The slideshow image of a lopsided angel food cake resembling a misshapen “B.C.” comics wheel flashes on the white wall of the Exhibit Building at the Elbert County Fairgrounds.
“How many of you have had this happen? I have.” Lois Illick's last two words rise an octave, drawing chuckles from an audience of bakers and cooks who have undoubtedly experienced something similar.
“I was up in Loveland, Colorado; that's only 4,000 feet and something. I made an angel-food cake because it's so healthy, flipped it over, and yep, it went phfffffft.”
Illick is a high-altitude cooking specialist and Colorado State University extension agent from Pueblo. On loan to Elbert County for the evening, she is here to share her high-altitude baking expertise with an enthusiastic group of Elbert County foodies and Master Food Safety Advisors Program volunteers.
Colorado State University sponsors the Master Food Safety Advisors Program. Volunteers train in the science of food preparation. They complete intensive training on topics such as food preservation and food safety in addition to committing to 30 hours of volunteer service each year with a CSU county extension office.
“Cooking With Altitude” is just one of seven cooking and food safety classes presented this year through the program in Kiowa. Past classes have covered topics from making preserves and jams to gluten-free cooking.
All classes are open to anyone with an interest and cost $10 per person. The next and final offering for 2015 is “Homemade Food Gifts from the Kitchen,” scheduled for Dec. 5 at the fairgrounds.
In addition to being a baking expert, Illick specializes in health, food safety and wellness, so she begins her class with a brief food-safety demonstration. She squirts a glob of Glogerm, a liquid resembling hand lotion that glows under UV light, on the hands of two volunteers. Once they have rubbed it in, they are sent off to the sink to wash their hands.
After a thorough scrubbing, Illick inspects the volunteers' hands under an ultraviolet light. Their palms and fingertips glow, simulating the germs remaining on their hands. Illick uses the experiment to alert her students to how easy it is to pick up germs and spread them around the kitchen.
“How do you get by all that? Hand washing and more hand washing. The number one way that food-borne illness happens is right here,” she says, raising her hands, palms out. She also warns that the dirtiest thing in the kitchen is the kitchen towels.
But Illick's lessons in cleaning and sanitizing are just an appetizer to her main course on baking at high elevation, and she dives into the class with some basic science.
At sea level, water boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit. As the elevation increases, atmospheric pressure drops, lowering the temperature at which water boils. The reduced temperatures (around 200 degrees in Kiowa) increase the cooking time required for foods such as pasta and potatoes.
The reduced atmospheric pressure that lowers water's boiling point also allows the gases in baked goods to expand more rapidly, which can lead to a myriad of culinary disasters such as bread that climbs out of a pan or exploding muffins.
“The gas, the air, the leavening expands really quickly, because there is nothing pushing it down,” Illick says.
Leavening is the term for the ingredients in baked goods that generate the gases that cause them to rise.
“As they produce that air, phfffffft.” She makes an exploding gesture with her hands. “They release it really quickly. Now we're going to fix it.”
Altering the basic structure of the food is the key to controlling the rate at which the gases are released while baking.
“You've got to have structure with your baking, and the structure is flour and liquid which make gluten, which is in wheat flour. Gluten catches all the expanding gases.”
Varying recipes, such as slightly increasing the amount of flour, increases the gluten, which slows the rate of gas release, but increasing the gluten by too much can slow the rate of gas release so much that a cake or muffin will not rise at all.
“If you go home and want to make a cake from scratch, these are the things you think about. You reduce your leavening agent by one-eighth to one-quarter of a teaspoon. That isn't very much, but it can make all the difference in your recipes.”
Increasing baking temperatures by 25 degrees can also make a difference, and Illick encourages her bakers to experiment.
“Write down what you did,” she implores near the end of her class. “There's nothing worse than making it come out perfectly and you don't remember how you did it.”