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Despite this we stay- August 28, 2008

High Altitude Baking Woes

by Carol Dunn

LA VETA- If you learned to bake at low altitude, you may be ready to give up baking after a month in Huerfano County.  Common maladies include flat cookies, heavy breads and monstrous cake creatures, which we will elaborate on in a moment.  You can have the loveliest cookie sheet full of dough lumps dropped by the instructed tablespoonful.  But after a few minutes in the oven, the cookie sheet is covered by one 10” by 14” featureless cookie approximately one micron thick.  Gentlemen, you know what you think when you see one of these cut into squares.  You think, “These aren’t like the cookies my mom baked,” though you dare not say it.  Of course they’re not.  Your mom either baked at sea level, where baking was invented, or she grew up here knowing the secret.  It wasn’t the dust that drove women mad after the pioneers homesteaded this area.  It was baking powder.

    At high altitudes, baking powder is about ¼ more effective than at sea level.  It has something to do with air bubbles and less air pressure and things rising faster and the air being dry.  Kind of the opposite of scuba diving.  Therefore, you only need ¾ as much baking powder as a recipe calls for.  The mixture of cornstarch, bicarbonate of soda, sodium aluminum phosphate and monocalcium phosphate sounds innocent enough.  But at altitudes over 5,000 feet, baking powder reverts to a rabid primeval compound that turns simple cake batter into a seething, alarming goo that only stops growing when you turn the oven hot enough to kill it. 

    We had one such creature spontaneously generate in our oven shortly after moving here.  We are not pointing measuring spoons at anyone, but apparently the “t” for teaspoon of baking powder got confused with “T” for Tablespoon, and I know this mishap had less to do with altitude than paying attention, but the altitude certainly didn’t help.  Three times as much of anything in a recipe gets ugly at most any altitude, and it gets ugly fast.  The cupcakes started rising almost immediately.  They looked great.  Ten minutes later they had set the Guiness Book world record for the greatest increase in the volume of cake batter and were still rising – up and over the edge of the muffin pan, down through the oven racks.  Seething, gooing, crawling – like an alien life form seeking something to engulf and digest.  I shudder even now as I remember it.  And you bakers know what’s next . . . the electric element.  The hot element turns stuff like apple pie juice and batter creatures into smoking, stinking lava upon contact.  And the element cools down slowly when you want it to cool down fast, like when you turn off the oven and are saying things like darn it and blast it all.  When it finally does cool down, the lava is thoroughly baked on.  And every time you use the oven for the next month, family members go out of their way to tell you something’s burning.   

    Guys, you may have thought this was just a woman story, but it’s not.  Because now it’s your turn.  Your spouse calls you to see the unresponsive cake creature in the smoked oven and says to you, “I just can’t bake dinner until we clean this.” 

    And you’re thinking, “We?  I didn’t make this mess.”  But, you’re incorrect.  It’s always the guy’s fault. 

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