January 27, 2012

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



photo by kimothy from kimothyjoyeats

---

Ingredients

For the Chocolate Cupcakes:
(makes 12 cupcakes)
  • 3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 2 1/2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder (I recommend Ghirardelli's unsweetened baking cocoa powder, available at Whole Foods and Marczyk Fine Foods in Denver)
  • a scant 3/4 cup sugar
  • 3/4 teaspoons baking powder (reduced from sea-level quantity of 1 1/2 teaspoons)
  • a pinch of salt
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 1/2 cup whole milk, at room temperature
  • 1 egg, at room temperature
  • 1/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
For the Chocolate Buttercream Frosting:
(enough for 12 cupcakes)
  • 2 1/2 cups confectioners' sugar, sifted
  • 6 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder, sifted
  • 2 tablespoons whole milk
---

The Hummingbird Bakery Cookbook's Chocolate Cupcakes Recipe
(Adapted for a high-altitude environment of approximately 5,000 ft)

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 (F) -- this is a 50 (F) -degree increase from the original recipe temperature of 325 (F).
  2. Put the flour, cocoa powder, 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. Whisk the milk, egg, and vanilla together in a pitcher, then slowly pour about half into the flour mixture. Beat to combine and turn the mixer up to high speed to get rid of any lumps.
  4. Turn the mixer down to a slower speed and slowly pour in the remaining milk mixture, making sure to scrape any unmixed ingredients from the side of the bowl with a rubber spatula. Continue mixing for a couple more minutes until the batter is smooth, but do not overmix.
  5. Spoon the batter into paper cases until two-thirds full and bake in the preheated oven for 22-26 minutes, or until the cake tops bounce back when touched. A skewer inserted in the center should come out clean when the cupcakes are cooked.
  6. Let the cupcakes cool slightly in the muffin pan before turning out into a wire rack to cool completely.
  7. When the cupcakes are cold, spoon the chocolate frosting on top and decorate accordingly.
---

The Hummingbird Bakery Cookbook's Chocolate Buttercream Frosting Recipe
(For All Altitudes)
  1. Beat the confectioners' sugar, butter, and cocoa together in a freestanding electric mixer with a paddle attachment on medium-slow speed until the mixture is well mixed.
  2. Turn the mixer down to a slower speed and add the milk to the butter mixture a couple of teaspoons at a time.
  3. Once all the milk has been incorporated, turn the mixer up to high speed.
  4. Continue beating until the frosting is light and fluffy; this should take at least 5 minutes.
---

photo by kimothy from kimothyjoyeats

---

Tips & Addendums
  • Do not substitute the unsweetened cocoa powder for sweetened cocoa powder; doing so will make the chocolate flavor less intense.
  • 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 measuring cup appropriate 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 cupcake rise nicely in the oven.
  • After adding flour to the mixture, do not overbeat the batter 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 the chocolate buttercream frosting: the longer the frosting is beaten, the fluffier and lighter it becomes.
  • Add your extra decorations (e.g. sprinkes, nonpareils) immediately after frosting the cupcake; if you wait to decorate the cupcake, the frosting will harden and the decorations will not stay on the cake.
---

photo by kimothy from kimothyjoyeats
---

January 25, 2012

High-Altitude Hummingbird Bakery Chocolate Cupcakes, Pt. 2: Temperature Adjustments and Cracking the Recipe


Between all the food photography craziness and the recent feature of my last post on foodgawker (!!!!!!!!) and TasteSpotting (!!!!), I nearly forgot to tell you -- I cracked the recipe for Hummingbird Bakery chocolate cupcakes.

My earlier theory -- that the chocolate (from the cocoa powder in the batter) needed to be set in order to prevent the cratering that was occurring during the cooling process -- turned out to be right. Instead of leaving the chocolate cupcake to cool on its own devices, I cranked the temperature up from the recommended 325 (F) to allow the extra heat from the temperature increase to "set" the structure of the cupcake.

But it's conventional wisdom that chocolate burns really easily. According to Paula Figoni of How Baking Works, chocolate must be melted carefully as they contain a mix of proteins and carbohydrates that are easily overheated. This is why chocolate must be melted using a double-boiler -- even low, direct heat from a stove top is enough to turn the chocolate into a burned, thick, lumpy mess.

The vanilla cupcakes needed an increase of 50 (F) -- from 325 (F) to 375 (F) -- to bake properly at high-altitude. Because of chocolate's highly-flammable (is that the right word? easily burnable?) properties, I hypothesized that they would need less of a temperature increase. So I started out conservatively with my temperature adjustment and increased the recipe's temperature of 325 (F) by 10 degrees to 335 (F). This is what the cupcakes looked like when they cooled:


Hm. Not great right? You see that weird dent in the middle of the cake? That's when I poked the top to see if it would "spring back" like the Hummingbird Bakery Cookbook described. Nope. Left a giant fingerprint. Not to mention that when I tested the cupcake at the recommended bake time of 20 minutes, the toothpick came out with a ton of cake batter:


Definitely still undercooked. Look at the bottom part of the toothpick! It looks almost liquidy.

So I cranked it up by another 5 degrees from 335 (F) to 340 (F). This is what the cupcakes looked like when they cooled:

Hard to tell from the aerial shot, but they pretty much looked the same as the cupcakes baked at the previous temperature of 335 (F). That is, slightly sunken and cratered in. If you look closely, you can even see the same fingerprint in the bottom cupcake -- meaning that this batch failed the Hummingbird "spring back" test. However, the batch did perform marginally better at the 20-minute toothpick test. Instead of coming out with liquid batter, the toothpick came out with a chunk of moist cake:


Sigh.

I rolled up my sleeves and cranked the oven from 340 (F) to 345 (F). This is what the cupcakes looked like when they cooled:


Wa-hey! Some more improvement here. Instead of the vaguely cratered, ever-so-slightly sunken-in cupcake tops, I had FLAT tops. The cupcakes still had a little bit of batter stick to the toothpick at the 20-minute test, but they definitely passed the Hummingbird tops-that-bounce-back test!

So how did these taste?

Hm. Not perfect. A little too soft and moist. Hummingbird Bakery cupcakes have a substantial fluffy, non-sticky crumb, but these were missing it.

I decided to try cranking up the temperature one last time -- by this point, I was nearly out of batter. These are the final batch of cupcakes baked at 350 (F):


Why hello. Perfectly domed cupcake tops that spring back when touched! Exactly what the Hummingbird Bakery Cookbook described. But what about the taste? For the vanilla cupcakes, I ended up using an additional tablespoon of milk because my temperature adjustment dried them out. However, I adjusted the vanilla cupcakes by a full 50 (F) degrees; these chocolate cupcakes only received an adjustment of 25 (F) degrees.

I took an apprehensive bite and was pleasantly surprised to find that the cupcakes were perfectly moist. If anything, they were even a little too soft -- softer than the Hummingbird Bakery chocolate cupcakes. BUT they did have an expected substantial crunch to them; that is, they had the signature Hummingbird Bakery crumb. Here is an inside look of the cupcake crumb:


Not bad, hm?

Interestingly enough, the cupcakes baked at 350 (F) were a marginally darker, richer brown than the cupcakes baked at previous temperatures. Here is a picture of the cupcakes compared to the batch baked at 345 (F) degrees:


I'll take the deeper brown as a sign of chocolate cupcakes cooked to perfection. I remember that the vanilla cupcakes, when cooked at previous temperatures, were pale and had a bit of an undercooked look about them. I didn't realize that chocolate also had an undercooked color!

Well. Cool.

Score, ladies and gentlemen. Score. I will publish the fully-adapted, high-altitude friendly recipe in these next few posts.

Stay tuned!

January 23, 2012

My Cupcakes Photographed Well (For Once): A Preview

As you all know, I'm a little bit photographically challenged on this blog. But progress is happening -- albeit slowly. I recently upgraded from taking pictures with my outdated iPhone camera to a Canon Rebel XSi, a legitimate DSLR recommended by my friend Julie of The Trans Life and Cooking Foibles. Coincidentally, the Rebel XSi is the same camera that super-elite food bloggers Coco from Roost and Hannah from Honey & Jam started out with.

Okay, sure... as you can see from the posts before this one, I haven't really figured out how to use the Canon yet. My pictures are in no way comparable to either Coco's or Hannah's -- at all. Who knew that photography was more than just getting a fancy camera? ...I'm half-kidding.

Half.

Lucky for me, my friend Kimothy is a professional wedding photographer. She's been in the business for years and even owns her own wedding photography studio -- Love n Joy Photography -- right here in Denver. Indeed, it was my lucky day when she decided that she wanted to expand her repertoire to include food photography; knowing I was an avid baker, she reached out and asked me to bake a couple goodies for her to photograph and help start her portfolio.

Here is a preview of her work:


My cupcakes! In the windowsill of my apartment's living room!

Is my apartment really that light and airy? Are my cupcakes really that precious and... pastel?

I mean, the above are cupcakes from a boxed mix -- Pillsbury Funfetti cupcakes, in fact -- with simple Hummingbird Bakery buttercream frosting (you can find the buttercream frosting recipe here) piped into rose and hydrangea shapes. The rosettes were easy to pipe -- you can click here for detailed instructions on how to pipe rosettes. The hydrangeas were a little bit tricker -- I found the instructions from I Am Baker's Hydrangea Cake recipe.

More to come.

And again, thank you, Kimothy, for the beautiful photos of my cupcakes!

January 19, 2012

The Science of Nothing: Chocolate Cupcakes Edition

Not gonna lie. My previous discovery -- that chocolate cupcakes needed less baking powder than vanilla cupcakes at high altitude, proving my hypothesis completely wrong -- had me stumped.

I started out by consulting the usual sources. But to be honest, they weren't that much help. For starters, my go-to cookbook, Susan Purdy's Pie in the Sky: Successful Baking at High Altitudes, didn't have a paragraph dedicated to any chocolate products, let alone cocoa powder. Joy of Baking, a normally reliable internet source, had nothing except for stating the opposing fact that more leavening agent is sometimes used in recipes containing cocoa powder to offset the powder's drying and strenghtening affect in the finished product.

My last hope lay with Paula Figoni's How Baking Works. The culinary textbook has an entire chapter dedicated to cocoa and chocolate products, with a pretty lengthy section on the functions of such products. But aside from agreeing with the Joy of Baking and confirming that indeed, cocoa powder is an extremely effective drying and structuring agent, there was nothing I could use to help solve the mystery.

I guess I suffered the throes of food blog writer's block, because for the next few days, I pushed aside this mystery and focused on other things. Despite the fact that I left Ms. Figoni's textbook open in the middle of my coffee table to a page labeled "Handling Chocolate Products", I pretty much ignored it. I watched Portlandia on my laptop, using the open pages before me as a sort mat protecting my legs from the heat of my computer. I played with my new Canon Rebel XSi, taking close-up pictures of the open textbook, wondering how Coco from Roost produced significantly more beautiful photos, despite the fact that we used the exact same camera. I reread the first book of the Hunger Games series, even though I had already read it twice within the last month.

My attention returned (rather guiltily) to the open textbook when Katniss Everdeen started dipping her bread rolls in hot chocolate. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a section titled "Tempering Chocolate". I had previously ignored this section because I didn't believe tempering to be relevant to my baking experiment. Tempering, the process of controlling the melting and the cooling of the chocolate before it sets, is a process strictly for handling solid chocolate -- or so I thought.

The paragraph began,

"When chocolate is melted and allowed to cool on its own, it takes a while for it to set."

Wait a second.

I must confess that I had been a little too optimistic in my previous post. Recall that I declared the - 3/4 reduction in baking powder the winner of my experiment because it produced perfectly risen and domed cupcake tops:


Looks good right?

But see, above is a photo of what the cupcakes looked like fresh out the oven. That is, I put down the tray, took off my oven mits, and snapped a photo. They looked perfect, but warm and bloated from the hot oven air.

Because this is what happened when they cooled:


The cupcakes sank! Yes, they cratered. Like every adjustment failure I've made before. Even with the SIGNIFICANT reduction of baking powder.

See this?


Sure, not flat. Vaguely, ever-so-slightly domed. Definitely not the nice, puffy dome that first came out of the oven.

Gah.

As a matter of fact, almost every cupcake version I had tried, regardless of how much or little I reduced the baking powder, cratered like the unaltered sea-level recipe did when they cooled:


Sure, some reductions fared better than others. The top photo of the cupcakes with lesser reductions (- 3/8 and - 1/4) were more cratered than the bottom photo of the cupcakes with the greater reductions (-1/2 and -3/4):


According to How Baking Works, when chocolate is melted and allowed to cool on its own, it takes a while to set. When it does finally set, several things could go wrong with the chocolate -- dull appearances, gritty and crumbling textures, gray and white streaks she ominously calls 'fat blooms'... the list goes on.

Figoni writes that all these things could happen because of the way cocoa butter in chocolate solidifies when it cools on its own. Cocoa butter is polymorphic, which means that it can solidify into crystal shapes with different properties. The crystal shapes have different melting points, densities, and stabilities. When left to cool on its own devices without proper tempering, unstable crystal shapes usually form. These crystal shapes cause dull and "soft" chocolate.

"Soft" chocolate? Maybe the kind that would cause my cupcakes to sink and become unstable?

Certainly sounds like it to me. More specifically, it sounds like I need to "temper" my chocolate cupcakes. That is, I need to control the setting and the cooling of the chocolate in the cupcakes.

The main tool used for tempering chocolate is temperature; Paula Figoni even provides specific temperature ranges allowing readers to see which temperature leads to what sort of crystal in the chocolate. This is especially relevant because one of the things that remained consistent during my earlier experiment reducing baking powder is that none of the cupcakes looked like they were fully cooked. The Hummingbird Bakery Cookbook states that fully cooked cupcakes have tops that "spring back when touched"; however, all four rounds of cupcakes in my earlier experiment had tops that remained sticky and deflated from the touch.

This was normally a sign of being undercooked.

Indeed, almost all high-altitude tips recommend increasing the oven temperature by a few degrees. The idea behind this is to use a higher temperature to "set" the structure of baked goods before they overexpand and dry out -- especially since the propensity for baked goods to overexpand and dry out at high-altitude is significantly greater since leavening and evaporation proceed much more quickly. Recall that the high-altitude version of vanilla cupcakes needed a temperature increase of 50 (F) degrees from the original recipe before they actually cooked properly.

So, long story short, it sounds like the answer to my problem could be fixed by controlling the chocolate cupcakes' "setting" process by increasing the recipe's oven temperature.

Hm.

January 16, 2012

High-Altitude Hummingbird Bakery Chocolate Cupcakes, Pt. 1: Decreasing Baking Powder

In my last post, I discovered that the sea-level recipe for chocolate cupcakes fared significantly better at high-altitude than that of the vanilla cupcakes. The additional cocoa powder in the chocolate cupcakes recipe provided the extra structure that was needed for the vanilla cupcakes to retain their form. For this reason, I decided to skip messing with the flour and cocoa powder quantities in the original chocolate recipe, and just dive right into messing with other problematic ingredients like baking powder.

Baking powder -- or, any leavening agent really -- is the bane of the high-altitude baker's existence.

Recall that leavening gasses like air, carbon dioxide, and water vapor expand fast in higher elevations. Leavening agents like baking powder create these gasses in the cake's batter. When these leavening gasses expand quickly, cakes rise far too quickly and proceed to sink in the oven or during the cooling process. These gasses expand much faster because air pressure lessens at higher altitude -- that is, there is less air pushing down on the cake batter, causing it to rise more easily. So, essentially, the higher the elevation, the lower the air resistance, the more easily the baking powder will work.

Because the Hummingbird Bakery Cookbook use a lot of baking powder in its recipes, I was not surprised to find that I had the same problem with the vanilla and chocolate cupcakes recipes: the cakes, when cooled, would be slightly sunken in. They looked like mini-craters. This is a result of the rising-too-quickly problem I described above. I was able to fix this problem during my vanilla cupcakes experiment by reducing the baking powder, and I hoped the same solution would fix my chocolate cupcakes.

For the vanilla cupcakes, I eventually ended up reducing the amount of baking powder in the recipe from 1.5 teaspoons to 1 teaspoon. A full half-teaspoon reduction -- basically subtracting a third of what was needed in the sea-level recipe. That's pretty substantial if you ask me. I figured that the chocolate cupcakes would NOT need such a dramatic reduction, especially because the cocoa powder in the recipe provided a stronger batter structure that the vanilla cupcakes lacked.

So, with this hypothesis in mind, I started by reducing the original recipe by a rather conservative amount of a quarter (1/4) teaspoon of baking powder. Recall the original ingredients quantity for the chocolate cupcakes:
  • 3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 2 1/2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
  • a scant 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • a pinch of salt
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 1/2 cup whole milk
  • 1 egg
  • 1/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
My amendment (in bold) is as follows:
  • 3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 2 1/2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
  • a scant 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1 1/4 teaspoons baking powder (1.5 - .25 = 1.25 = 1 1/4; sorry, probably obvious I know)
  • a pinch of salt
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 1/2 cup whole milk
  • 1 egg
  • 1/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
These were what the cupcakes looked like when I pulled them out of the oven:

(Canon EOS Rebel XS)
Hm.

To be honest, they didn't look all that different from the unaltered sea-level recipe's results. They even tasted identical -- fine, but a little bit sticky and lacking the signature Hummingbird Bakery crumb. Had I been too conservative in my reduction of baking powder?

I decided my next move would be to reduce MORE baking powder. I reduced the recipe by 3/8ths of a teaspoon this time around:

(Canon EOS Rebel XS)

Still not all that different. It looked like my hypothesis was proving wrong. My next step was to reduce the initial baking powder recipe by half (1/2) a teaspoon -- the same amount that I had reduced the vanilla cupcakes' recipe quantity to, with great success.

This is what the cupcakes with only 1 teaspoon of baking powder (remember the initial amount was 1 1/2 (1.5) teaspoons of baking powder) looked like when I pulled them out of the oven:

(Canon EOS Rebel XS)

OKAY! Still didn't look like that much improvement.

At this point, Erlend pointed out that the cupcakes really did not look all that different from each other. In fact, it looked like there wasn't any differences between them at all.

What on earth was I looking for?!, he asked. According to him, these cupcakes looked fine.

Sure, they looked FINE. But fine isn't what Hummingbird Bakery cupcakes are. The results above, while edible, were NOT the perfect replica of a Hummingbird Bakery cupcake. Hummingbird Bakery cupcakes would have nice, domed cupcake tops that spring back when touched.

These cupcake tops, on the other hand, were either very slightly cratered or flat, with sticky tops that stayed sunken in when touched.

And yes, my friend. That meticulously anal observation is what distinguishes a 1/4 reduction from a 1/2 reduction of baking powder. Slightly-cratered versus flat-topped cupcakes.

So, I rolled up my sleeves and told myself that I would stop after the final reduction. This time, I would reduce the original recipe from 1 1/2 (1.5) teaspoons, to 3/4 (.75) teaspoons. A 3/4 teaspoon reduction, or another way of look at it, a reduction to exactly half of what the original recipe called for.

These were my results:

(Canon EOS Rebel XS)

Okay! That's better.

Do you see that? I was not crazy when I was ranting about flat-tops versus domed-tops before. These cupcakes only contain 3/4 a teaspoon of baking powder. Their tops are domed, as opposed to flat. See the side by side comparison of cupcakes with only a 1/4 reduction (on the left) versus the cupcakes with a 3/4 reduction (right):

(Canon EOS Rebel XS)

There is a difference, however slight. I suppose a non-aerial shot probably would have helped my cause a bit more, but no matter. I'm still getting the hang of my new camera. The cupcakes on the right, with twice as much baking powder reduced, look smoother and less sunken-in. Yes?

So my hypothesis is wrong! At the beginning of this post, I guessed that the chocolate cupcakes would need a smaller reduction in baking powder than the vanilla cupcakes, since the cocoa powder provided more structure and strength to the batter. But this didn't seem to be the case. In the end, I reduced the baking powder for the vanilla cupcakes from 1.5 teaspoons to 1 teaspoon; for the chocolate cupcakes, it was reduced from 1.5 teaspoons to 3/4 teaspoons.

Okay... but why did the chocolate cupcakes need a greater reduction than the vanilla cupcakes?

Hm.

Something to figure out at work tomorrow, I guess.

January 11, 2012

The Science of 'Hey, That's Not So Bad': Chocolate Cupcakes Edition

So the main question that has been plaguing me since my initial control experiment for the Hummingbird chocolate cupcakes is this: why did the unaltered recipe for chocolate cupcakes fare so much better than the unaltered recipe for Hummingbird vanilla cupcakes?

Recall that when I did my initial control experiment for Hummingbird Bakery vanilla cupcakes, I followed the recipe's exact steps and started out by baking the sea-level recipe exactly as it was written in the cookbook. No changes, no alterations. I ended up with 10 muffin spaces filled with sticky puddles of goop:

(iPhone Camera)

Three things caused these puddles of goop to happen:
  1. The outsides of the batter in each individual muffin space rose far too quickly, spilling over the allocated muffin space and the edge of the pan 5 minutes into bake time.

  2. The middles of the cupcakes stayed liquid throughout the entire baking process.

  3. When the cupcakes cooled (or, more specifically, when the weird goopy product cooled), they collapsed into nothing but a pile of liquid goo.
However, none of these things happened with the chocolate cupcakes. This is what happened instead:

(iPhone Camera)

  1. The chocolate cupcakes, while undercooked at the recipe's minimum recommended bake time of 20 minutes, were perfectly cooked at the maximum bake time of 25 minutes.

  2. Although some cupcakes looked a little bloated and rose a teeny bit over their allocated muffin space, the majority stayed where they were supposed to -- that is, there was none of the liquidy, puddle spread that had happened with the vanilla cupcakes.

  3. The chocolate cupcakes cratered and sank a little as they cooled. The tops of the cupcakes were also a little sticky and did not have the nice domed tops that perfectly cooked cupcakes tend to have.

  4. The cupcakes, despite lacking the signature Hummingbird crumb, were actually edible. Pretty decent tasting too.
Well!

I figured I'd start at the same place that I did during my vanilla cupcakes experiment -- that is, take a look at the ingredients list. Here it is for the chocolate cupcakes:
  • 3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons of all-purpose flour
  • 2 1/2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
  • a "scant" 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • a pinch of salt
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 1/2 cup whole milk
  • 1 egg
  • 1/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Interestingly enough, the ingredients list for the chocolate cupcakes is remarkably similar to the ingredients list for vanilla cupcakes. With the exception of flour and cocoa powder, both recipes call for the exact same ingredients in identical quantities. The only difference is that while the vanilla cupcakes recipe calls for a full cup of flour, the chocolate cupcakes recipe only calls for a 3/4 cup of flour + 2 tablespoons of flour.

The subtracted flour, I assume, is being buttressed by the 2 1/2 tablespoons of cocoa powder. Remember that 1 cup = 16 tablespoons, so the recipe's 3/4 cup + 2 tablespoons = 14 tablespoons of flour + 2 1/2 tablespoons of cocoa powder = 16 1/2 tablespoons of a flour-y, powdery mixture.

Hmm.

Maybe that's why the chocolate cupcakes didn't turn out as goopy as the vanilla cupcakes -- because they've got a half tablespoon more of flour/cocoa powder mixture. Recall that flour adds more strength to batter in general, and ultimately helps prevent the final product from collapsing. For instance, when I added just one additional tablespoon of flour to the original vanilla cupcakes recipe, it was a near miracle -- the cupcakes actually looked like cupcakes! This extra half tablespoon of flour + cocoa powder in the chocolate cupcakes could be my lifesaver.

I also initially suspected that cocoa powder might be a heavier substance than flour. Indeed, my suspicions were confirmed by the Joy of Baking. In their page dedicated to cocoa powder, they write that, "Often times, you may notice that more butter and leavening agent are used in recipes containing cocoa powder. This is to offset cocoa powder's drying and strengthening affect in cakes."

A-ha! I was right.

I was also able to find a more in-depth explanation from a culinary textbook called How Baking Works (This is a recent purchase -- I've been coveting a copy of this book for a while, especially after reading my old roommate's copy in San Francisco. I highly recommend this book for the amateur/serious baker. It's great. Really.). According to author Paula Figoni, cocoa powder absorbs more liquid than an equal weight of flour would. The proteins and carbohydrates in the cocoa absorb liquids from the batter during the process, making the cocoa powder particles heavier -- these heavier particles are not as easily lifted by the leavening agent. So that's why I didn't see the massive puddles of goop like I did in the vanilla cupcakes recipe! Cocoa powder's heavier weight eliminated the excessive rising (and subsequent falling) that tends to occur at higher altitudes!

Epic.

Figoni also goes on to explain that cocoa and chocolate products tend to be powerful structure-builders because most products are over 50 percent fat. The high fat, when baked at the right temperature, gelatinize and ultimately help support the batter's final finished product.

Oh boy! It turns out cocoa powder is my friend after all!

My research above indicates that my first step of action when adapting the chocolate cupcake recipe to high-altitude should be a small one -- it seems that cocoa powder, with its crazy-good absorbing and strengthening power, is doing all the heavy-lifting for me already. I'm going to start out by tinkering with the leavening agent, of course. Maybe a little less baking powder is all I really need. Fingers crossed.

Like I said before, I'm feeling pretty optimistic about this one guys.

January 10, 2012

Hummingbird Bakery Chocolate Cupcakes, High-Altitude Style

Not gonna lie -- I was pretty nervous about adapting this particular recipe for a couple of reasons.

Aside from my reluctant dislike for chocolate cakes and cupcakes, I was nervous about using cocoa powder in high-altitude baking. I just don't know anything about it! Susan Purdy, author of the fairly comprehensive Pie in the Sky: Successful Baking at High Altitudes, makes no mention of cocoa powder's special properties and its function in the baking process in general. Besides flavoring the finished product, does cocoa powder have some sort of secret role that I'm unaware of? For instance, does the powder absorb more than its fair share of liquid in baking? If so, it could potentially dry out my cupcakes even more in Denver's higher altitude! What if it has some sort of leavening effect? If it does, that would be especially worrisome, since leavening agents tend to be the ingredients that screw everything up so badly!

So with bated breath, I decided to do what I had done with the vanilla cupcakes recipe: run an initial control experiment. That is, what did the original, unaltered sea-level recipe produce at high altitude?

Well, this is what the cupcakes looked like before I put them in the oven:

(iPhone Camera)

Pretty standard, right? Looks like regular recipe batter at any altitude.

An interesting thing to note is that, when compared with the Hummingbird Bakery's vanilla cupcakes recipe, this chocolate cupcake recipe requires an additional 2 tablespoons of flour and 2.5 tablespoons of cocoa powder. These additions yield enough batter to fill a full muffin tin's worth of batter. The vanilla recipe, in contrast, only yielded enough batter for 10.

Anyway, with that random observation aside, this is what the cupcakes looked like after I pulled them out of the oven after the recommended bake time of 25 minutes:

(iPhone Camera)

Wa-hey! Not bad! Certainly better than the first time I baked Hummingbird's recipe for vanilla cupcakes without changing a thing. Remember those puddles of goop? That's the kind of thing I was expecting with this first round. But instead, the chocolate cupcakes looked like a third or fourth attempt.

I mean, check out this out:

(iPhone Camera)

These are the unaltered chocolate cupcake results (right) compared with the un-altered vanilla cupcake results (left). Also, sorry for the grainy picture, I'm no good with Photoshop.

Now, compare these with my fourth attempt vanilla cupcakes results (remember, it took me five attempts until I perfected the vanilla cupcakes recipe at high altitude):

(iPhone Camera)

Not bad at all, right?

The chocolate cupcakes cratered and sank a little as they cooled, but the end result was honestly more success than I could have hoped for:

(iPhone Camera)

And how did they taste? They were... fine. Better than fine. They actually even tasted like a fourth attempt -- a little sticky, a little gummy, and missing that signature Hummingbird crumb/substantial texture, but definitely getting there. The stickiness might have been a result of being undercooked, as had been the case for the Hummingbird vanilla cupcakes. After all, when I initially opened the oven at 20 minutes (the recipe calls for a bake time of 20-25 minutes), the toothpick inserted into the cake's center still picked up some cake (indicating that it was undercooked). However, when I re-tested the cakes after the full 25 minutes, they were ready to go.

Hm.

All things considered, this was not a bad start to the experiment -- especially when compared to the vanilla cupcakes! It just goes to show that each recipe really is unique, and each sea-level recipe requires its own unique set of fine-tuning and calibration. As a high-altitude baker, you really cannot rely on just one set of generic rules when attempting to adapt recipes for higher altitudes.

But I'm optimistic about this one, guys. For once. Really.

January 9, 2012

Hummingbird Bakery Chocolate Cupcakes, Sea-Level Style

"We use a devil's food cake for our chocolate base. The cocoa powder gives the cake a dark color and a chocolatey kick. The cake should be light and moist, with all the ingredients well incorporated. But don't overbeat the batter, as the cake will be too heavy."
- The Hummingbird Bakery Cookbook

Hummingbird Chocolate Cupcakes, as done by the pros
(from the Hummingbird Bakery's
website)

I'm back to my regular beat, which, for those of you not in the know, is adapting The Hummingbird Bakery Cookbook's recipes to work at the high-altitude environment of Denver. The next recipe in the book is none other than a classic: chocolate cupcakes.

It pains me to admit this, but despite having such a sweet tooth, I am not actually a fan of chocolate cake. Most of the time, I find chocolate cake to be way too intense, too sweet, and too rich. Chocolate cupcakes also seem to be the worst offender, especially when topped with some heavy, sticky chocolate frosting. Blasphemy, I know.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that Hummingbird Bakery's chocolate cupcakes were the exception to my rule. I was a little wary when I read the cookbook's initial description of the cakes, where it was explained that the bakery used a devil's food cake base for their chocolate cupcakes. Devil's food cake is normally the worst offender of chocolate cakes, with its sticky and dense texture. However, the Hummingbird recipe produces a chocolate cake sponge that is light and airy, with a subtle chocolate flavor that isn't too sweet.

Similar to the recipe for vanilla cupcakes, the ingredients list for Hummingbird Bakery chocolate cupcakes is simple and unfussy, with most items on the list easily attainable at your regular run-of-the-mill supermarket:
  • 3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 2 1/2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
  • a scant 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • a pinch of salt
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 1/2 cup whole milk
  • 1 egg
  • 1/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
The recipe, with its simple and straightforward steps, is almost identical to its vanilla counterpart with the exception of additional cocoa powder:

The Hummingbird Bakery's Chocolate Cupcakes Recipe
from The Hummingbird Bakery Cookbook
(yields 12)
  1. Preheat the oven to 325 (F).

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

  3. Whisk the milk, egg, and vanilla together in a pitcher, then slowly pour half into the flour mixture. Beat to combine, and turn the mixer up to high speed to get rid of any lumps.

  4. Turn the mixer down to a slower speed and slowly pour in the remaining milk mixture (scrape any unmixed ingredients from the side of the bowl with a rubber spatula. Continue mixing for a couple more minutes until the batter is smooth, but do not overmix.

  5. Spoon the batter into the paper cases until two-thirds full and bake in the preheated oven for 20-25 minutes, or until the cake bounces back when touched. A skewer inserted in the center should come out clean. Let the cupcakes cool slightly in the pan before turning out into a wire rack to cool separately.

Hummingbird Bakery Chocolate Cupcakes, as done by me
(iPhone Camera)

Above is a picture of some Hummingbird Bakery chocolate cupcakes with vanilla buttercream frosting, as baked by me in the sea-level city of San Francisco, CA (elevation: approximately 52 ft above sea level). I made these beauties by following the recipe exactly as posted above.

But how will this recipe fare in the high-altitude environment of Denver, CO (elevation: approcimately 5,280 ft above sea level)? Especially in light of the things I know now about how altitude affects the baking process? Will they be as disastrous as my initial attempt with the vanilla cupcakes recipe?

Stay tuned and find out, folks!

January 6, 2012

Topping Yo' Cupcakes Off With Roses

Hummingbird Bakery Vanilla Cupcakes with Rosette Buttercream Frosting
(Instagram Camera)

Why yes, lovely people, those are cupcakes. Not roses. Cupcakes.

Cupcakes that I MADE.

I MADE THOSE.

Bows.

Today, I'm going to teach you how to make them too.

I know it's been a while since I've experimented with an actual Hummingbird Bakery recipe, and I promise that this is the last non-Hummingbird Bakery post that I will post for a while. I made an exception because my boyfriend gave me something for Christmas that I had been coveting for a really long time: a Kuhn Rikon Cookie & Cupcake Decorating Set.

Kuhn Rikon Cookie and Cupcake Decorating Set
(Image from Sur La Table)

With this kit, I was able to frost my last successful Hummingbird Bakery vanilla cupcakes with rosettes:

(Instagram Camera)

Aren't they gorgeous?

Okay, so I can stop bragging, here are the deets:

The frosting I used was Hummingbird Bakery's recipe for vanilla butter cream frosting (available here -- it also works at sea-level!) with a few additional drops of red and blue food coloring.

Prepare your frosting bag/bottle with a star-shaped tip (I used Wilton #5). Start from the middle of the cupcake and simply frost your way from the inside out. Really easy. Seriously. Check out this video for visuals, since you probably don't believe me that it's as easy as that.

You can also get a multi-colored effect by stuffing two different colored frostings into one squeeze bag/bottle. Check out the front rose below for an example:

(Instagram Camera)

I've wanted a Kuhn Rikon decorating kit for a really long time, ever since my initial, disastrous foray with pastry bags. Several years ago, I bought a cheap cake decorating set from Ikea. While the tools themselves seemed like they were decent quality, I was pretty horrible with the pastry bag. Everything -- and I mean, EVERYTHING -- went wrong. I had no idea how to fill the bag with frosting (the bag kept sliding away from me as I used a spoon to try and fill it with frosting. I had no idea how to pipe (the frosting came out in liquidy blobs). I had no idea I needed to seal the bag (the frosting started squeezing out of the non-tipped side). To add insult to injury, the bags were made of some weird polyester fabric, so I had no idea how to clean them. I think I ended up sticking the bags in the laundry and tinting the rest of my wardrobe with a faint smell of cream cheese frosting. Yikes.

The Kuhn Rikon decorating kit definitely simplified the frosting process for me. You can use the little spatula that comes with the kit to stuff frosting into the squeeze tube bottles. After doing so, you simply seal the bottle with the appropriate tip (the kit comes with four different varieties), and squeeze away! The bottles are cleverly designed (they look like an accordion), making it easy to control and regulate the amount of frosting that comes out of the bottle.

My one stipulation with the Kuhn Rikon bottles is that they don't actually hold that much frosting. When I created the rosettes above, I used half a bottle of frosting for each rosette. The bottle openings are also a little narrow, so filling them with frosting can turn out to be a huge mess if you're not careful. Finally, unlike a frosting bag that you can squeeze to death to get out all the frosting (similar to how you squeeze a near empty tube of toothpaste), you cannot do this with the squeeze bottles. A lot of frosting actually ends up getting stuck in the accordion shaped dents, so you end up wasting a bunch of frosting at the end of the process. Also, if you don't have a dishwasher, this same feature makes the bottles a bitch to clean.

But still. Even with those flaws, who can deny these results:

(Instagram Camera)

Totally worth it. Best Christmas present ever. Thanks Erlend!

January 5, 2012

Cookies, cookies! Chocolate chip cookies!

Happy New Year!

As a welcome back, I figured that instead of subjecting you fine folks to another failed experiment, I would start with a successful recipe for one of my favorite baked goods: chocolate chip cookies.


I brought these in to work before I took off for the Philippines, and I'm happy to say that they were met with great success! My coworkers (hello Brooke and Kailin!) requested the recipe, and, after much delay, I now finally have a spare moment to post the recipe. Sorry about that guys. Thanks for your patience.

For those of you not in the know, I was off sunning myself in the tropics -- kayaking in bright blue lagoons, snorkeling with giant schools of fishes, and wearing tropical hats made out of coconut leaves. No, I am not joking:

(Mama Lopez's Canon EOS 550D)

That is me and my boyfriend kayaking a lagoon. No joke. You can thank my mother for the non-cellphone, high-quality photos for once. She has a really fancy DSLR camera that I covet. But all of that is irrelevant. Let's get to the main show... chocolate chip cookies!

---

Ingredients
(enough for 55 to 60 cookies that are 2.5 to 3 inches in diameter)

  • 2 and 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt
  • 1/2 pound of butter (2 sticks), at room temperature
  • 3/4 cup granulated white sugar
  • 3/4 cup dark brown sugar, packed
  • 2 large eggs, at room temperature
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2 cups (or 12 ounces) of dark chocolate disks or feves (available at Whole Foods)
---

Chocolate Chip Cookies Recipe
adapted from Susan G. Purdy's Pie in the Sky: Successful Baking at High Altitudes
(works at a high-altitude environment of approximately 5,000 ft)
  1. Make sure your oven rack is in the center of the oven; preheat the oven to 375 (F). Line your cookie sheet with baking parchment or a non-stick mat; alternatively, you can lightly coat the cookie sheet with butter or a nonstick vegetable spray.

  2. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda, and salt.

  3. In the large bowl of your electric mixer, beat the butter until soft and creamy (Use the paddle attachment of your KitchenAid. If you do not have a KitchenAid, you can use a study wooden spoon for this step). When the butter is soft and creamy, beat in both sugars, making sure to scrape down the bowl and beater. Mix until smooth and the mixture is light and fluffy. This process should take five minutes on med-high speed.

  4. Beat in the eggs and vanilla.

  5. Lower your electric mixer speed to the lowest setting (if you're using a spoon, simply stir slowly) and gradually beat in the flour mixture.

  6. Stir in the chocolate disks.

  7. Each cookie will consist of a tablespoon or a tablespoon-and-a-half of dough; use a tablespoon measuring spoon (Or a cookie dough scoop, if you have one of these. I actually don't have one, and am still debating the merits of the tool) to measure out the appropriate amount of dough and transfer onto the cookie sheet, leaving approximately 2 inches apart for each cookie.

  8. Place the tray into the oven and bake the cookies for 9-10 minute; or, until golden brown.

  9. Cool the cookies on a wire rack.
---


---

Tips & Addendums
  • The recipe above yields a LOT of cookies. If you cut the ingredient quantities in half, it will still produce the same results, BUT it will also result in some awkward measurements like 3/8ths a cup (or 3 x 1/8th a cup). I recommend finding a measuring cup set with a 1/8 cup measuring spoon, but I warn you that a set containing that specific measurement is relatively rare for some reason.

  • Chocolate disks are admittedly expensive and hard to find. I'm not a fan of pretentious ingredients (I shelled out and made the exception for these cookies since they were a special occasion/holiday treat), so feel free to go ahead and replace these with run-of-the-mill semisweet chocolate chips. The advantage of chocolate disks, however, is that the disk shape covers a wide surface area that spreads out even more when the chocolate melts in the oven. This results in a cookie with chocolate in every bite. I got the idea from the New York Times' chocolate chip cookie recipe, which I admittedly lambasted in an earlier post. You can actually even replace the chocolate chips with whatever chocolate ingredient you want, as long as it measures out to 2 cups (12 ounces) of the stuff. The original recipe in Pie in the Sky, for instance, calls for 6 ounces of dark chocolate chips, 6 ounces of white chocolate chips, and even an optional 4 ounces of walnuts or pecans. My second batch of these cookies (as seen in pictures) actually included chocolate disks and these weird chocolate pearl crunch things from Whole Foods:

    (iPhone Camera)
  • 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.

  • 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). Doing so will ensure a nice, chewy texture for your cookies. During the creaming process, sugar crystals open tiny pockets of air in fat as it is being whipped, creating a lighter and fluffier finished batter.

  • After adding flour to the mixture, don't overbeat as this will overwork the flour and make the cookies hard and 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.

  • Last, but certainly not the least since I cannot stress it enough, DO NOT OVERBAKE YOUR COOKIES. Doing so will result in cookies that will be too dry and crisp when cooled. It is actually better to underbake the cookies slightly so the centers will be a little chewy.
---


---