Living at sea level, I’ve never given much thought to recipe adjustments needed when baking at higher elevations. A dear friend of mine (a seasoned pastry chef), Tweeted that she was nervous about baking in the clouds — it was a cry for help. I was happy to chime in and give her thin-air solutions.
First things first: Boiling water temperature is not universal. At sea level, water boils at 212 degrees F. At 10,000 feet above sea level, it drops to 195 degrees F. Go figure.
If we understand why cakes fall during cooling, fixing the problem becomes easy.
Follow me: the higher up you go, air pressure decreases, which causes leavening agents in baked goods to react too quickly. Liquids also tend to evaporate at a quicker rate. This causes cakes to fall and be dry.
Find out how to make the perfect high-altitude cake
My first real memory of basil came when I was very young. I remember the day as if it were yesterday and every time I smell basil, I’m transported back in time.
We lived in Philadelphia, and in the summer we would pile into the family car and drive one and a half hours to my cousin’s home in Atlantic City, N.J. We would drive past farms filled with incredibly sweet Silver Queen corn, beefsteak tomatoes the size of softballs, peaches so fresh I could see the peach fuzz from the car, and rows and rows and rows of fragrant basil.
Cousin Jeannie’s apartment was filled with produce, fruit and herbs, all picked fresh from those farms. The scent of basil was everywhere and had a magical effect on me. The only basil I knew lived in a small jar cramped with other dried spices in a cabinet that rarely saw the light of day. Jeannie’s basil lived in colorful flowerpots that lined the windowsill in rooms with a sunny view. Jeannie would let me clip fresh basil and showed me how to gently tear the leaves by hand, and sprinkle the beautiful green pieces on just about everything we ate — like those Jersey beefsteak tomatoes, fresh pasta, homemade focaccia and those juicy, delicious peaches.
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Sometimes inspiration can come from the most unlikely of places, like the neighborhood hardware store. I like to shop for kitchen “tools” like a DIYer hungry to tackle their project of the month. Strolling the aisles, I’m like a kid in a candy store with ideas for repurposing the contents of a handyman’s tool chest. Here are some tools that can pull double duty in the kitchen.
Blow-torch: This impressive-looking tool can be used for much more than soldering metal. It’s super-cool to use to toast meringue and usually cheaper than torches sold at expensive kitchenware stores. Think of me the next time you whip up a baked Alaska — it will be stunning.
PVC pipe: Just ask your friendly (and hopefully cute) hardware specialist to trim down one of those 700-foot white tubes you see lining the aisle. Let’s say you want to form individual ice cream cakes that are 3 ½ inches wide by 2 ½ inches tall. Go for it. Once you decide the size of the dessert you want to make, it’s easy to select the right pipe for the job. Ask your buddy to trim some into the exact number of servings you’re planning.
Get more double-duty tool tips
Yes, pan size matters when it comes to baking times and temperatures.
Have you ever had cake batter ready to go into the oven and realized you have the wrong size cake pan? Panic sets in. What do you do? There’s always a pan you can sub out for another size. It’s not the end of the world, trust me. I have a few tips I keep up my sleeve.
If, for example, your recipe calls for an 8-inch cake pan and you only have a 9-inch, relax, no problem. Just increase the oven temp by 25 degrees F and decrease the bake time by a quarter.
In this particular example, since your pan is 1 inch larger, more surface area will be exposed. The liquid in the cake batter will evaporate quicker, which means it will bake faster. To compensate, just increase the temp and decrease the baking time. Are you a little calmer now?
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I was classically trained at the Culinary Institute of America. The school prides itself on providing all its students the tools they need to succeed in the food industry. The most important tool I’ll pass along is “mise en place.” This is a French phrase used by chefs that translates to “everything in place.”
Baking 101 is, simply put, baking mise en place.
Baking can seem daunting to novices. I understand it seems very technical and can also be confusing. I will dispel many myths with these simple steps.
• Before buying any ingredients for a recipe, read the entire recipe from start to finish. Look closely at all the ingredients. If for example, a recipe calls for room-temperature butter and eggs, make sure you pull them out of the fridge far enough in advance (at least one hour).
• Preheating the oven is very important and should always be done before measuring out the ingredients.
Have a timer set and ready to go and more
I’m a bourbon girl, straight up. Neat or on the rocks, it doesn’t matter just as long as the vanilla, oak, caramel and spice notes work their magic. It’s pure craftsmanship at its best and only gets better with age.
But I’m also a pastry chef and one who loves to have fun exploring new flavor combinations. To limit a fine spirit to the bar alone would be criminal; at least, that’s what I think. Incorporating liquors into desserts reveals a whole new horizon of possibilities.
I love a good Manhattan. I also love the fact that bourbon works so well with chocolate, toasted nuts, peaches and even candied bacon. Two other spirits that round out my top three favorites when I bake are rum and Campari. Dark rum works well with tropical fruit and is a favorite of mine to use at our restaurant in Grand Cayman. Since there are so many great rums, taste a couple and use the one you like best. And Campari is a tad bitter, but it adds great balance to a dessert.
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Every year in the restaurant and out in the field, I use a truckload of vanilla beans. To me, they are as important as flour, sugar, butter and eggs. I consider the vanilla bean the fifth essential ingredient.
So imagine gallons of ice cream flecked with pounds of vanilla beans. Yummers! And how about custards by the kilo with an equal amount of this decadent vanilla sprinkled through every last bite?
So what do you do with pods that served their duty, sometimes even double duty? I could throw them away, but that wouldn’t be prudent. They are extremely expensive and too special to sit in a landfill somewhere in Florida, never really enjoying the fruits of their labor.
A flashbulb went off in my brain. No, not the same magical 60 watt summoning to life the Easy-Bake Oven of my childhood, but a bigger and brighter new fangled one. I realized if I washed the used pods and dried them slowly in the oven on very low heat, I could grind them in a spice or coffee grinder and have the most wonderful vanilla dust.
Get Hedy’s Vanilla Dust recipe
Savoring dessert carries a double meaning in my book. To fully enjoy most sweets, whether they are chocolate, fruit or candy-based, a little salt goes a long way to make the flavors pop. As the pastry chef at Miami’s top restaurant, I’m always trying to nudge guests a little bit outside their comfort zone. Sometimes the easiest way to do it is by baking some kosher salt into raw sugar-dusted sesame shortbread for a supportive boost you wouldn’t even know unless I told you. Or, better yet, go a little more obvious with a sprinkle of light and flaky Maldon sea salt on top of creamy, frozen truffle-like Milk Chocolate Cremoso. I love the raised eyebrows it provokes upon hitting the table — of course shortly followed by the, “Oh, I see, this completely makes sense,” look.
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