High Altitude Baking: Mini cakes pack big flavor
September 12, 2018
Editor's note: High altitudes makes cookies spread in the pan, cakes fall, and few baked goods turn out as they do at sea level. This twice-monthly column presents recipes and tips that make baking in the mountains successful.
I got it wrong … these aren't just for kids. They're devoured as quickly by adults as by the younger set, proving that the combination of chocolate and peanut butter has broad appeal. The 2-inch cakes (my favorite size for a cupcake, yielding two yummy bites) feature a rich chocolate flavor and moist, dense texture (think pound cake) complemented by thick swirls of smooth, melt-in-your-mouth peanut butter frosting. And, if you want to gild the lily, you can embellish the frosting further with a sprinkle of grated dark chocolate and a drizzle of the same chocolate, melted. No, it's not gourmet, but it's mighty tasty.
The little cakes are made by the reverse-creaming method. Traditionally, when making cake batter, we first cream butter and sugar until fluffy, then add eggs, and finally, alternately add dry and liquid ingredients. In the reverse creaming method, we switch the order of ingredients: we start with the dry ingredients, add butter to them (so it's never beaten to a fluffy state), and, lastly, add the rest of the wet ingredients. I like to use this method at high altitudes because the reduced air pressure can cause us mountain bakers to beat too much air into the batter when we cream the butter by the traditional method, creating a cake that lacks sufficient structure and may collapse while baking.
While natural peanut butter is usually my preference, it doesn't work well in the frosting.
Chocolate & Peanut Butter Mini Cakes
Adjusted for altitudes of 7,900 feet and above.
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Yields 12 two-inch mini-cupcakes or about seven standard cupcakes. Recipe can be doubled.
½ cup plus 1 tablespoon bleached all-purpose flour (spoon gently into measuring cup and level)
½ cup plus 1 tablespoon superfine granulated sugar, preferably Baker's
¼ cup unsweetened natural cocoa (NOT Dutch-processed)
2 healthy pinches baking soda
1/8 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small pieces and softened
1 large or extra-large egg, cold
1 large or extra-large egg white
¼ cup milk, cold
½ teaspoon instant espresso powder
Generous ½ teaspoon vanilla extract
Peanut Butter Frosting
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
½ cup creamy peanut butter
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 ½-2 cups confectioners' sugar
2-4 tablespoons milk or cream
Chocolate Topping, optional
2 ounces semisweet chocolate
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees with a rack in the lower third. Line the cupcake pan with paper liners; lightly grease the liners with a vegetable oil-flour baking spray.
2. Combine the flour, sugar, cocoa, baking soda and salt in a large bowl and whisk vigorously to combine. Add the softened butter pieces, the egg and the egg white. Set a timer for two minutes. Using an electric mixer on medium speed, beat until the dry ingredients are moistened but not wet. Increase the mixer speed to high and beat until the two minutes are up. Scrape the sides and bottom of the bowl.
3. In a 1-cup measure or small bowl, combine the cold milk, the espresso powder and the vanilla. Add this to the batter and beat for another two and a half minutes on high speed, scraping the sides and bottom of the bowl as you do so.
4. Spoon the batter into the prepared pan, filling the cups to about a quarter of an inch from the top. Smooth the tops and tap the filled pan on a counter a couple of times to release any air bubbles. Bake until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, 16-18 minutes (longer for standard-sized cupcakes). Don't overbake. Remove to a rack and cool about 10 minutes. Remove the cupcakes from the pan and let them cool completely.
5. Make the frosting: Cut the butter into eight pieces, add them and the peanut butter to a mixing bowl and beat with an electric mixer until smooth. Beat in the vanilla and sugar, one-quarter cup at a time, until a firm, smooth mixture forms. Add milk/cream a little at a time until it reaches a pipe-able consistency. If it's too thin, add more sugar. Spoon mixture into a piping bag fitted with a star tip and make swirls of frosting on each cake. If using chocolate topping, grate about 1 ½ tablespoons of the semisweet chocolate and sprinkle it on the frosted tops. Melt the remaining chocolate and drizzle it decoratively over the frosting.
The cake recipe is a variation of one published in Alice Medrich's Bittersweet. Vera Dawson, author of the high-altitude cookbooks Baking Above It All and Cookies in the Clouds, (available at The Bookworm in Edwards and Next Page Bookstore in Frisco), is a high-altitude baking teacher. Her recipes have been tested in her Summit County kitchen and, whenever necessary, altered until they work at our altitude. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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