High-altitude guide to baking during the coronavirus outbreak

Chocolate Chunk Walnut Banana Bread. (Allyson Reedy, Special to The Denver Post)

Only a month ago, you may have balked at the idea of baking and eating four dozen cookies every other day. But now, in the lonesome anarchy that is our coronavirus-induced quarantines, it doesn’t seem like nearly enough, does it? If the Merriam-Webster word of the year for 2020 isn’t “stress-baking” (OK, that’s actually two words, but still), then they’re self-quarantining all wrong.

Yes, our new normal involves overserving ourselves at Zoom happy hours, using the phrase “shelter in place” unironically and stress-baking peanut butter cupcakes because King Soopers was out of the cocoa powder we needed for brownies. It may not be ideal, but stress-baking is better than sick- or dead-baking, and yes, I know we can’t bake when we’re dead but I’m trying to make a point here.

Now that stress-baking has become our coping mechanism of choice — and therefore an integral part of our daily, cope-heavy routines — the next thing we need to know is how to do it well. Because unlike those who are quarantined at sea level, we’ve got our altitude working against us when we try to bake pandemicakes.

No, we in Colorado can’t just eat a bag of Toll House morsels and then follow and bake up the cookie recipe on the second bag. We have to make substitutions, and think about things like air pressure and evaporation. If we don’t, our cakes will collapse, much like our lives as we knew them already have.

We asked three pro bakers for tips on how to adjust recipes to behave at our high altitude so our quarantine treats can be as treat-y as possible. Here’s how to make sure those extra 1,000 calories you’re eating a day taste — and look — great.

A few adjustments are necessary to keep quick breads moist, like this Chocolate Chunk Walnut Banana Bread. (Allyson Reedy, Special to The Denver Post)

Cakes and quick breads

Jennifer Essex, cake baker extraordinaire and owner of Ruby Jean Patisserie, learned to bake in the Midwest, but she found that those same killer cake recipes didn’t quite work up here at our Rocky Mountain high.

“When I arrived in Denver via Chicago, I had no idea what I was in for with this altitude,” she said. “None of my old recipes yielded the same perfect outcome as they did at sea level. I had to learn everything over again.”

She took each of her tried-and-true sea-level recipes and tweaked them until she got the results she was after. While Essex says recipes for brownies and quick breads usually transfer alright to our altitude (check out her recipe for Chocolate Chunk Walnut Banana Bread, below), cakes are a whole other story.

Her tips: To avoid that caved-in middle, reduce the baking powder by 20 to 25 percent. To dodge dryness, which happens a lot up here, add an extra egg to bump up the moisture content. Also, Essex usually uses cake flour for her cakes and quick breads to give them a softer, more delicate texture.

Is Essex spending a little more time in the kitchen these days like the rest of us are?

“Yes, I am baking and cooking and eating all the things. I get an idea in my head for a cake or a dish and can’t stop thinking about it until I do it. Yesterday, my son and I made potato chip crispy treats, and I’m plotting a butternut squash and spinach lasagna and working on a new spice cake recipe for fall.”

Strawberry White Chocolate with Streusel Cookies (Provided by Jennifer Akina of Azucar Bakery and Melted)

Cookies

Azucar Bakery’s pastry chef Jennifer Akina is well-acquainted with multiple forms of baked goods, but when she got tapped to create cookies for the new soft-serve ice cream concept Melted, she got extra knowledgeable about cookies, especially of the chewy variety. (She shares her recipe for one of her favorites, Strawberry White Chocolate with Streusel, below.)

Her rule of thumb for adjusting recipes for our thinner air: Cut the leaveners (baking soda and baking powder) in half, and add a couple of extra tablespoons of flour to your dry ingredients. Doing so is kind of akin to what self-quarantining does to the coronavirus: It helps mitigate the cookie spread. And you know you don’t want that dreaded cookie spread.

Akina admits to being a stress-baker herself and says her oven has gotten lots of use over the past few weeks.

“I’m definitely a stress-baker,” she said. “It brings me peace to focus on the measuring and mixing of each beautiful ingredient.”

Yeast breads

Never in the history of mankind — or the history of Google (same difference) — have so many people searched the word “bread” as in the past week. We tapped Colorado’s own bread whisperer, Andy Clark of Louisville’s Moxie Bread Co. — James Beard Award semifinalist for Outstanding Baker — to help us achieve yeasty, carby perfection. And guess what? He said baking bread up here really isn’t that different from at lower altitudes.

Still, he has a few tips if your loaves are caving in like the walls around you. First, add a little more water than the recipe directs to account for the drier flour you’re probably using. Clark points out that flour sitting in a Denver warehouse is going to be a little more parched than flour sitting in, say, a hot, humid Houston warehouse. Next, cover the dough once it’s been mixed. You can use plastic wrap, a lid or a warm, damp towel. Finally, bake your bread at a higher temperature.

Clark suggests baking your bread at 500 degrees, in a Dutch oven with a lid.

“We bake at as high of a temperature as possible to try to seal in all the moisture,” Clark said. “It may shorten your bake time a little bit.”

Clark said he isn’t so much a stress-baker as a baker who bakes under stress. He offers us this: “When I’m baking, I try to remember that I’m doing one of the things I love most in the whole world, and I try to slow down and make every movement count, every thought count. I try to be really intentional about it. It’s hard to do.”

It is hard to do, but go forth with your intentional stress-baking, Colorado. It won’t be like this forever.

Chocolate Chunk Walnut Banana Bread

Provided by Jennifer Essex of Ruby Jean Patisserie. Makes 1 loaf.

Ingredients:

4 ripe bananas

1/3 cup butter, melted

¾ cup sugar

1 egg

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

¼ teaspoon cinnamon

½ teaspoon salt

1 ½ cups all-purpose flour

1 cup walnuts, roasted and chopped

¼ cup chocolate chunks

Directions:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line loaf pan with parchment paper.

Mash the bananas with melted butter. Stir in sugar, egg and vanilla.

Combine all the dry ingredients in a separate bowl and fold into the wet ingredients. Add walnuts and chocolate.

Bake in preheated oven for 50-60 minutes, until golden brown and cooked through.

***

Strawberry White Chocolate with Streusel Cookies

Provided by Jennifer Akina of Azucar Bakery and Melted. Makes 36 cookies.

Ingredients:

For the cookies:

2 sticks of butter, melted

2 1/3 cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon baking soda

¼ cup dry milk powder

¼ cup granulated sugar

1 packed cup of brown sugar

2 eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla

1/4 cup strawberry preserves

8 ounces white chocolate chips

2 ounces dried strawberries (if you can’t find them, the cookies will still taste good)

For the streusel topping:

2 tablespoons of butter, cold and cut up

1/8 cup granulated sugar

1/3 cup all-purpose flour

¼ cup ground, freeze-dried strawberries (if you don’t have these on-hand, that’s OK)

Directions: 

For the streusel, mix all ingredients on low speed until crumbly, like gravel. Set aside.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees (325 degrees for convection ovens). Line baking sheet with parchment paper.

Sift flour, salt, baking soda and milk powder. Mix butter and sugars until creamy. Add eggs, vanilla and preserves slowly. Add dry ingredients slowly, scraping down sides of bowl. Fold in white chocolate and dried strawberries.

Scoop into cookie-sized portions and top with streusel. For best results, freeze the dough for a bit before baking.

Bake 7 minutes, rotate pan and then bake another 6-8 minutes.

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