Sunday, June 25, 2006

strawberry tart (and why I can't bake a cake)

Last Sunday for Father's Day, I made my dad a strawberry tart. It was a variation on a berry tart with mascarpone cream from Gourmet. I used only strawberries instead of the mix since everything else was ridiculously expensive. My dad is a teetotaler, so I replaced the orange marmalade and berry liquer with red currant jelly (which was already in the fridge). I bought strawberries from the farmer's market, but I decided that I needed to keep a cup for myself, so I supplemented the tart with far inferior berries from the supermarket (such a selfish girl I am!).

The tart was delicious and beautiful (if I do say so myself) which led me to contemplate why I can bake an excellent tart but can't seem to bake a decent cake. Recently my efforts to bake cake have been complete disasters. First, chocolate cupcakes that tasted great but ended up spilling over into flat and crumbly tops. Then there was the tres leches cake I could say that it's a matter of practice; while I've made dozens and dozens of pies and tarts, I've only made a handful of cakes. I have decided that my summer's culinary ambition is to make a respectable cake.

But I think there may be something else going on here: altitude. I don't live at a very high altitude (about 4500 feet), so it seems like the thinner air shouldn't wreak much havoc on my baking, but how else can I explain so many cake failures? Since I've lived at this altitude nearly my entire life, I never really thought about it's effect on baking; I never thought of myself as living at high altitudes. In my quest to make the perfect cake, I will also do some research on high-altitude baking and see if the adjustments make an impact. From what I've read so far, it looks like anything above 3500 feet is considered high altitude. If any of you have tips for high-altitude adjustments I'd love to hear them.

I think that the altitude of one's residence should be included in every recipe/ cookbook. I've noticed this trend with nature/ outdoors writers. In bios, altitude is always mentioned, as if this information tells us something about who the author is, as if altitude somehow defines one's character. (For instance, Pam Houston's official bio states: "She lives in Colorado at 9,000 feet above sea level near the headwaters of the Rio Grande.") I think that this emphasis on altitude would be more helpful for foodies: "Melissa lives at 4330 feet, which is why her cakes always fail to impress."


Blogger Lisa B. said...

Lovely tart! My friend is a very impressive cake baker, and she once gave me some advice that was something like, a teaspoon less liquid and a teaspoon more flour, or vice versa. I will check with her.

I love to bake cakes, and have always thought that it was my overall insouciance with regard to the very precise proportions mandated by the recipes that made most of them successful. Also, my philosophy has generally been, even if it's not gorgeous, it's still cake! You could try these attitudes and see how well they work for you.

3:43 PM  
Anonymous elizabeth said...

Maybe you're already well aware of these, but I've been finding that my cakes are affected by a) the oven claiming it's at temperature when it really isn't yet (solution = always double check with an oven thermometer), and b) dark non-stick pans when the recipe was written for older aluminum pans (solution = reduce the temperature for dark pans).

2:28 PM  

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