Friday, January 25, 2013

Baking at Altitude: An Experiment

Crunch Bars
Photo by Chris Craymer
I’m a “savory” person, which means I’d much rather have a plate of salty French fries than an ice cream sundae.  My husband (who always says, “Life is uncertain; eat dessert first!”), thinks I’m crazy.  Regardless, when I decided to go to the Culinary Institute of America I knew without a doubt I would major in Culinary Arts and not Baking and Pastry.  However, even though I may not enjoy the outcome as much as others, I still love to bake sometimes.  This is especially true because it’s something fun I can do with my daughter.  So when I find a savory/sweet recipe like the one I recently found in Bon Appétit magazine for “Crunch Bars”, which are a mixture of a sweet cookie base, dark chocolate (a “savory’s” go-to dessert), and salty, crunchy toppings like popcorn or nuts, I knew I had to try it.  Then I remembered that, in Santa Fe, I live at 8500 feet above sea level.  Groan.  Baking at altitude…what a pain!  As if baking wasn’t already persnickety enough, what with changes due to humidity, the type of pan you’re using, having to weigh everything, etc!  But off I went on my experiment, which resulted in a very different recipe than was printed for “sea level” bakers.  Here are my results, so you too can make these delicious Crunch Bars and perhaps have a starting point for baking at altitude experiments of your own.
 Before I get into the details, I will first tell you that I have baked several things at altitude with no alterations to the recipe at all with great success.  But some things just will not turn out right without modifications.  It is up to you to decide whether you want to try the recipe first without changing anything, or if you just want to forge ahead, making your altitude modifications from the beginning. 

Here are the basic guidelines for baking at altitude.  The exact measurements are more appropriate for leavened cakes and bread, and may have to fiddled with for cookies.

My "lab assistant"
·         Increase oven temperature (just slightly for cookies, by 25°F for cakes and bread).
·         Decrease the fat and sugar content in your recipe (by 1-3 Tablespoons for every cup called for).
·         Increase liquid ingredients (by 3-4 Tablespoons for every cup) and flour (by 3 Tablespoons).
·         Decrease leavening agents like baking powder and baking soda (by ¼ teaspoon for every teaspoon).
For the cookie base of my Crunch Bars, here are the alterations I made:
·         Increased the oven temperature from 375°F to 380°F.
·         Decreased the butter (fat) by ¼ C (down from a whole cup) and decreased the total sugar by 2 Tbsp.
·         Added two egg yolks (the original recipe did not call for any egg) and increased the flour by ¼ C.
Hopefully this gives you a starting point for your next baking experiment, and I hope you enjoy these Crunch Bars!  The original recipe can be found on Bon Appétit’s website.  If you’d like to leave your comments on this article or recipe, or if you have questions on how to modify another recipe for altitude, please leave me a comment!


Crunch Bars
Recipe by Dorie Greenspan, Adapted for Baking at Altitude by Alaina Missbach
Bad: Cookie Base BEFORE
Modifications for Altitude 
Makes about 26 Bars

Cookie Base
·         ¾ C (1½ sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature, plus more for dish
·         7 Tbsp (packed) light brown sugar
·         3 Tbsp sugar
·         ½ tsp fine sea salt
·     2 egg yolks
·         1½ tsp vanilla extract
·         1¾ C all-purpose flour

Topping
·         6 oz semisweet, bittersweet, or high quality milk chocolate, finely chopped
·         1-1½ C assorted toppings of choice, such as cocoa nibs, crushed candy, toasted nuts or coconut, or popcorn
·         Flaky Sea Salt or Kosher Salt

Cookie Base
1.       Arrange a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 380°F.  Line the bottom and sides of a 13x9x2” metal or glass baking dish with foil, allowing 2” overhang on either side.  Butter foil in dish.
2.       Using an electric or stand mixer at medium speed, beat the ¾C butter in a large bowl until smooth, about 3 minutes.

Good: Cookie Base AFTER
Modifications for Altitude
3.       Add both sugars and salt; continue to mix until mixture is light and creamy, about 3 minutes longer.
4.       Beat in egg yolks, one at a time, then vanilla, and then slowly mix in flour, beating until entirely incorporated.  The dough will be wet and sticky.
5.       Scrape the dough into the prepared dish and use your fingers to spread into a thin, even layer.
6.       Bake cookie base until it is golden brown and has begun to puff, about 18-20 minutes.  (Your base can be made 2 days ahead.  Let cool completely, then store airtight in the baking dish at room temperature.)

Topping
1.       If you pre-made your cookie base, preheat your oven again to 380°F.  Scatter chopped chocolate evenly over cookie base and bake just until chocolate is soft and has begun to melt, 3-5 minutes.  Immediately spread chocolate in an even layer over the cookie base.

Yummy! I used popcorn...
2.       Scatter your chosen toppings over warm chocolate.  Press lightly into chocolate.  Sprinkle with salt.
3.       Let cool in dish on a wire rack for 15 minutes.  Using the foil overhang, lift cookie from dish.  Place on rack and let cool until chocolate is set, about 2 hours.
4.       Carefully remove foil from cookie and slide onto a cutting board.  Cut into bars and serve within 5 days, storing in an airtight container at room temperature.