For High Country Baking fans across the county, the time has come to rejoice. Local columnist and Colorado Mountain College culinary instructor Vera Dawson has released her first cookbook, “Cookies in the Clouds.”
The book contains cookie creations from honey-pecan squares to traditional almond biscotti, and each recipe has been tested in Dawson’s kitchen to ensure it works at Summit County altitudes of 8,000 feet and higher. Dawson will be signing her book and sharing the sweet treats of her labor at The Next Page bookstore on Saturday, Feb. 15.
Developing a craft
Dawson was raised in the east and came through Colorado on her way to pursue a fellowship at the University of Southern California. Upon rolling through Rocky Mountain National Park in her Volkswagen camper, she vowed to return and spend a year in the mountains. One year extended to many, and she settled in Summit County.
Back home, food was a big part of what tied Dawson’s family together, so it was only natural that she continued her lifelong pursuit of culinary concoctions in her new digs. The trouble, she found, was that cooking here, especially baking, was much more difficult.
“Above about 3,000 feet, but certainly at 8,000 feet and above, the air pressure changes and any combination of flour and a leavening agent, whether it’s baking soda or eggs, reacts differently,” she said. “Lack of air pressure, and extreme dryness, creates a whole different atmosphere and different reactions in baking, so that, more often than not, baking projects are less successful than they would be anywhere else.”
Often, making some significant changes in a recipe is necessary to get something close to what you had in mind, Dawson said, and she had fairly high standards for the outcomes of her baking projects.
“I knew what it was supposed to be like, so I did a lot of reading and just a lot of experimentation and took a lot of classes, but I never took a class at our altitude,” she said, adding that CMC, where she is now an instructor, is the first culinary institute she knows of above 6,000 feet.
Writing about baking
Just more than 10 years ago, Dawson took what she had learned through trial and error and persistence and developed a column for the Summit Daily. She said the reason she landed on baking as a topic is because it’s the hardest thing to do in our climate.
“The first editor said, ‘Let’s do baking because that’s what drives everybody crazy,’” she said. “There’s changes in all kinds of cooking at altitude, but baking is the hardest.”
Since the advent of High Country Baking, the biweekly column has garnered a strong following of baking enthusiasts who began clamoring for a cookbook to collect all of the recipes in one place.
“I’ve had a lot of requests,” Dawson said. “I frequently get, ‘When are you going to do a cookbook?’ … It came from the paper more than me — a lot of people had asked — and then my sister-in-law, who was a journalist for many years and has written four or five books that were really well received, she said, ‘Why don’t you do it?’”
The difficult part of writing a book is generating the content, Dawson’s sister-in-law pointed out, and that had already been collected through years of creating recipes and writing columns. That final push set her on the course to compiling “Cookies in the Clouds.”
Pursuing an art
The cookbook is a cross section of confections from Dawson’s newspaper columns, the classes she teaches at CMC and things she has baked but never presented in either format. It also includes high-altitude baking basics and other helpful hints to pursue this particular culinary art.
“To me, it is like doing a painting or quilting or other art projects and other art hobbies that people have,” she said. “It’s a wonderful outlet, I think. And then afterwards, you don’t have to give people mediocre paintings; you give them something delicious to eat. If I was painting, they would be like, ‘Oh my god, here she comes with another painting.’”
Dawson said she was thrilled to see the cookbook project unfold and watch it come together as a unified whole, all of those recipes together in one place — and she’s already pondering a follow-up release about cakes.
“I was really pleased with the photographs and the sense of color, the appeal of it, just like a coking project,” she said. “It became very much like cooking something — how do you put it together, how it’s going to work, trusting the recipes — and people like to look at it and see it and use it.”
In the end, the goal was not to create a big, serious, expensive cookbook, Dawson said, but rather one with enough detail for the greenest novice and enough sophistication for the savvy baker.
“There’s some beautiful, absolutely elegant, lovely cookies that are satisfying, no matter how much of a gourmet you are, to both create and look at and then devour,” she said.