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Thursday, January 5, 2012

How to Bake the Perfect Homemade Cake at High Altitude!

That post title makes it sound like I know what I'm doing now, doesn't it. However, that is not the case, but it did get your attention, right?  My most recent baking journey began with the desire to homebake (don't really care for that term "scratch", yucky!) light, rich, and sweet cakes above 5,000 feet. That has been my quest since moving to Denver last February. It has been nearly a year that included taking wonderful cake decorating classes at The Makery Cake Company, reading many books and on-line articles, and ordering a boat-load of high altitude cookbooks. I still have not produced the perfect homemade cake to reach my lofty goal. However, my time for searching has come to clear focus and I will have that cake by February!!

I understand the cake mix vs. "scratch" cake issue. I know that my cake will not be as light, fluffy, and full of air (and possibly other chemicals to make that happen). However, there is a good solid homemade cake recipe out there for me...I know it. So that will be my quest. Once a week I will be sharing my experiences in pursuing this lofty peak that many before me have conquered. However, I plan to plant my flag at the summit of homemade cake recipes in the near future. Come along on the journey with me, please! I promise no strained muscles or climber's fatigue!

I mentioned the cookbooks I ordered and will have to tell you about them now that the holidays are over and I've had some time to enjoy them. I ordered three high altitude books from Amazon after reading about them in some other blogs.

The first book is The New High Altitude Cookbook by Beverly M. Anderson and Donna M. Hamilton published by Random House, New York in 1961, 1969, 1980. What it lacks in pictures (they really do help me!) it makes up for in 275 pages of cooking and baking recipes. I will be giving their sugar cookies a whirl before Valentine's Day since I really hated the ones I made at Christmas.

Another book is High Altitude Baking 2nd Edition by Patricial Kendall, Editor from the Colorado State University Cooperative Extension. I really like that most of the cake recipes are for layers not bundt or 13 x 9 size. One of my criteria for this cake is that it be stackable so I can decorate it! I will be trying their chocolate layer cake.

The final book that really got me started is Baking at High Altitude The Muffin Lady's Old Fashioned Recipes written by Randi Levin . This book is called "Best First Cookbook in the World" and received the Gourmand World Cookbook Award! Sounds good to me. And it is! Just the story behind the Muffin Lady and how she collected all of these recipes and tested them got me right away. I will tell you about that in later posts. Now I have another goal since reading this book. I want to meet the author. We'll have to see if that can happen!

I used The Muffin Lady's recipe for Plain Ole Yellow Layer Cake (p. 102) today. I have to admit that when I mixed it and tried to pour it into the pans I knew it was a flop! The batter was the consistency of thin cookie dough! Hmm... Did I do something wrong? However, once I baked the two layers I found the cake is moist, sweet, and dense/crumbly like a good homemade cake. I am going to remake it and double the recipe to make thicker layers since mine ended up being about 1 1/4 inches thick. I like a taller cake so we'll see what happens when the recipe is doubled.

One of the best hints about baking at high altitude came from The Muffin Lady's Baking at High Altitude cookbook. She said one of the strangest things I have ever heard in relation to the dry climate that exists at this altitude.  Under her "Tips for Baking at High Altitude" section she discusses how to handle the product once it has been baked and taken from the oven. Specifically for cakes she says to let the layers cool in their pans (not on a rack) and wrap the product or cover it within 7 minutes of removing it from the oven. I tried this with one of the layers and let the other layer cool on the rack, then covered it with cellophane. The one that cooled in the pan and was immediately wrapped was much more moist and soft. Although some moisture was immediately evident inside the cellophane, it disappeared by the time the cake was fully cooled!

yellow cake from a single recipe (only one of two pans)

yellow cake from a double recipe

This is the difference in the cake layers when I baked a single recipe, then doubled it. Wow! I am so happy with the results of the double batch. I baked them in the same 9X3 pans and they domed beautifully. They took longer (nearly twice as long) to finish baking but are just as moist and sweet inside as the single recipe layers. I finished stacking and decorating with a chocolate icing and chocolate filling.

The nice thing about this size of these double recipe layers is that I could divide and fill each layer for two smaller cakes or stack it as I did. Single layer cakes work nicely for the office or small gatherings since your office-mates and family can have a piece and not feel like they are pigging out! Then they don't get that angry/delighted face when you bring them more treats, right? Besides, you will have two cakes to share! Double delight!

Well, I think the yellow cake recipe below (double recipe) is a good beginning for a homebaked cake. My next attempt I will try some egg whites to help lighten the cake and maybe a little more sweetening that may help with moisture. However, now I want to conquer chocolate, white, red velvet, cookie dough, etc... At least my journey has begun with a winner!

                                                        Plain Ole Yellow Layer Cake
from p 102 
Baking at High Altitude
The Muffin Lady's Old Fashioned Recipes

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

1 1/2 cup (3 sticks) butter or margarine
2 cup sugar
2 tablespoon vanilla
16 egg yolks
5 cups flour
2 tablespoon baking powder
1 1/2 cup of milk

1. Cream together the butter, sugar, vanilla and egg yolks.
2. Add the flour and baking powder alternately with the milk. Thoroughly mix the batter.
3. Grease two 9-inch pans
4. Bake 20-30 minutes or until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean.
5. Cool and frost as desired. 


  1. I just love your tip about leaving the cake in the pan and covering it with plastic wrap so that it doesn't dry out, as at high altitude the air is so dry that it sucks the moisture out of everything...

    Your decorated cake is so beautiful, those cake decorating classes really paid off, you are a master!

  2. Debbie, you are so kind. I never knew the tip about covering the cake. Storage is so important. Guess I should have asked my Tahoe neighbor a lot sooner.

    When I decorated this cake I was using some leftover decorator's frosting and just wanted to put something on it. I used the same tip for all the decorations and just played around with it. Nothing serious, and nothing on top, which is strange!

    After the cake has sat for a day it seems very dry. How do you store your cakes after they are made? I've tried refrigeration (which is a no-no in dry climates I guess) and just a covered cake plate on the counter. What do you suggest?

  3. I think your cake looks very regal with the smooth top and the decorations on the sides!

    I have never found a really good solution to the dry air problem. I usually just make sure that the cake is completely covered with frosting (I even go so far as to frost the cake to the plate it is sitting on...)so that there is no way in for the dry air. Then after it has been cut and served I tightly wrap the left over cake and the plate with plastic wrap. Even this doesn't keep the cake from drying out on the exposed cut parts so when I serve it again I trim off the dry cut parts and then cut slices from the trimmed cake. I hope this helps!