Thanksgiving Lemon-Berry Cheesecake, Pt. 2: How to Hide the Cracks in Your Cheesecake

November 25, 2011

Interestingly enough, the first time I ever made cheesecake was also for another Thanksgiving dinner during my senior year of college. My parents, neither of whom were American, didn't think it was necessary to fly me out to wherever they were living at the time (the Philippines? Sakhalin Island? I don't even remember) for a four day weekend. So me and the few other friends whose parents had felt the same decided to have a ragtag, pot luck dinner together.

Of course, I volunteered myself for dessert. I wanted to make white chocolate-raspberry cheesecake! Being the inexperienced baker that I was -- at the time, I cared more about the final product than the actual process itself -- I google searched a recipe and actually used the first recipe in the results: Kraft Philadelphia Cream Cheese's white chocolate raspberry cheesecake.

Not to be a snob, but it's never a good idea to use brand-name recipes. Most of the steps tend to be oversimplified and err more on the side of haste than taste. Most brand-name recipes also tend to heavily favor the use of whatever product they happen to be swilling, compromising the final product's flavor. But at the time, I thought the final product tasted good enough (I should have known when only 1 or 2 slices were actually eaten at the party, mostly by me) despite the fact that when I had pulled it out the oven, it looked like a train-wreck -- the cake had risen unevenly, and the top of the cake was covered in all sorts of cracks. These cracks intensified when the cake cooled.

I later did research that day and discovered that most experienced bakers used a "water-bath" method to bake cheesecake. This consists of the cheesecake being poured into a springform pan that is wrapped in foil and then placed into a baking pan. The pan is placed into the hot oven and boiling water is poured into the baking pan around the foil. The foil serves to keep water from seeping into the springform and spoiling the cake. The water bath bakes evenly and gently to help keep the cake creamy throughout and prevent shrinkage and cracking.

If the pan is in water in the oven, the pan cannot get as hot. (Without a water bath, it will reach the same temperature as the oven because metal conducts heat so easily). When in water, the pan's temperature won't get higher than the temperature of the water around it. Since water requires a lot of energy to rise in temperature (and, in particular, to rise above boiling temp), the pan will stay below 212 degrees (as opposed to 350).

This means that the edges of the cake will cook at a rate closer to the rate that the middle of the cake cooks. And, that your cheesecake will be less likely to stick to the edges of the pan. The cheesecake normally cracks as it cools and the center is pulled toward the edges which are stuck to the pan because they are so cooked. This is the main source of cracking -- other sources have also recommended putting a large bowl over the cheesecake when it is cooling, trapping heat inside the bowl and causing it to cool down more slowly. Other sources also suggest simply turning off the oven, and leaving the cake in there until ready to cool. It seems like the perfect cheesecake requires as much care in cooling as it does during the baking process.

Flash-forward three years later, to the night before Thanksgiving dinner. After reading through Susan Purdy's cheesecake recipe in Pie in the Sky: Successful Baking at High Altitudes, I mistakenly decided to forgo the hassle of the water bath. Purdy was normally pretty meticulous in ensuring that she had all the details down in her recipes -- I figured that the intensely buttered springform pan and the jelly roll pan base I was supposed to set the cake on would do the trick. Little did I know that apparently the jelly roll pan only catches the springform pan's liquid residue and had nothing to do with actually regulating the springform pan's heat.

When I pulled the cheesecake out of the oven, this is what greeted me:

Cheesecake, first few minutes out of the oven
(iPhone camera)

Agh! It seemed like I had used a pan that was way too small for the cheesecake. The sides had puffed up and cracked dramatically! I frantically googled "puffed up cheesecake" to see if I had screwed up somehow. 'No matter','s Baking Tips for the Perfect Cheesecake, advised me. 'A perfectly cooked cheesecake will be puffed up on its sides. This bloating will reduce when the cake is cooled. Just be sure to carefully cool the cake.'

Okay, disaster averted. Susan Purdy's recipe recommended placing a cardboard disk over the cake to slow down the cooling (and subsequent cracking) process. The problem is, the cake had risen over the edge of the pan! How was I supposed to rest a cardboard disk on the springform pan? I shrugged, placed the disk on the ACTUAL CAKE ITSELF, and promptly fell asleep.

When I woke up, this was what awaited me:

Cheesecake, after being cooled overnight
(iPhone Camera)

Well... okay. So it wasn't as puffy and bloated as before. It was definitely shrunken. It looked good? But cracked. Really cracked. The outer edges of the cake also still rose above the actual center of the cake, giving the top surface of the cake a vaguely volcanic, crater-like appearance.

After hearing my cries of frustration, my boyfriend peered tentatively at the results. "The crack kinda looks like a bird," he said. Hm. He was right. And not just any bird -- a HUMMINGbird. Maybe it was the Hummingbird Bakery reminding me of the purpose of this blog!

But alas, I had a Thanksgiving dinner to attend and no Hummingbird cupcake recipes perfected. I ignored the sign from God and got to brainstorming. What would be a good topping to use to cover up the cake's cracked top? Susan Purdy's recipe included a recipe for glazed mango topping, but mango was not in season and impossible to find in Colorado. Any kind of berry would be the intuitive choice for accompanying a lemon cheesecake, but I wanted something that would blow people out of the water.

Like candied rose petals.

Homemade Candied Rose Petals
(iPhone camera)

Candied rose petals are shockingly easy to make. All you need are 2 organic roses, 1 large lightly beaten egg white, 1/2 cup of sugar (in my case I used homemade vanilla sugar), and some wax paper. All you need to do is brush each side of the individual rose petal and dip into the sugar. Let dry on a sheet of wax paper. Voila! No need to pay exorbitant prices for an alleged luxury.

However, be warned. Each rose yields about 20-30 individual petals - it is a bit of a time consuming process, brushing each delicate petal's side with egg white an dipping it into sugar. The sugar also begins to clump in the bowl, creating a giant mess. If you're a lazy sack like I am, I thought I would be able to get away with creating some weird egg-sugar mixture and brushing the petals all at the same time. So I dumped a boatload of petals in a huge bowl, poured in some egg white, and tossed in some sugar and stirred everything together.

Candying rose petals in bulk
(iPhone camera)

I then laid the petals to dry. After about 20 minutes, these were the results:

The results of candying rose petals in bulk
(iPhone camera)

Sure, they looked good. But taste was another matter entirely. It turns out that rose petals are actually pretty bitter on their own; one needs a LOT of sugar to cut out the bitter aftertaste. My process of candying the rose petals in bulk failed miserably. The egg and sugar had mixed together during my frantic stirring and had created a shiny, tasteless gloss on the petals. It turns out the only GOOD candied rose petals are the ones that are extraordinarily crystallized in texture (as seen below):

The good candied rose petals (iPhone camera)
Right on.

I also somehow thought that dumping these candied rose petals on top of the cake would make a more aesthetically pleasing option than the cracked, faux-hummingbird on my cake. I enthusiastically piled the rose petals on top of the cake:

Cheesecake with a shit-ton of candied rose petals
(iPhone camera)

There was something a little off about the cake. But if you stepped back, it looked fine, right?

(iPhone camera)


Content, I left the cake on the dining table and began cleaning up the kitchen. Five minutes later, I heard a shriek from the dining room.

"What did you put on the cake?!" My boyfriend exclaimed. "They look like animal tongues!"

Okay, so I knew I might have gone a little overboard. But animal tongues? Gross. That was when I finally gave in and substituted the pile of rose petals for honey-tossed blueberries and raspberries. In the end, this was probably a better idea:

(iPhone camera)

So, moral of the story? Always use water-baths when baking cheesecake, and most certainly, do not overboard your cheesecake with candied rose petals.

Thanksgiving Lemon-Berry Cheesecake, Pt. 1: The Recipe

November 24, 2011

Unfortunately, I've been pulling 12-hour days at work for the last week and a half and haven't had any time to actually try some of the modifications to the Hummingbird Bakery's vanilla cupcakes recipe that I suggested in my previous post. I haven't even really had the chance to really check out my new KitchenAid, either. Grumble.

But no matter! It's Thanksgiving weekend. Which means, in my case, heading over to my boyfriend's grandmother's house for a vegetarian Thanksgiving dinner. Since I'm basically the world's biggest carnivore there is, I volunteered to make dessert -- with the main courses being seitan and tofurkey, I might as well make sure I was going to have a compensatory course after, right?

Problem is, I don't really like most Thanksgiving desserts. Pumpkin pie? Sweet potato pie? Gross, no thank you. And flipping through my only high-altitude cookbook, the oft cited Pie in the Sky: Successful Baking at High Altitudes, did not seem to particularly inspire me. Most of the desserts -- "Porterfield Pumpkin Bundt with Snow White Glaze", "Colorado Carrot Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting" -- were unappealing or just plain blah. If I were still in San Francisco, I could easily have just whipped up a batch of the ever-so-crowd-pleasing Hummingbird Bakery cupcakes, and be done.

However, my hand stopped when I saw a recipe for "El Dorado Cheesecake with Glazed Mango Topping." Cheesecake. Seemed fitting for a family meal. And who doesn't like cheesecake, right? Cheesecakes are like the cupcakes of the cake family. That didn't really make any sense. But you know what I mean.

So, without further ado, I present to you the 100% accurate, high-altitude recipe for said cheesecake, with some modification on my behalf:

Lemon Cheesecake with Honey-Tossed Berries and Candied Rose Petals
(Recipe adapted from Pie in the Sky)

Lemon Cheesecake with Honey-Tossed Berries and Candied Rose Petals
(Instagram camera)


For the pan:

  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter, at room temperature

For the crumb crust base:
  • 5 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled
  • 1 cup graham cracker crumbs
  • 1/2 cup (2 ounces) of roughly chopped almonds
  • 2 tablespoons granulated sugar

For the cake:
  • 4 packages of Philadelphia Regular Cream Cheese (8 oz), at room temperature
  • 1 1/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 cup sour cream
  • 2 tablespoons cornstarch
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • 4 large eggs, at room temperature
  • 1/4 cup frozen lemonade concentrate, thawed
  • 1 teaspoon orange extract
  • 1/2 teaspoon lemon extract
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons grated orange zest

The Steps

  1. Position your oven rack in the center position and preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Place a jelly roll pan on the baking rack to preheat with the oven. You will be setting your cheesecake on this pan later (explanation will come shortly).

  2. Butter a 9.5 to 10-inch springform cake pan with 1 tablespoon of softened butter.

    This is a very crucial step in the baking process! Remember that baked goods stick to pans more persistently at higher altitudes; be sure to butter your entire pan, or neither the crust nor the cake itself will yield when you release the pan's springform. You don't want to ruin the aesthetic of your cheesecake in the process of violently yanking it out the pan! The more butter, the less likely the cake will stick. I myself had trouble getting the cake out of the pan -- the tablespoon didn't seem enough. Don't be afraid to use more. Seriously.

  3. Make the crust by tossing the graham cracker crumbs, almonds, and granulated sugar with the melted butter.

    Pie in the Sky called for a cup of finely chopped almonds; while I used a Cuisinart food processor to chop up the majority of a 2 oz bag of almonds, I left a handful of whole almonds to be patted down in the crust. I received several compliments on this during dinner -- it adds a unique touch to normally indistinguishable crust.

    Press the crumbs evenly onto the pan bottom and set aside. This is what the pan should look like once you have finished patting down the crust:

    Lemon-Berry Cheesecake Crust, Pre-Baked
    (iPhone camera)

  4. Beat the cream cheese in a large mixer bowl until very smooth and soft (if you are using a KitchenAid mixer, use the flat paddle attachment). Add the sugar and beat until creamy. Scrape down the bowl and beater.

  5. Beat in the sour cream, cornstarch, and salt. One at a time, beat in the eggs. Scrape in the bowl and beaters again.

  6. Beat in the lemonade concentrate, fruit extracts, and zest. Scrape the bowl one last time to make sure the batter is smooth, and continue to beat for about a minute after. Be careful not beat too much after you've added in the eggs -- doing so will add too much air to the batter, causing unattractive bubbles to rise to the surface.

  7. Scoop the batter into the buttered and crusted springform pan. Set the pan on the jelly roll pan and bake for 50 to 55 minutes. When the cake is ready, the edges will have puffed up and the top of the cake will be a golden color with a few cracks near the rim. The cake center will still look soft, but not jiggly or fluid when the side of the pan is tapped.

  8. Remove the cake and set it on a wire rack in a draft-free location to cool. To prevent cracking, cover the top with a cardboard cake disk. Cool completely for several hours, then refrigerate overnight to allow the texture to firm up.

I decided to hold off on the suggested "glazed mango topping" and opted for some fresh honey-tossed blueberries and raspberries instead. The homemade candied rose petals were the final touch, but more on that later.

This recipe proved to be a smashing success at the dinner, upstaging my boyfriend's exotic quince cobbler. Not gonna lie -- I was rather proud of myself for putting together such a feat. Baking cheesecake at any altitude is always a challenge because cheesecake batter has a custard-like texture that requires a constant temperature throughout the baking process. Even at sea-level, unmoderated temperatures often cause lumps and ugly textures, since the sides of the cake will rise far quicker than the outside. And, once out of the oven, if the cake cools too quickly, the top of the cake will crack. It is near impossible to get homemade cheesecakes to look like the perfect, machine-honed cakes at the Cheesecake Factory.

Mind you, my own cheesecake did not come without any challenges. But I'll talk about that in my next post. But that's all for now. I'll leave you guys on that cliffhanger.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Guys, I bought a KitchenAid.

November 16, 2011

If you're following me on Twitter, you know I've been aflutter about the new Artisan KitchenAid free-stand mixer that I recently ordered off Amazon.

For those of you who know me personally, you know this is a really big freaking deal since I've wanted one of these since... hm, I don't know, 2007?

That's approximately four years of lusting after a kitchen appliance. I guess it did take me six years before I finally decided to perm my hair, so four years is some improvement.

Unfortunately, since I'm completely slammed at work at the moment, I don't really have the time to gush all about it unless I use 140 characters or less. In the mean time, here's a photo of my beautiful new KitchenAid to tide you guys over:

(Instagram Camera)

In case you were wondering, it's the pistachio color.

The Science of Failure: Vanilla Cupcakes Edition

November 14, 2011

So, for all you non-believers -- high-altitude really is a game changer when it comes to baking. Recall my "control" experiment from the previous post. A recipe that works beautifully at sea-level yields rather disastrous results at higher-altitudes:

So what went wrong?
  1. The outsides of the batter in each individual cupcake space rose far too quickly, spilling over the edge of the pan 5 minutes into bake time.

  2. The middles of the cupcakes stayed liquid throughout the entire baking process; it appeared that the middle hadn't even cooked! Instead, the oven appeared to have simply "warmed" the batter.

  3. When the cupcakes cooled (or, more specifically, when the weird goopy product cooled), they collapsed into nothing but a pile of liquid goo.
To try and figure out what on earth happened, I decided to go back to the basics and start from the very beginning. I wanted to find out what each individual ingredient's role in the recipe and batter mixture was -- since atmospheric pressure and water's boiling point are lower in Denver, the recipe might be using too much or too little of one thing.

Recall the recipe list for the Hummingbird Bakery's vanilla cupcakes recipe:
  • 1 cup 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
For completely arbitrary reasons, I decided to make my first attempts calibrating the recipe by altering the proportions of the first three ingredients as listed in the cookbook. Let's take a look at the ingredients -- flour, sugar, and baking powder -- in more depth.


(recipe quantity: 1 cup, all-purpose)

When used in baking, flour contributes to the body and structure of the final product. It binds the recipe's ingredients together, creating gluten when its proteins blend with liquid. This gluten (a stretchy, elastic substance) then supports and structures the batter.

According to Susan E. Purdy's Pie in the Sky: Successful Baking at High Altitudes, high altitude bakers frequently add extra flour to sea-level formulas in order to add strength to the batter. Adding extra flour increases the amount of gluten in the baked good, which will then prevent the cake from collapsing. Note that the Hummingbird Bakery recipe calls for 1 cup of all-purpose flour; perhaps adding a teeny bit -- maybe one or two tablespoons -- will provide the extra support needed to keep the cupcakes from collapsing in the way that they did? However, the addition of flour is still an incredibly tricky calibration to the recipe -- adding too much flour can toughen the texture of the cake, and we certainly don't want that.

(recipe quantity: 3/4 cup)

Unsurprisingly, sugar provides flavor, texture, and sweetness to the final product. It also provides an integral structure to the baked good, as well as serving several practical functions in the baking process.

For instance, almost all recipes call on the baker to cream together sugar and butter. According to the Joy of Baking, the purpose of creaming is to get air into the cake's batter. Sugar granules rub against the fat, producing air bubbles that eventually cause the cake to rise in the oven. Later, these air bubbles enlarge when leaveners like baking soda and powder are added.

Pie in the Sky also warns that sugar attracts moisture, which in turn reduces the amount of gluten formed in the batter. Less gluten produces a lighter batter that will rise more in the oven. However, this lighter batter also means that the baked good has a higher tendency to collapse, especially when it expands too quickly without structural integrity. Too much sugar can therefore be dangerous at high-altitudes, since the sugar has the ability to weaken the batter's structure. Note the high concentration of sugar in the Hummingbird vanilla cupcakes recipe -- no wonder my cupcakes collapsed during the cooling process!

The book also explains that sugar interferes with egg protein's coagulation and needs more heat to set. I have no idea what "egg protein's coagulation" actually means, but I get the gist of it: the more sugar in a batter, the more heat is needed to set the batter. That might explain the weird, wet, undercooked middle of my control batch, especially considering that the cupcakes are baked at the rather low oven temperature of 325 F. It's probably a good idea to increase the temperature of the oven in order to get the cakes to set more quickly.

My boyfriend also suggested that I simply decrease the amount of sugar in the recipe -- you know, considering all the potential problems that sugar can cause at high altitudes. But since I'm such a sugar fiend, I'm not sure I want to do that just yet.

Baking Powder
(recipe quantity: 1.5 teaspoons)

I frequently mention something called a "leavening agent" in this blog. These are chemicals like baking powder and baking soda that produce air, steam, and carbon dioxide gas in batters, causing them to rise when baked. Leavening agents also enlarge bubbles present in the batter from the creaming process, as I mentioned in the previous section about sugar.

The Joy of Baking explains that baking powder consists of baking soda and acidic salts like cream of tartar or sodium aluminum sulfate. These salts react with liquid when it is added to the batter to create carbon dioxide gas. The gas will then cause bubbles in the batter to enlarge. A second reaction also occurs in the oven -- the same gas cells expand and cause the cake batter to rise. Too much baking powder can therefore cause the batter to rise rapidly and then collapse, as air bubbles in the batter grow too large and break.

To add complications to the matter, remember that air pressure lessens at higher altitudes. According to Pie in the Sky, when there is less air pushing down on the batter, it can rise much more easily. The higher the elevation, the less air resistance, and the more easily the baking powder will work. Purdy, author of Pie in the Sky, advises that the amount of leavening in most sea-level recipes must be reduced at higher altitudes to prevent the baked goods from over-rising and collapsing.

The 1.5 teaspoons of baking powder that the Hummingbird recipe calls for seems generous; the American recipes that I tend to favor (this or this, for instance) use smaller amounts of leavening agents in the recipes. I hypothesized in another part of my blog that Hummingbird cupcakes taste differently from American cupcakes because of the bakery's generous use of baking powder. Messing with this step is going to be extraordinarily tricky, especially if I want to maintain the Hummingbird cupcake's unique taste.


It seems that the Hummingbird Bakery's recipe for vanilla cupcakes are INCREDIBLY dependent on ingredients that cause the batter to rise up, up, and up! While such proportions might work at sea-level, they definitely need to be altered at higher altitudes.

So, after our faux-chemistry/food science lesson, what did we learn?

More flour, more heat, less sugar, and less baking powder = more structure, less rise, less goop.

That should fix all my problems, right?

Hummingbird Bakery Vanilla Cupcakes, High-Altitude Style

November 13, 2011

Like any true scientist, I began my experiment in high-altitude baking by creating a control group. I decided to follow the Hummingbird Bakery's sea-level recipe for vanilla cupcakes without any alterations or modifications. After all, Susan E. Purdy of Pie in the Sky: Successful Baking at High Altitudes suggested that it was okay to try sea-level recipes first before making any modifications; some recipes, she wrote, might not even NEED alterations. I was optimistic. What if the Hummingbird Bakery Cookbook's recipes fell into this category? I could then spend my year in Denver in bliss, making my beloved recipes without any hassle!

I followed the steps of the recipe meticulously, measuring and mixing each ingredient precisely. The final, pre-baked batter looked no different from how it looked at sea-level:

(iPhone camera)

So far, so good. I stuck the cupcakes tray into the pre-heated oven, sat by the oven's glass door, and carefully monitored the cupcakes for their full bake-time of 20-25 minutes.

This is what I saw:

- 1 minute: Nothing extraordinary. Erlend, my boyfriend, makes fun of me for sitting by the oven to watch the cupcakes rise.

- 5 minutes: Uh, the cupcakes seem to have risen WAYYY too quickly. Mild panic starts to set in -- the batter of each individual cupcake space has risen over the edge, spilling into other cake spaces and over the edge of the pan. But at the same time, funnily enough, the middle of the cupcakes still seem soft and liquidy.

- 10 minutes: This is a full blown disaster. The outsides of the batter have fully risen, spilling over the edge of the pan and molding to the pan and oven with some weird, foamy, vaguely solid texture. I can't actually tell about this texture since I refuse to open the oven door until bake time is officially over. The insides, however, remain flat and liquidy -- like a puddle in the middle of this weird foamy rise. Good lord.

- 18 minutes: Full panic has set in. The cupcakes, on the other hand, have not. I take the tray out of the oven a full three-minutes before bake time is over; the batter in each cupcake space keeps rising, dripping out of the pan and into the oven floor.

This was the final product; that is, what I pulled out of the oven after 18 minutes:

(iPhone camera)

What. The. Fuck.

I had never spectacularly wrecked a recipe like that before in my life. And to think, this same recipe in San Francisco had yielded such beautiful cupcakes:

(Instagram camera)

I waited for the cupcakes to cool for a bit until I could fully check out their texture. I was right in my observation -- the outsides had risen over the edges of the pan and allocated cupcake space, forming some weird, vaguely solid, slightly foamy texture. The middle was another fascinating mess.

I stuck my finger in one of the cupcake spaces to find that it was nothing but warm, gooey liquid. More liquid-y than the weird foam texture of the outsides of the batter.

(iPhone camera)

As I pulled out my finger, I watched as the entire interior of the cupcake collapsed, leaving nothing but a puddle of goop:

(iPhone camera)

Indeed, as the partially-risen dough in the cupcake spaces cooled, I could see every single one of them collapsing into nothing but puddles of goop.

What a friggin' mess.

Hummingbird Bakery Vanilla Cupcakes, Sea-Level Style

November 10, 2011

"Our vanilla cupcakes, topped with candy-colored Vanilla Frosting and sprinkles, are what the Hummingbird Bakery is best known for, and they never fail to please. When you make these at home, don't overbake them -- they should be light golden and spring back when touched. This way you will ensure an airy, moist cake with a subtle vanilla taste."
- The Hummingbird Bakery Cookbook

Hummingbird vanilla cupcakes, as done by the pros (from the Hummingbird Bakery's website)

One of the things that I like the best about the Hummingbird Bakery Cookbook is the simplicity of its ingredients and its recipes. Its ingredients are normally the sort of thing that you wouldn't be hard-pressed to find in a regular, run-of-the-mill supermarket. For instance, I remember feeling vaguely annoyed the one time I made the New York Times' chocolate chip cookie recipe. The recipe called for "1 1/4 pounds of bittersweet chocolate disks or fèves, at least 60 percent cacao content." It took me a week to find bittersweet chocolate disks, let alone ones containing the specific cacao content that the recipe demanded. Mind you, when I did find the appropriate chocolate at the ever-so-bourgeois Whole Foods, they were priced at something like 7 or 8 dollars a half pound. I essentially ended up paying over $10 for just the chocolate in my chocolate chip cookies. Fuck that. To add insult to injury, the recipe required you to "chill" the dough overnight! I'm way too impatient for that -- I want my chocolate chip cookie, and I want it now. So I made the cookies once and I have to tell you the truth: they weren't worth it.

But here's something that is. Take a look at the recipe list for a batch of Hummingbird Bakery vanilla cupcakes:
  • 1 cup 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
As I noted before, the ingredients are simple, attainable, and pretty cheap. Even if you're just an occasional baker, you probably already have most of the ingredients in your pantry. Note that the recipe, similar to its ingredients, is unfussy and straightforward:

The Hummingbird Bakery Cookbook's Vanilla Cupcakes Recipe
from The Hummingbird Bakery Cookbook

The cookbook claims that the recipe will yield 12 cupcakes; I've made these cupcakes a bunch of times and it has only ever yielded 10.

1. Preheat the oven to 325 F.

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

*A quick note.

I do not have a
KitchenAid mixer. I think it's pretty funny that the cookbook tries to go around saying that you need a KitchenAid mixer. What's this horseshit about a "freestanding electric mixer with a paddle attachment"?! As if there's any other mixer that fits that description!

Instead, I've been using the rather unsexy, unglamorous, but highly dependable Hamilton Beach hand mixer for the last few years. I bought it my sophomore year in college, but it's still got its full power and has never failed me yet. Okay, so you can really only use the lowest setting to avoid overbeating the dough. And sure, it's not the flat paddle beater of my dreams and I have to use a spatula to scrape the dough off the beaters. And the vibrations kinda make my arthritic wrists hurt. Shrug. It works, it was cheap, and it's lasted.

Back to the recipe.

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, then pour into the flour mixture and continue beating until just incorporated. Continue mixing for a couple more minutes until the batter is smooth, but do not overmix.

5. Spoon the batter into cupcake cases until two-thirds full and bake for 20-25 minutes, or until light golden and the cake bounces back when touched.

6. When done (you can test this by inserting a toothpick in the center; if it comes out clean when you pull it out, the cupcakes are ready to go), let the cupcakes cool slightly in the pan before letting cool on a wire rack.

Not bad, eh? Six fairly simple, easy steps yields homemade cupcakes that are almost as attractive as the ones that the pros did in the photos above:

Hummingbird vanilla cupcakes, as done by me
(iPhone Camera)

The photo is of my first EVER batch of Hummingbird vanilla cupcakes. This was taken in San Francisco sometime in late June/early July, when I had just gotten back from London. I made these using the really simple recipe above. The frosting was another Hummingbird recipe -- specifically, their lavender buttercream -- I just modified it with a couple drops of pink food coloring, instead of leaving it its natural cream white color. I also had a giant block of white chocolate that I massacred with a cheap vegetable peeler to produce the white chocolate shavings/rolls that you see in the photo.

Not bad, eh?

So for all you lucky sea-levellers out there, there it is. Take this recipe as a gift. Because it'll be a long time until you see another original Hummingbird Bakery recipe on this blog. Because this is where the fun begins.

The next few posts will be nothing but trial-and-error modifications on this simple vanilla cupcakes recipe. Upcoming posts will document what happens when I try the exact same recipe in Denver's higher altitude (I do believe we saw a sneak preview in my former post), what happens when I tweak certain ingredients and recipe steps, food-sciencey explanations of the subsequent failures, and the ever-so-meticulous process until perfection. If I even attain it.

Again, please be patient with me. As I tell many Coloradans, this is my first time living anywhere with an altitude higher than 72 ft. Or anywhere that even snows.

Introduction, Pt. 2: The Hummingbird Bakery

November 7, 2011

My love affair with cupcakes began at Saint Cupcake Bakery during my sophomore year at college in Portland, OR. I guess I must have led a sheltered life or something, but I had never tasted cream cheese frosting until then.

Big Top cupcake from Saint Cupcake in Portland, OR (from Saint Cupcake's website)

After Saint Cupcake's Big Top cupcake (vanilla cupcake with chocolate chips and cream cheese frosting, as shown above), there was no turning back. It became an obsession of mine to try and conquer all cupcake stores. First there was Saint Cupcake, Cupcake Jones (GREAT red velvet cupcakes, but the stuffed cupcake concept is a bit much) and The Sugar Cube (overrated, but into the idea of a cupcake food cart) in Portland, OR. Then, in nearby Seattle, there was Cupcake Royale (loved the lavender buttercream, but was underwhelmed by lack of variety, especially the frosting variety) and Trophy Cupcakes (lives in Cupcake Royale's shadow, but is far superior, especially the lemon cupcake and accompanying frosting). In San Francisco, the city I lived in post-college, there was CupKate's moveable cupcakes truck (good cupcakes, terrible waits), Cako Cupcakes (great flavors, but inconsistent quality), Miette (ohgodwayoverratedshootmenow), and Kara's Cupcakes (IMO, best in SF, especially the passionfruit and sweet vanilla flavors). I even went out of my way to try the ever-so-famous and incredibly underwhelming Magnolia Bakery cupcakes in New York!

But somewhere along the way, as I stood in yet another half-an-hour long line for an overpriced baked good that was no bigger than the palm of my hand, I grew disillusioned. I guess this wasn't uncommon -- that is, I wasn't the only one who began to thought that cupcakes were passé -- but that wasn't what really turned me off the whole cupcake scene. What did was the trendiness of it all. Who knew that food could be so trendy? I began to be wary of food trends -- the food trucks, the macarons, the cake pops, Korean-Mexican fusion, gluten-free, insert-the-latest-cool-thing-here. I was well aware that I was apart of it too, with my cupcake obsession. While I still loved cupcakes, I stopped actively seeking them out and eventually grew distracted by other baked goods and desserts like macarons and odd-flavored ice cream.

So it was really out of nostalgia when, this summer, I stepped into the Hummingbird Bakery during a summer trip to London, England (elevation: 78ft). I had come across the
South Kensington Road shop by chance; my dad was on a quest to find an old hole-in-the-wall kebab place from his post-college days living in London. Since I wasn't a fan of kebabs, my dad had coerced me to help with his quest by promising me a cupcake for dessert.

The Hummingbird Bakery shop in South Kensington, London

Now, England isn't exactly known for their food -- if anything, the country is rather notorious for its bad-cooking. I mean, no offense or anything, but this is the land where blood pudding and haggis is celebrated. My standards for British cupcakes (known as "fairy cakes") were low since British interpretations of classically American food were always pretty grim (see: Garfunkel's). I expected a sampling of chocolate and vanilla cake with the obligatory matching frosting, but not much else. As for red velvet, my favorite cupcake? I believed it was primarily an American recipe, one that I would be hard-pressed to find in England.

I think I literally yelped in surprise when I saw a batch of fresh red velvet cupcakes proudly on display, along with creative flavors such as strawberry-rhubarb, fruit tea, and chocolate malt. Still wary of British cooking, I restrained myself and purchased one red velvet cupcake.

Red velvet cupcake (from the Hummingbird Bakery's website)

And wow. Just... wow.

I'd tasted a lot of cupcakes over the last few years of my life, but I can honestly say that Hummingbird Bakery's cupcakes are some of the best cupcakes around. Unlike most cupcakes that have a spongy, airy, and slightly sticky texture, Hummingbird Bakery cupcakes were dense and had a slight crumby texture. This crumby texture was also unexpectedly moist and was well complemented by slightly stiffened, thicker frosting (as opposed to the smooth texture most American frostings tend to be).

The moment I got back to San Francisco, I purchased The Hummingbird Bakery Cookbook with strong approval from Kiron, a Brit and a good friend of mine who claimed that he had seen the book turn his friend from a mediocre baker to a phenomenal one. And indeed, every recipe I tried from the book was a huge success and seemed to perfectly replicate the cupcakes I had had in London.

Vanilla cupcakes with pink lavender buttercream frosting from the Hummingbird Bakery Cookbook
(Instagram camera)

The photo above is my own (excuse the iPhone) shot of the first batch of cupcakes I had made in San Francisco (elevation: 52ft) using recipes from the Hummingbird Bakery cookbook. The cake was vanilla, topped with lavender frosting and white chocolate shavings.

This is what happened when I followed the EXACT SAME recipe in Denver (elevation: 5280ft):

Vanilla cupcakes using the Hummingbird Bakery Cookbook recipe in Denver
(iPhone camera)

Yikes! The perils of high-altitude baking, indeed.

After searching frantically online to see if a more experienced baker before me had adapted the Hummingbird Bakery Cookbook's recipes for high altitude, I found nothing. I suppose I should have known better, given that I was searching for a somewhat esoteric (at least, in the US) cookbook that was also British. England definitely lacked the tall mountains that constituted high-altitude living. But nevertheless I searched high and low for days on end. Alas, all I could find were generic (and not to mention frighteningly inconsistent) tips on how to adjust for baking in high altitude. And, to add insult to injury, no one adjustment seemed sufficient to work for the Hummingbird Bakery Cookbook recipes, which were generous with baking powder (more on this later), sugar, and a whole mess of other ingredients that didn't work quite the same way that they did at sea-level. Hence the frightening goop you see above.

I sighed. It looked like I would have to do the dirty work myself.

And so here it is, my blog, The Hummingbird on High -- also known as my amateur baker's attempt to adjust my beloved Hummingbird Bakery Cookbook's recipes (created in London, England with an elevation of 78ft) to work at the harsh, unfriendly baking environment of Denver, CO (elevation: 5,280ft).

Expect many failures, frustrations, and puddles of inedible goop.

Introduction, Pt. 1: High-Altitude Baking

November 6, 2011

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.

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