Happy Birthday, Mom! A Cake for You.

February 25, 2012

Today is my mom's birthday! Even though she's halfway across the world, I decided to celebrate by baking a chocolate-hazelnut cake dedicated to her:

Happy Birthday, Mom! Aren't you proud of me for making you this delicious cake?

But this isn't just any regular cake. This is a chocolate-hazelnut CREPE cake. See the inside? Those are crepes, carefully stacked and held together with chocolate cream and ganache:

The recipe was adapted from a Chocolate Amaretto Crepe Cake recipe from Sprinkle Bakes, one of my favorite food blogs. However, despite initially following the Sprinkle Bakes recipe for crepes, I found the batter to be too runny and sweet. So halfway through, I started making my crepes from this old recipe I've used since college. This batter does not contain any sugar and is significantly less runny, enabling me to build perfectly circular crepes without the help of a cake ring.

Without further ado, I present to you the recipe:


Mom's Chocolate Hazelnut Birthday Crepe Cake
(Works at All Altitudes)


For the Crepe Base:
(yields 20-24 6-inch crepes)

  • 4 eggs, at room temperature
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 2 cups flour
  • 2 1/4 cups milk, at room temperature
  • 1/4 cup (1/2) stick unsalted butter, melted

  1. Preheat a 9 or 10 inch skillet pan by placing it on medium heat on the stove top.

  2. Combine four eggs and 1/4 teaspoon of salt into a large mixing bowl.

  3. Whisk eggs and salt together until the mixture looks uniformly yellow.

  4. Add approximately 1/4 cup of flour to whisk into the egg mixture -- this quantity does not have to be precise.

  5. Once the flour has been incorporated into the egg mixture, whisk approximately 1/4 cup of milk to thin the batter.

  6. Keep adding equal amounts of milk and flour alternately until 2 1/4 cups of milk and 2 cups of flour have been added.

  7. Whisk the batter until it is smooth (approximately 1 or 2 minutes) -- DO NOT OVERMIX.

  8. Add the melted butter to the batter and whisk until the butter is fully incorporated and the batter is smooth.

  9. At this point, your batter is ready. Pour 1/4 cup of batter into the pre-heated pan. Swirl the batter with the pan lifted over the stove eye until the bottom is coated with a thin layer of batter -- try and make your crepe as circular as you can. You can do this in two ways. One way is to place a 6-inch cake ring on the pan and pouring 1/4 cup of batter into the ring, ensuring that the batter makes a perfect circle. The second way is to make crepes that are slightly larger (around 7 or 8 inches in diameter) and using a cake ring to cut smaller, perfect circles out of these larger crepes once they've cooled.

  10. Place pan on the stove eye and cook until the surface of the crepe loses most of its glossiness and the top is set.

  11. When the top has set, flip the crepe to cook the other side of the pancake. This should not take more than 30 seconds.

  12. When the crepe is ready, slide the pancake out of the skillet and onto a plate to set aside. Repeat process until all crepe batter is used. Allow the crepes to cool completely.

For the Chocolate-Hazelnut Cream Filling:

  • 1 1/3 cups heavy whipping cream
  • 3 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 3 tablespoons vanilla sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2 tablespoons Frangelico hazelnut liqueur

  1. Whip heavy cream in a large bowl on medium-speed with a hand mixer or using a stand mixer fitted with a whisk attachment.

  2. Gradually add the vanilla sugar to thicken the mixture.

  3. Gradually add 3 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder.

  4. Add the Frangelico one tablespoon at a time, and then add the vanilla extract. Whip until stiff peaks form. Set aside.

For the Chocolate-Hazelnut Ganache:

  • 3.5 ounces semisweet or bittersweet chocolate
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream
  • 1 tablespoon Frangelico hazelnut liqueur

  1. Roughly chop the chocolate and place it in a medium bowl.

  2. In a small saucepan, heat the heavy cream over medium-high heat until just boiling.

  3. Pour the hot cream over the chocolate and whisk until the chocolate is melted and the mixture is smooth.

  4. Mix in the Frangelico and whisk again until smooth. Allow to cool slightly before using.

For the Assembly:
  1. Use a cake ring to ensure that all your crepes are uniform circles.

  2. Center a crepe on a cooling rack. Place 1 tablespoon of chocolate-hazelnut cream in the center of the crepe. Use a knife to spread this cream thinly and consistently across the crepe. Top with another crepe. Continue brushing, spreading, and stacking, ending with a crepe on top. This is what the final product should look like:

  3. Once you have finished stacking the crepes, prep your work area for a ganache pour by moving the cooling rack containing the crepes over a large jellyroll pan. You will be pouring the chocolate ganache onto the crepes, where it will run down the sides of the cake and into this pan. So make sure that the jellyroll pan is big enough to catch the chocolate runoff or you'll end up with a big mess!

  4. Pour the chocolate-hazelnut ganache over the crepes, starting in the center of the crepe cake stack. Move the cup in an ever widening circle above the cake, until the top is completely covered. Keep pouring once you get towards the edges to ensure that the sides of the cake are completely covered with ganache.

  5. As the ganache sets, sprinkle decorations to settle with the ganache. I used Valrhona Chocolate Pearls from Whole Foods. Chill until serving.


Happy Birthday Mom!


High-Altitude Hummingbird Bakery Red Velvet Cupcakes, Pt. 4: A Co-Worker's Inadvertent Experiment

After listening to my adventures in high-altitude baking, Kailin, a co-worker of mine, decided to try out my baking hobby for myself. Every so often, she would appear around the office handing out Ziploc bags of chocolate chip cookies made from my recipe posted on this blog.

This time around, she decided to try the recipe for the Hummingbird Bakery's red velvet cupcakes. The problem was, the only accessible grocery store close to her did not stock red food coloring.

The original recipe for Hummingbird red velvet cupcake calls for a LOT of red food coloring -- 2 tablespoons, in fact. There's even a step in the recipe list that is specifically dedicated to this seemingly large amount. The recipe instructs you to combine the 2 tablespoons of red food coloring with 1 tablespoon of unsweetened cocoa powder and 1/2 teaspoon of vanilla extract in a separate bowl:

It then instructs you to mix these ingredients together to make a paste that will later be added to the batter:

Now, most people tend to fall into two camps: cooks and bakers. They're not mutually exclusive; most people classify themselves as both. But when push comes to shove, you're one over the other.

Cooks tend to be more improvisational and natural. My boyfriend, for instance, rarely ever uses recipes and just throws in random spices and herbs without any further thought. If something is too spicy or salty, he'll throw in another ingredient to compensate. With cooking, if you make a mistake, you can still fix it.

But with baking? Not so much.

Bakers are the ones who meticulously measure and level out each ingredient, following recipes down to pat and treating the whole baking process like a science. Recipes are the law and improvisation is rare. I'm not saying that improvisation doesn't happen -- it does! In fact, I've been reading Momofuku Milk Bar's Cookbook and apparently some of Christina Tosi's signature creations were made using unmeasured ingredients scrounged from the kitchen. So sure, it happens -- but it's only done well by those who understand the proportions, the ratios, the reactions of the entire process.

I was having a hard time classifying Kailin as one of the two. She was a chemical engineer by trade, meaning that, in theory, she understood the significance behind following baking recipes to pat. But the moment she started cooking recipes from my blog, she was never simply content to just follow them diligently. She was always asking me for advice on how to change textures and outcomes, what happens if she did this instead of that. For instance, since she preferred her cookies crispier instead of chewier, what would happen if she increased the recipe's suggested oven temperature? Or if she added more butter? Would this extra butter compensate for the burned results she got when she increased the oven temperature?

I warned her that it was difficult to experiment in baking, especially since she was fairly new at it. I told her my theory that baking as a science, and how even one small, seemingly-insignificant change could affect the final outcome in drastic ways.

I should have known something was up when she asked me what would happen if she made the red velvet cupcakes recipe without any red food coloring. "It's just to make the cupcakes red anyway, right? Doesn't really taste like anything, right?"

I advised her not to do it -- as well as being responsible for the cupcakes' deep, vivid color, that red food color paste was crucial to dispersing the cocoa and vanilla flavors evenly. I also worried that the reduction of 2 tablespoons of liquid would dry the cakes out, especially considering that liquids evaporate faster at higher altitudes. "If you don't have red food coloring," I told her. "Don't make red velvet cupcakes."

The next Monday, she bounded up to me. "I made red velvet cupcakes!"

"Oh, did you find red food coloring?"

"No, I made them without food coloring!"

Sigh. I guess that answers my questions. Like a cook, she had ignored my advice and made do with improvisation, eliminating the red food coloring for her convenience.

These were her results (photos below are Kailin's):

I guess I'd always wondered what red velvet cupcakes looked like without red food coloring -- so now I know. Their golden-brown color isn't too much of a surprise -- there is cocoa powder in the recipe, after all.

I wondered if my earlier theory that the exclusion of 2 tablespoons worth of liquid would make them too dry. I asked Kailin how they tasted; she shrugged and said, "Fine."

Fine? Just fine?

I'm not trying to contradict Kailin -- if anything, I'm actually pretty impressed by the way her cupcakes turned out, especially considering that she basically eliminated a step in the recipe.

But all in all, Hummingbird Bakery cupcakes deserve better than to just be fine.

High-Altitude Hummingbird Bakery Red Velvet Cupcakes, Pt. 3: Accepting the Easy Path

February 23, 2012

A few nights ago, I threw down the towel. None of my modifications -- be it altering the amount of baking soda, or altering the combination of baking soda and vinegar -- produced results as tasty as the original, unaltered recipe for Hummingbird Bakery red velvet cupcakes. So I decided to face the truth and accept the fact that the sea-level recipe for Hummingbird red velvet cupcakes worked perfectly fine at high-altitude.

But like any true scientist, I decided to make the cupcakes again. Truth be told, I was checking for consistency -- I wasn't content to simply post the recipe online and declare it ready for high-altitude. So I rolled up my sleeves and followed the unaltered sea-level recipe, expecting the same results from last time -- ugly-topped, slightly bloated cupcakes with the perfect Hummingbird taste and texture:

But instead, these were my results (pardon the Tungsten lighting):

What?! These tops, although just a teeny bit bloated, were smooth. They were almost passable as those made at sea-level:

Why were these cupcakes so much smoother looking than my first batch?

I tried to remember what I had done differently during my initial control experiment and this time around. No new changes, or at least, not deliberate ones -- I'd even put the same amounts of batter (exactly 2 tablespoons) in the cupcake cases! If there was anything I'd done differently, it was that I'd speedily hastened through the baking process. In my impatience to see the results, I'd rushed through the creaming and mixing process to produce a final batter as quickly as I could...

Wait a second.

The Hummingbird Bakery advises to cream butter and sugar together for at least 5 minutes. Although they provide no rationale for doing so, it was something that I had picked up from a cursory read through of Paula Figoni's How Baking Works. Creaming is a way of adding air into batter; it is these air bubbles, along with those created by leaveners like baking soda, that rise up in the oven's heat and subsequently allow the cake's batter to rise up with it.

How Baking Works goes on to explain that these air bubbles get uniformly distributed during the mixing process. These air cells can be thought of as "seed cells" as steam and carbon dioxide gas move through these cells to enlarge them during the baking process. No new cells are formed during baking -- instead, steam and carbon dioxide fill and enlarge the existing seed cells. Without these air cells, there would be no leavening.

The number of air cells in the batter helps define the final baked good's crumb structure, and the number of air cells is defined by the mixing process. If you overmix the batter, you will create too many seed cells that will become overstretched, thin, and weak. During baking, these thin cell walls will stretch further -- bloating the baked good, possibly to the point of collapse.

Was it possible that I had overmixed my first batch? Was it possible that what I had considered diligent creaming only worked at sea-level and was overkill at high-altitude? While multiple air bubbles were a desirable outcome at sea-level, perhaps it wasn't the case here since air expanded faster at high-altitudes. Too many air bubbles expanding at a faster rate than normal could have resulted in the ugly, wrinkled tops of the first batch.


High-Altitude Hummingbird Bakery Red Velvet Cupcakes, Pt. 2: Decreasing Just The Baking Soda

February 20, 2012

Recall my last experiment in which I decreased baking soda and vinegar in equal proportions:

Doing so was supposed to result in cupcakes with smooth, perfect-looking tops as they did in sea-level. Instead, my results were cupcakes that still had wrinkly old-man tops. Not as wrinkly and bloated as the unaltered recipe (see the picture below, which shows the results from the original, unaltered Hummingbird Bakery Cookbook recipe), but definitely not that great of an improvement.

The taste of this second attempt was also much worse. My hypothesis that I had to reduce the vinegar in equal proportions to the baking soda (I feared for vinegar-tasting red velvet cupcakes) was flat out wrong. My cupcakes were significantly drier in texture, with a flavor that was dull and flat. No wonder high-altitude sources like King Arthur Flour Company's high-altitude baking guide or Pie in the Sky only suggested altering baking soda quantities and nothing else!

So this time around, I decided to follow exactly what the guides told me. I would leave the recipe's vinegar quantity alone and only alter the quantity of baking soda (in bold):
  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1 tablespoon unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 2 tablespoons red food coloring
  • 1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 1/2 cup buttermilk
  • 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking soda (reduced from original amount of 1/2 teaspoon)
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons distilled white vinegar
These were my results:


They look significantly more like Hummingbird red velvet cupcakes when baked at sea-level, so there's that. Smoother tops that bounce back when touched. No bloating or over-expanding over the cupcake case.

But more importantly, how did they taste?

... not great.

The cake's texture was too heavy, dense, and chewy. One of my favorite things about red velvet cake is its texture -- heavier than your normal sponge cake, but still light enough to be considered fluffy. This was definitely not fluffy or light. It didn't taste bad, mind you -- the texture was just off. Way off.


Maybe it's time to accept defeat and admit that the original Hummingbird Bakery recipe for red velvet cupcakes works perfectly fine at high-altitude?

High-Altitude Hummingbird Bakery Red Velvet Cupcakes, Pt. 1: Refusing to Accept the Easy Path

February 16, 2012

A normal person would have just accepted the fact that the recipe for Hummingbird Bakery's red velvet cupcakes worked perfectly fine at high-altitudes without any alterations. Sure, the cupcake tops turned out a little ugly and bloated -- but how big of a deal was that anyway if they were going to end up covered in cream cheese frosting? Especially if the cupcakes' flavor and texture was already perfect?

Alas, my anal retentive personality got the best of me. I decided that I couldn't live with perfect-tasting cupcakes with ugly tops:

I wanted perfect-tasting cupcakes, with smooth lookin' tops (like at sea-level):

In the past, I've determined that leavening agents are normally responsible for bloated, over-expanded cupcakes. But the previous two cupcake recipes I've adapted used baking powder -- was red velvet's use of baking soda going to make things more complicated?

According to the Joy of Baking, baking soda is about four times as strong as baking powder. It is used in recipes that contain an acidic ingredient -- that is, ingredients like vinegar and buttermilk, which also happen to be in the red velvet cupcakes' ingredient list. According to How Baking Works, baking soda will react with the acid (the vinegar and the buttermilk) in the recipe to create salt, water, and the carbon dioxide (the leavener) that lifts the cake up and up. Very cool.

Recall the original ingredients list for Hummingbird Bakery red velvet cupcakes:
  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1 tablespoon unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 2 tablespoons red food coloring
  • 1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 1/2 cup buttermilk
  • 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons distilled white vinegar
A half teaspoon of baking soda really isn't that much leavening agent to begin with at all. I decided to reduce it down to a quarter (1/4) teaspoon of baking soda and see what happened.

The problem was, I wasn't sure if I was also supposed to reduce the vinegar alongside the baking soda. I looked at all my usual sources -- Joy of Baking, How Baking Works, King Arthur Flour Company, Pie in the Sky -- none gave me a clue as to what the appropriate action was. The latter two, where I normally get my first ideas for alterations from, just mentioned reducing the baking soda and nothing else. But I worried that my cupcakes would end up too vinegary/acidic-tasting if I changed the amount of baking soda without changing the amount of vinegar. The 1.5 teaspoons of vinegar was only there to induce the leavening chemical reaction from the .5 teaspoons of baking soda... right?

Sounded like a logical theory at the time. So, using the simple arithmetic logic of ratios, I reduced the vinegar amount corresponding to 5/8ths of a teaspoon for my 1/4 teaspoon baking soda.

The ingredients list was now as follows (changes made in bold):
  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1 tablespoon unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 2 tablespoons red food coloring
  • 1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 1/2 cup buttermilk
  • 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 5/8 teaspoons distilled white vinegar
These were my results:

To be perfectly honest, they didn't look all that different from the cupcakes with the original ingredient quantities. A little less bloated, yes. But they still had that old-man, wrinkly top thing going on! Nothing like the smooth, picture-perfect red velvet tops at sea-level.


And how did they taste?

Yurgh! Significantly worse! The cakes had lost its signature Hummingbird crumb and texture. They were now WAY too dry and hard. The flavor was... well... dull and flat. The reduction of the vinegar was a terrible idea. My earlier hypothesis -- that is, that the acid reactant needs to be lowered in conjunction with the baking soda -- was wrong.

Sigh. Maybe I shouldn't have messed with the original recipe in the first place.

The Science of 'Wait, What?': Red Velvet Cupcakes Edition

February 12, 2012

Red velvet, red velvet, why did you not fail as miserably as your vanilla and chocolate peers? In fact, why did you excel at high-altitude when your vanilla and chocolate counterparts failed?

Below are pictures of my first attempts at the Hummingbird Bakery Cookbook's vanilla, chocolate, and red velvet cupcake recipes at high-altitude. That is, these are pictures of control experiments -- I made no alterations to the original recipe because I wanted to see what the unaltered recipes would produce at high-altitudes.

Here they are:

1) Hummingbird Bakery Vanilla Cupcakes, Unaltered First Batch:

Ah yes, the oft-cited puddles of goop. Despite the poor iPhone photo, you can see that these 'cupcakes' are liquidy, overexpanded, and collapsed.


2) Hummingbird Bakery Chocolate Cupcakes, Unaltered First Batch:

Significantly better, but with an undercooked pallor and cratered cupcake tops. Again, pardon the grainy iPhone picture.


3) Hummingbird Bakery Red Velvet Cupcakes, Unaltered First Batch:

Deceptively perfect, had it not been for the old sea-level photo I dug out. A little puffy and bloated with ugly cupcake tops, but perfect crumb and flavor.

They seem to be getting better and better, no?

When I set out to adapt the Hummingbird red velvet recipe, I was incredibly nervous for several reasons. First things first -- not only are red velvet cupcakes my favorite recipe EVER, they also happen to be the Hummingbird Bakery's signature cupcake. According to my British friend Kiron, with the exception of the Hummingbird Bakery, red velvet cake hardly exists anywhere else in England. So pressure was on!

I was also nervous because the recipe for red velvet cupcakes contained two ingredients that I had yet to work with at high-altitude: buttermilk and baking soda. According to Joy of Baking (my favorite online source), baking soda is about four times as strong as baking powder. Yerp. A leavening agent that is four times stronger than baking powder? Scary stuff, considering that baking powder has always caused me such pain in my previous experiments.

Okay, but wait. Recall that leavening agents tend to work better at high-altitudes due to fact that there's less atmospheric pressure at higher altitudes. This decrease in atmospheric pressure allows the agents to produce more leavening gases, simply because there is less weight (that is, air pressure) pushing down and preventing these gases from forming and rising up.

So if leavening agents work extraordinarily well at high altitude, and if baking soda is way stronger than baking powder, why didn't I end up with the puddles of goop like I did with the vanilla cupcakes?

I figured it was time to compare all three unaltered, original, sea-level Hummingbird Bakery recipes:

In my previous post, I was struggling to define red velvet cake. A baker at Portland, OR's Saint Cupcake Bakery told me that it was a combination of vanilla and chocolate flavors. Now that I've finally taken the time to examine the three recipes, I see that this description was definitely wrong. According to the Hummingbird Bakery Cookbook's recipes, vanilla and chocolate flavors are more similar to each other than red velvet is to either flavor.

There were the differences I mentioned previously -- red velvet's use of baking soda instead of baking powder and its use of buttermilk instead of whole milk. But looking at the chart above, I see more differences: red velvet cake uses more butter and more flour.

The use of more butter is interesting -- according to Susan Purdy's Pie in the Sky: Successful Baking at High-Altitudes, high-altitude bakers are often ill-advised to "reduce the fat in rich cakes and cookies at high elevations." The rationale behind this is that fat (in our case, butter) coats the protein/gluten in flour and weakens it. At higher elevations, when liquids evaporate faster, the residual higher concentrations of fat and sugar may weaken the cell walls too much and cause the cake to collapse. However, Purdy suggests an alternative to this reduction -- instead of cutting the fat (which can compromise flavour), you can strengthen the batter by adding flour.

Which brings us to the red velvet's high flour content. The table above shows that red velvet has the highest flour content of all three recipes above -- that is, red velvet cake batter is heavier than that of vanilla or chocolate. For instance, the vanilla recipe only has 16 tablespoons (1 cup) of flour, while chocolate contains 16.5 tablespoons (3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons of flour combined with 2.5 tablespoons of cocoa powder). Both recipes are then dwarfed by red velvet, which comes in with 19 tablespoons of some sort of flour mixture (1 cup plus 2 tablespoons combined with 1 tablespoon cocoa powder). No wonder the Hummingbird Bakery vanilla cupcakes recipe only yields 10 while the red velvet recipe yields as much as 14 cupcakes! It is this extra flour that helps add structure to the red velvet cupcakes, preventing it from rising too quickly and collapsing in on itself. Bear in mind that cocoa powder is also a strengthening agent and heavier than flour; while the chocolate cupcake recipe accounts for the addition of cocoa powder by subtracting some flour, the red velvet cupcake recipe does not.

Well, well, well. It might not explain why the red velvet cupcake tops are uglier here than they are at sea-level, but it's certainly a start.

Hummingbird Bakery Red Velvet Cupcakes, High-Altitude Style

February 9, 2012

Last Sunday, I set out to adapt Hummingbird Bakery's red velvet cupcakes recipe before heading to my co-worker's Super Bowl party. So I did what I had done with its vanilla and chocolate counterparts -- cooked the original, sea-level recipe at high-altitude, without any alterations or modifications to the recipe's ingredients and steps.

I fully expected my muffin tin to be flooded and stained by bright red puddles of goop. Instead, these were the results:


I know, I know, it's hard to gauge because the shot above is an aerial shot of the cupcakes. Yes, yes, I remember that trick I pulled with the chocolate cupcakes -- they looked a lot better than they actually were because I had taken aerial shots that failed to capture the cupcake tops' flatness/crateredness. So I've prepared some profile shots for you guys.

This is what the cupcakes looked like when they first came out of the oven:

Looks good right? But as we all know from my vanilla and chocolate experiments, that initial first look out of the oven can be deceiving. The cupcakes tended to puffed and bloated from the heat, deceptively appearing to be perfect-domed cupcake tops that cratered or flattened when they cooled.

But this is what they looked like when they cooled:

Still puffy! Still domed! No cratering! No flattening! AH!

To be fair, the cupcakes are a little bloated. But just a little. I managed to scrounge up a photo of some Hummingbird Bakery red velvet cupcakes that I had baked when I was at sea-level in San Francisco:

(iPhone Camera)

Now compare that to these guys:

Okay, okay, fine. There is a noticeable difference between the two. The high-altitude ones are, wellllllll... more ugly. Bloated, with cracks and wrinkles on the cupcake tops -- maybe this could easily be remedied by putting reducing the amount of batter I put in each muffin tin space? Eitherway, ugly tops can easily be remedied by frosting, right? Or is that cheating or something?

Well, how did they taste?

Pretty good, actually. Perfect Hummingbird Bakery texture. Moist, but with that signature substantial Hummingbird crumb.


So, is the sea-level recipe worth messing with? What do you guys think?

Hummingbird Bakery Red Velvet Cupcakes, Sea-Level Style

February 7, 2012

"It seems people can't resist the red velvet cupcakes' deep red crumb with white Cream Cheese Frosting. Mix all the ingredients well so that the sponge has an even color and texture. For added color contrast, you can sprinkle some extra red velvet crumbs over the frosted cupcakes."
- The Hummingbird Bakery Cookbook

Hummingbird Red Velvet Cupcakes, as done by the pros
(from the Hummingbird Bakery's

I've been really excited since completing the high-altitude adaptions of Hummingbird Bakery's vanilla and chocolate cupcakes. Why?! Because after those two recipes comes my favoritest of them all:

Hummingbird Red Velvet Cupcakes, as done by the pros
(from the Hummingbird Bakery's

Hummingbird Bakery red velvet cupcakes.

I won't even begin to describe how much I LOVE red velvet -- just know that I friggin' lovvee it. LOVE IT.

Interestingly enough, the first time I heard of the flavor coincided with my first visit to Portland's Saint Cupcake Bakery during my sophomore year of college. Staring at the bright red cake, I asked the woman behind the counter what it was.

She looked at me suspiciously, as if she was trying to figure out if I was being smart with her. "Red velvet cake? It's like... chocolate and vanilla cake mixed together." Seeing my confused look, she took pity on me and handed me a free red velvet cupcake to try:

(from Saint Cupcake Bakery's website)

From that moment on, I was hooked.

To be fair, I think her description of "chocolate and vanilla cake mixed together" is not necessarily an accurate one. But as I was writing this, I realized that I was stumped myself -- how would you actually describe red velvet cake?

I turned to the ingredients list for help:
  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1 tablespoon unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 2 tablespoons red food coloring
  • 1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 1/2 cup buttermilk
  • 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons distilled white vinegar
Hm. So what exactly differentiates it from vanilla and chocolate cupcakes?

A cursory look at the ingredients list reveals: (1) the use of buttermilk instead of regular whole milk, and (2) the use of baking soda and vinegar as a chemical leavening agent as opposed to baking powder.

The original, sea-level recipe itself didn't look too different either:

The Hummingbird Bakery's Red Velvet Cupcakes Recipe
from The Hummingbird Bakery Cookbook
(yields 14)
  1. Preheat the oven to 325 (F).

  2. Put the butter and the sugar in a freestanding electric mixer with a paddle attachment (or use a handheld electric whisk) and beat on medium speed until light and fluffy and well mixed (approximately 5 minutes).

  3. When everything is well mixed, turn the mixer up to high speed and slowly add the egg. Beat until everything is well incorporated.

  4. In a separate bowl, mix together the cocoa, red food coloring, and vanilla to make a thick, dark paste.

  5. Add to the butter mixture and mix thoroughly until evenly combined and colored, scraping any unmixed ingredients from the side of the bowl with a rubber spatula.

  6. Turn the mixer down to slow speed and slowly pour in half the buttermilk. Beat until well mixed, but be careful not to overmix.

  7. Add half the flour and beat until everything is well incorporated. Repeat this process until all the buttermilk and flour have been added, making sure to scrape down the sides of the bowl.

  8. When all the buttermilk and flour have been added, turn the mixer up to high speed and beat until you have a smooth, even batter.

  9. Turn the mixer down to a lower speed and add the salt, baking soda, and vinegar. Beat until well mixed, then turn up the speed again and beat for a couple more minutes.

  10. Spoon the batter into cupcake cases until two-thirds full and bake in the preheated oven for 20-25 minutes. When ready, the cake tops should bounce back when touched and a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake should come out clean. Let the cupcakes cool slightly in the pan before turning out onto a wire rack to cool completely.
The red velvet recipe differs slightly from the vanilla/chocolate cupcakes in that it adds the flour into the liquid sugar/butter/egg mixture as opposed to the vanilla chocolate cupcakes, where liquid (whole milk) is added into the flour mixture. Maybe that makes a difference in taste or affects the structure somehow, thus earning the 'velvet' title to describe its texture?

Eitherway, my boyfriend Erlend described the cake as a "very mild chocolate cake with cream cheese frosting." Kiron, a good friend, supplied another answer: "Red sponge cake with a hint of chocolate. Most of the flavor comes from the icing."

That seems a little bit more accurate. Though I would never have thought of calling red velvet as a "sponge" cake -- this appears to be a British term. Hummingbird Bakery's cookbook and website also toss the term "sponge" around a lot. But it's interesting that both Erlend and Kiron mentioned frosting in their descriptions. It really does seem as if the cake's cream cheese frosting lends a lot of flavor to the cake itself. This weekend, for instance, I whipped up a batch of red velvet cupcakes for my co-worker's SuperBowl party. Because I forgot to buy cream cheese, I substituted the regular cream cheese frosting for Hummingbird Bakery vanilla frosting. To my surprise, the cake was distinctly different. Not bad -- just different. It tasted like I was eating a Hummingbird Bakery vanilla cupcake as opposed to a red velvet one. Hm.

Which reminds me -- yes, you did read that right. I did make Hummingbird Bakery red velvet cupcakes this weekend. Using the unaltered, sea-level recipe I listed above. So how did those turn out?


They turned out quite perfectly.

Kinda puts me to shame, especially with all my preaching about the differences in baking at sea-level versus high-altitude, and how much harder it is to bake in higher elevations.

I had been putting off making this recipe for a long time -- after seeing how the Hummingbird Bakery Cookbook's vanilla cupcakes had turned out (remember the puddles of goop?), I didn't have the heart to see my favorite recipe in the same sorry state. But it turns out I was wrong. There was nothing to worry about after all.


The Hummingbird Bakery Launched A Blog!

February 5, 2012

Talk about being stuck in 1999:

Okay, okay, I'm being mean. Admittedly, I suffered from the same aesthetic issues with my blog template. Maybe the Hummingbird Bakery doesn't have graphic designer friends like Troy to help them out.

But template issues aside, the official Hummingbird Bakery Blog looks like it's got some great content. They've got FAQs for recipes in their two cookbooks, as well as recommendations for baking equipment and ingredients.

I'm personally excited about the blog's photographs though. They've included clear, high-quality photos that provide insight into their baking techniques that are not mentioned in the Hummingbird Bakery Cookbook.

Check out this photo for instance:

Ice-cream scoops to measure out their frosting! Not mentioned once in the Hummingbird Bakery Cookbook.

When making the Hummingbird Bakery Cookbook's frosting recipes, I was always surprised by how much frosting there was left in the bowl. Hummingbird Bakery Cookbook recipes tend to be conservative in terms of quantity -- for instance, the Hummingbird recipe for vanilla cupcakes only yields 10 cupcakes! Hummingbird Bakery frosting recipes, on the other hand, tend to be generous. Until seeing the picture above, it never occurred to me that I was being too conservative with my frosting proportions. A lot of cupcake bakeries tend to err on the side of overfrosting their cupcakes. I find eating a cupcake that's half-cake, half-frosting to be an unpleasant experience.

However, since I've never experienced that with Hummingbird Bakery cupcakes, I was surprised to see how much frosting they used for each cupcake. It looks like their scoop doles out about 1 tablespoon (perhaps more, even) of frosting:

Also, check out those golden tops on their cupcake tops. Those look CRAZY-golden -- almost to the point of looking burned! Maybe I should rethink my own alterations to the recipes, considering I was happy with these golden tops:

The above cupcakes were from when I finished adapting the Hummingbird Bakery Cookbook's vanilla cupcakes recipe for high-altitude. I thought they were perfect, but when compared to the picture on the official Hummingbird Bakery blog, my cupcakes apparently look nowhere near golden enough!

Which brings me to my final point of contention with the Hummingbird Bakery Blog.

Sadly, despite the multitudes of helpful information that the Hummingbird Bakery's official blog provides, I noticed that there was a lack of discussion surrounding high-altitude adjustments. I was a little disappointed -- I was hoping for some reassurance that my work was accurate, or on the right track at the very least. But alas, not even a mention of high-altitude baking was anywhere in sight.

On the plus side, that means this blog can keep going -- Hummingbird Bakery fans can refer here! for recipes that I've converted to work at high-altitudes. Somebody's gotta fill this niche market, right?

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