Sunday, June 1, 2014

Fig & Poppyseed Muffins (High altitude baking)

There’s nothing like that moment when you first check on the progress of your cake or muffin or bread as it bakes in the oven. What will it be: a flat, disappointing brick, or a softly rising mound that promises air bubbles and lightness of crumb inside?  Those of us at high altitude always have a little extra trepidation: the thin, dry, low-pressure air up here wreaks havoc on sea-level baking recipes, which rely on a finely-tuned balance between pressure inside and pressure outside the rising surface of the loaf or cake. I have made plenty of bricks, plenty of cakes that rose too fast and collapsed back in on themselves or overflowed their pans, and plenty of perfect and delectable desserty confections that are indistinguishable from their sea-level counterparts.

I’ve definitely evolved over the years from “must-follow-recipe” to being wildly experimental with my baking, substituting out ingredients with abandon and using whatever’s in the pantry, and adapting sea-level recipes for high-altitude. Along the way, I’ve learned a few handy tricks that work excellently every time (and I’ve had a few spectacular failures). One of my favorite “baking failure” moments came when I brought collapsed, cratered cupcakes to my great-aunt’s house for dinner. The sunken cupcakes provided perfect little dense chocolatey cups for holding fresh whipped cream and berries. I cheerfully explained to everyone how (and why) the cupcake recipe had failed. After the soiree my great-aunt took me aside and offered the following advice: Never admit to a cooking failure! Hide the evidence! Pretend you always meant to do it that way!

Unlike my great-aunt and perhaps other host(esses) of her generation, I have no problem owning up to my baking failures and see it all as a great experiment. On the other hand, if you’re baking something for a party and only have one chance to get it right, it’s nice to know it will turn out reliably well so you don’t show up at the party with nothing. My least favorite baking failure moment was when I offered to make a huge cake for my officemate’s graduation party. Although I was a very experienced high-altitude baker by that point, I had never made a very large cake. I borrowed the cake pans and followed a big-cake recipe from one of my favorite cooking blogs, but it was not a high-altitude recipe, and the batter expanded in the oven and overflowed the pan, ruining the cake entirely (what was left in the pan wasn’t the same composition as the lighter stuff that flowed out). I was out of time and couldn’t bake a backup cake, so I brought a store-bought cake with much chagrin and shame.

I now know that when it really matters that I get it right the first time, I had better use a high-altitude recipe for baking. I hope to provide tried-and-true high altitude (7,000 ft, plus or minus a few thousand) baking recipes on this site, because I do have plenty of go-to solid ones so that you don’t have to get into the experimental spirit when it matters most.

Scenes from making bread at high altitude: sourdough, yeasted, and bread machine bread.

This muffin recipe was inspired by a bag of frozen figs from Trader Joe’s. I’m pretty sure these frozen figs will disappear from Trader Joe’s in one of their trademark purges of all your favorite products, but for now, we’re enjoying them in our morning smoothies and looking for other ways to use them. Plus, this muffin is a unique twist of flavors if you’re getting bored of all your other muffin recipes. The base muffin recipe is modified from High Altitude Baking by Colorado State University Cooperative Extension, with a new flavor combination, a little more whole wheat flour to satisfy my healthy-eating husband, and optional coconut oil.

I’ve been substituting coconut oil for vegetable in baked goods for a while, but lately I’ve been tired of all my pastries tasting vaguely of coconut and have switched back to vegetable oil while the huge tub of coconut oil sits unused on the shelf. However, in this recipe the coconut flavor blends in perfectly with the almond extract flavor, and I would recommend it. If you don’t like or don’t have coconut oil, use vegetable oil. It comes out just as well.

Fig and Poppyseed Muffins (High Altitude)
Makes 12 muffins.

* Note: This recipe was made by me at about 7,000 ft in altitude. It will probably work great across a reasonable range of elevations above and below that, but may not turn out very well at sea level. If you are at low altitude and want to try the flavors in the recipe here, try adapting a normal sea level recipe to match this one.*

1 cup all-purpose flour + 1 cup whole wheat pastry flour*
1 cup sugar
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
1 egg
1 cup milk
1 tsp almond extract
1/4 cup coconut oil (melted) or vegetable oil
3 Tbsp poppy seeds
1 1/2 cup chopped figs, fresh or frozen

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F.  Spray your muffin tin.

Whisk the flours, sugar, baking powder, and salt in one bowl. In another bowl, whisk the egg, milk, almond extract, and oil. Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients and add the wet, stirring with a wooden spoon for about 10 brisk strokes. Add the poppy seeds and frozen figs and mix for about 10 more strokes or until flour is incorporated into the batter.

Spoon the batter into the muffin tin, filling each cup about 2/3 full. Bake for 20 minutes or until muffin top is light golden brown and the muffin springs back when pressed.

* I’ve been using whole wheat pastry flour for years ever since reading that Deborah Madison recommends it for baking with whole wheat. It’s usually pretty easy to find in the bulk bins of most markets, if it’s not in the baking goods aisle at your supermarket. You can substitute any mixture of white and whole wheat flours here but, more whole wheat usually means more bricklike. At this proportion, the texture of the muffin should be excellent. All the muffin photos on this page were made with half-and-half whole wheat pastry and all-purpose flour.

Lemon blueberry muffins - switch vanilla extract for the almond and increase to 2 tsp; switch frozen or fresh blueberries for the figs; switch the zest of 1 lemon for the poppyseeds; add 2/3 cup chopped pecans. When using frozen blueberries, add them at the absolute last possible second to avoid turning the muffin batter blue-gray.
Lemon blueberry muffins.
Chocolate chocolate chocolate walnut muffins - substitute cocoa powder for 1/4 to 1/2 cup of the sugar, depending on how strong your cocoa powder is (drinking cocoas are usually weak and sugary, so use 1/2 cup; baking cocoa is stronger, use 1/4 cup); no poppyseeds; switch vanilla for the almond extract; also, add 8 oz melted dark chocolate (I use the red Trader Joe's Pound Plus bar), 2/3 cup chocolate chips, and 2/3 cup chopped walnuts in the final few stirs. Note that when baking chocolate muffins, it's hard to tell when they are done. Go conservative and don't let them burn - they may be burning in the muffin tin while the top still looks normal.

Chocolate chocolate chocolate walnut muffin.