Before I moved to Denver, CO (elevation: 5,280 feet above sea level) from San Francisco, CA (elevation: 52ft), I was warned of the perils of high-altitude baking by several of my friends. A former roommate of mine quoted a friend of hers who had lived in high altitude who had told her that, in the mountains, “food is never pretty.”
I also remember during my freshman year in college, a dorm mate of mine who hailed from Boulder, CO (elevation: 5,430ft) decided to make eclairs for the entire dorm. Using an old secret family recipe, she was astonished when her eclairs didn’t rise fully, resulting in hole-y and half-risen pastry puffs. She excused herself by telling us that she’d ignored the fact that her mother told her to account for the fact that the recipe had come from generations before her, from an entire family of born and bred native Coloradans who had developed the recipe to suit their state’s environments, and not the apparently drastically different climate of Portland, OR (elevation: 50ft). I thought it was funny at the time that her family had designed a recipe to work in Colorado, and ONLY Colorado. To be honest, I actually believed that she was making up some excuse for her bad baking. But nevertheless, her experience taught me to be cautious with my own baking. I wasn’t going to make her mistake of claiming to be a brilliant baker, only to have my cupcakes collapse and cookies harden in front of everybody’s eyes. No sir, not me.
A week after my arrival in Denver, I spontaneously bought a box of Pillsbury Funfetti Cake mix to see how things would go. Would these horror stories of dry baked goods and collapsing cakes really be true? I followed the recipe on the side of the box and made no modifications; I figured that this box of cheap, throwaway, cheater’s cake mix was going to be the “control” group of my “baking at high altitude” experience. I was pleasantly surprised to find that, despite the horror stories, the cake turned out… perfectly fine. Maybe it stuck to the pan a little bit more than was normal, but that was about it.
I didn’t realize that Pillsbury specifically manufactured cake box mixes (complete with a separate set of modified baking instructions) for the Mountain West and other high altitude regions. This blissful ignorance and my resulting fail-free Funfetti trial run gave me a false hope. An unfounded confidence that my cupcakes (all made from unmodified, meticulously-followed recipes from The Hummingbird Bakery Cookbook) would work out to be as delicious and aesthetically pleasing as they had been when I made them in San Francisco.
This blog is about the shattering of that unfounded confidence.