This past September, my sister and I made 240 cupcakes plus a 6” 3-layer cake for our youngest sister’s wedding. It was quite a learning experience for us, and I want to share it with other readers here in the hopes that this may help someone complete a large baking project.
I live at sea level in Mexico. We baked the cupcakes in Santa Fe, New Mexico, at 7,000’ elevation. Even though I baked our two selected recipes—Golden Grand Marnier and Heavenly Coconut Seduction—at my home with great success as cupcakes, we had to bake them again and tinker with the recipes for successful high altitude baking.
I used to be a professional cook and it was all in a day’s work to bake cakes for 100 servings. In fact, that was when I first bought The Cake Bible in 1989 or ‘90 to find new cake recipes for our restaurant menu. Because of this experience, I had enough self-confidence to know we could bake 240 cupcakes, but it would take lots of planning and organization to do it in a home kitchen.
After we adjusted for the elevation (increase oven temp. by 25 deg. F., decrease baking powder and baking soda by 25%, the usual decrease of sugar was not necessary because Rose’s recipes are already lower in sugar than standard recipes), we baked again and again to make sure we had successful adjustments. We found that one recipe of Heavenly Coconut made 12 cupcakes, but one recipe of Grand Marnier made 9 cupcakes, so the latter recipe was increased by 33%. We had to bake them to test the altitude adjustment, we had to bake them again to tweak the adjustment—yes, we did need to raise the oven temp. Then we baked them again to make sure we got 12 cupcakes from the increased Grand Marnier recipe. And we baked them again to see if we wanted to use 1/2 cup or 1/3 cup of batter per cupcake. And then we baked them again just for good measure. In all, we baked both recipes nine times at my kitchen in Mexico and my sister’s kitchen in Santa Fe to be extra sure there would be no surprises.
Then we started on the frosting. I had already made the Neoclassic Buttercream at home and thought it was a winner, but my sister and her husband declared the Neoclassic too heavy and buttery. Mousseline Buttercream was tried next. Everyone thought it was a great improvement—very flavorful and creamy without the heaviness. Our first test batch caused some anxiety when it looked thin and lumpy, but about three-fourths of the way through it started to emulsify and turn into a luxurious cream, just as Rose said it would. Not knowing how sensitive it would be to the warm kitchen temperature, we had two bags of frozen peas at the ready to hold against the mixing bowl if it became too warm and started to curdle. I had bought a new instant-read thermometer for this project, one made by Tru-Temp, about $10 at Target. We made 12 perfect quarts of Mousseline and I credit the thermometer for keeping things from curdling. I would never make Mousseline without a thermometer. (My sister bought a new scale at Target, by OXO for about $40. It, too, did the job. I know more expensive thermometers and scales are recommended, but these two seemed right-on. My test for food scales is to weigh a pound of butter. If the package says 16 oz. and the scale shows 16 oz, that’s good enough for me.)
We made the Mousseline—six quarts flavored with Grand Marnier and six quarts flavored with coconut rum and coconut extract—five days before the wedding. It still had a great texture on the wedding day. We made flavored syrups to keep the cupcakes from drying out in the high altitude air.
Our Complete Organization included doing the math and checking it thrice when we increased our recipes. A calculator and double checking by both of us insured that our math was correct. Then the increased recipes were typed on the computer and printed out. They were our working copies on baking day.
Complete Organization also included a careful shopping list. Costco was the source of the usuals—butter, sugar, flour, chocolate chips, Grand Marnier. But a few of the unusuals had to be hunted down—canned cream of coconut, coconut extract, powdered coconut cream. Thank goodness for Ziggy’s, an import food store in Santa Fe. But we couldn’t find real coconut extract. McCormick only had artificially flavored coconut extract, a product we both thought would compromise our quality standard. I found a recipe on line by Alton Brown (Good Eats on the Food Network) for making coconut extract. Start with a fresh coconut…but the coconut we bought was moldy inside, and we were running out of time. Why not use the same recipe, but with dried coconut steeped in vodka? I had brought several pounds of organic dessicated coconut from Mexico, which had a wonderful taste and aroma. It produced a satisfactory coconut extract, and absolutely better than McCormick’s chemical compound.
Finally, Complete Organization meant mis en place, the French term for “putting in place’. It is the practice, used in professional kitchens, of measuring and weighing every ingredient before mixing or cooking begins. This meant, on the day before we baked, pulverizing our sugar in the food processor, pulverizing dry coconut, weighing and scaling out the butter and sourcream, separating eggs, pre-weighing and measuring all dry ingredients, counting out the cupcake papers, having all utensils laid out on the kitchen counter. The wet ingredients were put into empty yogurt containers, the dry ingredients were placed in recycled yogurt containers and large coffee filter papers. Everything was lined up on the kitchen counter in order in which it would be added to the mixing bowl. This practice, even for one recipe to make just one cake, insures that no ingredient will be left out, that your kitchen and your head will stay organized throughout the mixing and baking project. I can’t emphasize enough how important mis en place is for baking and cooking.
To be continued.