I’ve been loafing

April 15, 2012 § 12 Comments

OK, you caught me. I haven’t posted for two weeks. But I’ll have a note from my doctor for an excused absence, promise!

Subtitled: A Lemon Loaf with Altitude (at 5000 feet)

I baked this Baking with Julia recipe in two small ceramic bakers, so I’d have one to give and one to taste. After reading a few of the TWD P&Q (translate Tuesdays with Dorie Problems & Questions) posts (dry, not enough lemon flavor), I made some on-the-fly changes. The resulting loaves seem true to the recipe’s introduction (moist, firm, rich and dense) and I was able to slice them as thinly as the recipe promised, yielding many servings/samples. The lemon loaf got many positive reviews and my husband thought it quite lemony. I think adding a little lemon juice, and some plain yogurt imparted a tartness that reinforced the lemon essence from all of the zest. Also, the acid from these ingredients helped keep the cake tender since I used all-purpose flour, and the extra liquid helped keep the cake moist. Here are my high altitude (and other) adjustments explained:

  1. increased salt to 1/4 teaspoon (improved flavor)
  2. added grated zest of 3 limes (my lemons were small and I also wanted the color)
  3. switched cake flour to all-purpose (made cake sturdier so it didn’t fall in the center, but could become dry and tough)
  4. added about 2 tablespoons of lemon juice (flavor, additional moisture and avoid problem from 3.)
  5. added 1/4 cup plain whole yogurt (flavor, additional moisture and avoid problem from 3.)

There are some common high altitude adjustments that I didn’t make to this recipe:

  1. reduce sugar – sugar tenderizes, so I kept it the same since I used AP flour
  2. reduce leavening (baking powder) – it was such a small amount already, and I didn’t want a brick
  3. increase oven temperature by 25°F – this helps set the exterior of the cake quicker so it doesn’t over rise and then fall in the middle, but I had already reduced the size of the cake by using 2 loaf pans (they baked in less time)

The science behind high altitude baking is based on the fact that the higher you go, the lower the air pressure (think thinner atmosphere). Picture a balloon; if there’s less pressure surrounding that balloon, what might happen? Yup, it’ll get too big and pop. When you make a cake batter, you want it to have a lot of fine bubbles that will leaven and lighten the cake as the air bubbles expand from the heat of the oven. When the cake is done, hopefully the liquid batter has set into the desired type of cake, light and airy angel food to dense and rich pound cake. But if the ingredients aren’t balanced for altitude, you can get a cake that rises to great height in the oven and then collapses, leaving you with a dense gooey center (the classic high altitude dog dish cake). Or because water boils at a lower temperature at altitude (same reason, less air pressure so it changes to steam quicker), breads and cakes dry out during baking. Adding some extra liquid is almost always a helpful adjustment. It can seem like a maddeningly impossible task to learn how to make such a variety of adjustments. Be patient. Pay attention to your measurements and technique. Observe, dissect, taste and analyze your results. Decide on a small number of adjustments, and try again. With experience, you’ll be able predict what adjustments might help when trying a new recipe, and you’ll become a more confident high altitude baker (and a more knowledgeable food scientist).

The recipe began similarly to a genoise sponge cake, but the eggs, sugar and salt are just mixed to uniformly combine, not to a ribbon stage.

I combined the zests with a little lemon juice and mixed that into the egg-sugar mixture.

The rest of the ingredients are ready for the final mix. In the top bowl, I’ve combined the cream and melted butter with some yogurt; all at room temperature or slightly warmer so the butter doesn’t solidify. The egg mixture is on the right, and the flour and baking powder has been sifted 3 times so that it will blend in quickly and easily without forming dry clumps. The flour is sifted over the egg mixture in portions and folded in with minimal stirring.

I took a small amount of the batter and quickly stirred it into the cream-butter-yogurt mixture. This made it easier to fold the “batters” together and avoid over mixing which can lead to dry tough cakes.

Thin slices of the lemon loaf are rich, moist and pack a lemon-lime punch! They reminded me of a pagoda when I took this picture.

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