since sugar interferes with egg protein's coagulation and requires more heat to set. Alternatively, I could just bake the cupcakes at a higher temperature.

  3. Decrease the amount of baking powder in the recipe, to slow down and decrease the batter's rise.
Last week, I added a tablespoon of flour to the recipe to mixed success. The extra flour strengthened the recipe's batter and contained the cake's rise -- that is, I didn't end up puddles of goop spilling over the pan's edges. However, as the cupcakes cooled, they sank in the center, creating a crater-like appearance.

This week, I decided to decrease the amount of sugar in the recipe. According to the oft-cited Pie in the Sky: Successful Baking at High-Altitudes, the reduction of a little sugar may add sufficient strength and eliminate the need to add additional flour. Sugar has a lot of functions in the baking process, but the most relevant in my case are the following two:
  • Sugar slows down the coagulation of egg proteins.
This means that batter containing a high amount of sugar needs more heat in order to set. The less sugar in a batter, the more quickly the batter will set in the oven.

Note that the unaltered Hummingbird vanilla cupcakes recipe produced puddles of liquidy, sticky goop. That means that the batter never really fully set in the oven. Reducing the sugar could potentially fix this problem.
  • Sugar increases the final product's tenderness.
Sugar interferes with the ability of gluten stands to join together; the more sugar present, the weaker the gluten strands and the more tender the product. Some sugar is therefore necessary to achieve a tender texture. However, recall that liquids evaporate more quickly at high altitudes; such evaporation leaves excess concentrations of sugar in a batter, which can then boil up and easily overflow.

This is especially relevant in my case since a constant issue I seem to have are the cupcakes overflowing from their allotted space and off the sides of the pan. The recipe might be using excess concentrations of sugar, causing this overflow. Decreasing the sugar could potentially stop this.

Without further ado, here is the amended ingredients list (changes are in bold):
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • a "scant" 3/4 cup sugar minus 1 tablespoon of sugar
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • a pinch of salt
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1/2 cup whole milk
  • 1 egg
  • 1/4 tspn vanilla extract
This is what the cupcakes looked like when I pulled them out of the oven:

(iPhone Camera)

Dammitwhatthefuck!

I thought that reducing the sugar was supposed to stop the batter from overspreading into puddle-like appearances! Reducing the sugar seems to be a REGRESSION from increasing the flour. At least the cupcakes with the extra flour were kept contained in their little cupcake spaces. These seem more akin to the unaltered Hummingbird Bakery recipe results. ESPECIALLY when they cooled:

(iPhone Camera)

The centers sunk in, creating craters in the cupcakes and completing the "puddle of goop" appearance that I've become so familiar with:

(iPhone Camera)

Getting them out of the pan was another matter entirely. Unsurprisingly, the parts that had overflowed were really stuck onto the metal pan:

(iPhone Camera)

The remaining part of the cupcake -- that is, the batter that actually remained in the allotted cupcake space -- seemed to lack structure entirely. They crushed easily when I tried to pull the cake out of the pan, squeezing together in a weird, moist, sticky mess. The batter appeared to not have set fully. I thought reducing the sugar was supposed to remediate this problem by allowing the batter to set faster with less heat?!

And what about the taste? To be honest, they tasted severely undercooked and bland -- reducing even just a tablespoon of sugar affected the cupcakes' flavor intensely. The final product tasted too flour-y and ultimately, flavorless.

Sigh. Never again will I mess with the cupcake's sugar content.

Well, it's good to know, I guess? It seems that even increasing flour and decreasing sugar still didn't really do a whole lot to contain the over-rising of the original recipe. I have a sneaking suspicion that the final recipe will contain additional flour, the same amount of sugar, and a significantly decreased amount of baking powder. I guess we'll find out in the next post though -- maybe a decrease in baking powder is all I really need.

December 8, 2011

The KitchenAid 5-Quart Artisan Stand Mixer: All The Details You Didn't Know

(iPhone Camera)

So, remember nearly a month ago, I couldn't stop going on about how I was going to buy a KitchenAid and how awesome my life was going to be because of it?

I know, I know, it's a gripping life I do lead considering that I get all worked up about buying a kitchen appliance. To be fair, the KitchenAid is beautiful and -- well, there's really no other way to put this -- FUCKING expensive! I wasn't joking when I said that I had been lusting after one since 2007; the average cost of a KitchenAid mixer will set you back $300. And please note that I said "average". I've seen vintage metallic KitchenAid mixers go for $900 at Williams-Sonoma. Yikes.

Luckily, I was able to find a mixer on Amazon.com for a much cheaper price than what they usually go for at kitchen specialty stores. I recommend going through Amazon to purchase your mixer -- they actually have a special KitchenAid Store set up, complete with a KitchenAid Stand Mixer Buyer's Guide. From what I can see, the site offers the lowest prices out there, as well as having an incredibly comprehensive range of models, attachments, and most importantly, colors. To top it off, Amazon takes care of the shipping for free and has a special sale going on every week for different colored Artisan series mixers. While most colors usually sell for $299.95, there are always a couple of colors that are on sale for as low as $220. The colors rotate each week -- this week, the cheapest mixers go for $239.96 and come in tangerine, blue willow, majestic yellow, and pistachio colors. You can get other colors for $250 or $280 as well. As you all know, I myself ended up getting the pistachio color, after an extensive debate between buttercup and almond cream. I eventually went with pistachio since it somewhat matched my butter dish and Erlend's tea kettle:

(iPhone Camera)
Ridiculous, right?

But lest I continue rambling, I'll now ask the million dollar question: is the KitchenAid worth the four years of lusting after and the $239.96 that I eventually paid?

Well, yes... and no.

Bear in mind that this is the first freestanding electric mixer I've ever had, so I don't really have that much to compare it to. Before the KitchenAid, I was using the rather unglamorous Hamilton Beach Power Deluxe Hand Mixer. Don't get me wrong -- I love that thing. Sure, it's not as sexy on your counter as the KitchenAid, but I've had the mixer since my sophomore year of college and it still works like a charm.

But the truth is, using a hand mixer while baking is a major hassle since actually holding the mixer created a massive handicap. You only had one hand to prep and throw in the ingredients. Which is a major (first world) problem because most recipes, especially Hummingbird Bakery recipes, require you to add ingredients to the batter while it is being mixed. So, basically, the freestanding aspect of the KitchenAid mixer really improves life in the kitchen because I now have two hands free while the mixer mixes my batter for me! Awesome!

But as for adding ingredients while the KitchenAid is mixing my batter? It's actually... kind of a hassle. There isn't that much clearance between the bowl and the mixing head:

(iPhone Camera)

So unless you have a pouring shield with a chute for adding ingredients, you actually have to stop the KitchenAid's motor, unlock the mixing head, tilt the mixing head back, add your ingredient, and close the head back into a locked position. A bit of a hassle indeed. I checked to see if other models came with a pouring shield/chute -- while it is included with the Artisan series mixer models, you'd have to buy a separate shield for the Classic, Classic Plus, and Ultra Power models.

The other major flaw I found with the KitchenAid mixer pertained to the most important function of the appliance: mixing. My Artisan mixer came with three attachments: a nylon coated dough hook, a metal wire whip, and a nylon coated flat beater:

(iPhone Camera)

I personally was most excited about the nylon coated flat beater. I'd been dreaming about a flat beater for years. One of the most irritating things I found about using a hand mixer was the design of its cylindrical beaters. Often times the batter -- especially heavier thick batters like cookie dough or ingredients like butter -- would build up in the column. This buildup would lead to some ineffective mixing, lest you stop the mixing process and remove the dough trapped inside the cylinder. It was a huge hassle to constantly poke a spatula through the beaters. I thought the KitchenAid mixer's patented flat beater would remedy this problem.

And so it did! But it provided a new, unexpected one -- that is, the flat beater has trouble mixing batter at the sides and the bottom of the bowl. The bowl's deep, narrow, concave design actually makes it difficult for the paddle to reach the bowl's extremities! Who knew?! I thought the mixer was designed to get around that shit?! But alas, you constantly have to stop mixing the process and manually scrape down the sides and the bottom of the bowl. It's actually astonishing to see how much batter remains unmixed if you neglect to do this, as I did when I made my Thanksgiving cheesecake. It seemed as though pure cream cheese simply clung to the sides and bottom, completely unmixed with any of the other ingredients.

This is apparently a common enough problem that a third party company independent from KitchenAid actually designed and manufactured a flat beater paddle with "flexible rubber wings". The rubber wings act like a spatula, providing rubber extensions that scrape down the sides of the bowl as the paddle rotates. Genius, right? The problem is, according to some negative reviews on Amazon, using one could potentially void the warranty on the KitchenAid mixer because it's not an official KitchenAid product! Jeez. KitchenAid does provide their own version of the winged flat beater paddle, but it is literally twice the price! God, KitchenAid. Way to be a dick and monopolize the market.

And what about the last part, the aesthetic value of the mixer?

(iPhone Camera)

I couldn't be happier with it. It's a beautiful piece of equipment and I'm really pleased with the way it looks in the kitchen. To be honest, I was torn between the Artisan series versus the Artisan Desire series with a glass bowl. How cool would it have been to see the batter being mixed through the glass? In the end, I chose the Artisan series because it offered a wider variety of colors, and I figured I could just buy the glass bowl separately (admittedly, at a surprisingly steep price) if I wanted to treat myself. Regarding the mixer's actual aesthetic value, I found only one (not necessarily) aesthetic flaw: the mixer's weight. Oh boy! That thing is a hefty 25lbs. That's the weight of the kettlebells they make us swing around at Crossfit! 25lbs is fine, but the KitchenAid is also an awkward shape to carry -- as I was unwrapping it from its box, I was paranoid that I was going to drop and shatter the thing. Interestingly enough, I also seem to have bought one of the lighter models -- the Classic Plus and Ultra Power weigh in at 26lbs, whilst the Artisan Design mixer comes in at a whopping 29lbs! Good lord.

So, in the end, would I say that the KitchenAid is worth it, despite these flaws? Yes, absolutely. I'm still really glad I bought it and I've been pretty happy with the results. HOWEVER, lusting after a kitchen appliance for four years?! Yikes. Don't do that. It's really unhealthy -- not to mention pretty pathetic -- to idealize a product like that and it'll just set you up for disappointment. So just take the plunge and buy one. Or put it on your Christmas list or something.

You won't regret it, despite the flaws. I promise.

December 4, 2011

High-Altitude Hummingbird Bakery Vanilla Cupcakes, Pt. 1: Adding More Flour

This is the first part of a three-step control group experiment attempting to get the Hummingbird Bakery's vanilla cupcakes recipe to work in the high altitude environment of Denver.

Once again, sorry for the long silence. Work this week was especially brutal -- I've been spending most days working 7am to 7pm, sitting in on meetings from 8am - 6pm. On the rare occasion I did actually leave work at 5.30, I did some insane working out (think handstand pushups, ring dips; or in my case, extremely modified versions of the excercises) at Crossfit LoDo and came home unable to lift my arms. Doesn't really lend much time for baking experiments. On the plus side, I seem to be featured on my crazy gym's website with increasing regularity, so at least I get some local fame out of this? Snort.

Anyway, so where did I leave off? Pre-Thanksgiving, I did my initial "control" experiment and followed the Hummingbird Bakery's sea-level recipe for vanilla cupcakes to spectacular failure in Denver. The recipe's use of generous amounts of baking powder caused the cupcakes to rise quickly and ultimately collapse into puddles of goop. I determined that I could do three things to adjust the recipe:
  1. Add flour, to strengthen the recipe's batter and prevent it from collapsing into a puddle of goop during the cooling process.

  2. Decrease the amount of sugar, since sugar interferes with egg protein's coagulation and requires more heat to set. Alternatively, I could just bake the cupcakes at a higher temperature.

  3. Decrease the amount of baking powder in the recipe, to slow down and decrease the batter's rise.
Instead of try all alterations at once, I decided to isolate each adjustment so that I could see each change's independent effect on the recipe. This week, I decided to add more flour to the batter.

Susan Purdy of Pie in the Sky: Successful Baking at High-Altitudes advises that, when experimenting, it is best to start with smaller adjustments and work up to larger ones if necessary. I followed this mantra and began by adding just one tablespoon of flour to the original Hummingbird Bakery recipe. The ingredients list that I used is as follows (the steps of the recipe are available here). My amendments to the original recipe are included in bold:
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour + 1 tablespoon of all-purpose flour
  • a "scant" 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • a pinch of salt
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1/2 cup whole milk
  • 1 egg
  • 1/4 tspn vanilla extract
This is what the cupcakes looked like when I pulled them out of the oven:

(iPhone camera)

Not bad! Especially when compared to how they looked the first time I had tried the recipe without any adjustments. The flour seemed to have added the appropriate amount of strength to the cupcake's batter. Sure, they didn't look perfect -- in fact, they looked flat-topped and sunken in. You know how perfectly cooked cupcakes have slightly domed top? Yeah, they definitely didn't have that:

(iPhone camera)

But I was perfectly happy with the results. So, I left the cupcakes to cool as I took a quick walk in the park. Unfortunately, I was definitely too optimistic because when I returned, I was greeted by this:

(iPhone camera)

Oh no! The cupcakes had sunken in even further during my 15 minute walk in the park. They now resembled mini-craters instead of the flat-topped cupcakes I had expected:

(iPhone camera)

Sigh. So they weren't aesthetically pleasing. But how did they taste?

I tentatively pulled a cupcake out of one of the cake slats. It was a good sign that it held together -- the first batch had simply been too goopy (resembling sticky puddles) that had made them impossible to even eat.

(iPhone camera)

Hm. Okay. So the cupcake had actual cake-like texture, which was good. But it was way too sticky. The flavor was pretty decent. Almost a little too sweet, but that might have just been the stickiness contributing to the flavor. All in all, it wasn't bad... just not good. Ha. And of course, nowhere comparable to the actual Hummingbird vanilla cupcake itself.

Sigh. But it's a start, right?