Riding in the back of our rental car as my parents drove back to our hotel, I was in a mild panic, flicking through search results for “high altitude baking alterations” on my phone. We had landed in Colorado just hours earlier, and now I was trying to preempt the disaster I was certain lay ahead. The next morning, I would be baking my brother’s wedding cake, and his fiancée had just told me about how her favorite brownies came out dry, dense, and chewy in their new mountain hometown. I wouldn’t – couldn’t – let that happen to the cake. As I settled into bed that night, the altitude sickness kept me awake, and I ran recipe variations over and over in my head, laying out a schedule for myself for the next two days.
Without getting too much into the science of things, baking at altitude and at sea level are two entirely different beasts. The lower air pressure means cakes will rise too quickly, then fall, like a sad soufflé, resulting in dense, dry layers. Common fixes to this problem include decreasing the baking powder or baking soda, adding more liquids, and baking at a higher temperature. I had made a test cake a few months before, at home in nice low-altitude Alabama, but had no time for experimentation in Colorado: we flew in on Wednesday night, and I expected to keep a strict schedule of baking, mixing, assembling, and decorating Thursday and Friday mornings. Being the perfectionist and planner that I am, I had hauled with me a slew of cake decorating tools and even all of the dry ingredients I needed to make the cake, mousse, and frosting, portioned out per recipe. I wasn’t about to leave anything to chance.
How large was this wedding? Well, immediate family only, so a grand total of 10, including the bride and groom. No, I wasn’t making an overly elaborate multi-tiered, fondant-covered cake, but I still put pressure on myself to make a beautiful, delicious product. It was my need for control in the kitchen and emotional connection to the final product that had prompted my stress.
Cooking has long served as a form of emotional expression for me. It’s how I show others I care about them, that I’m grateful for their companionship, maybe even that I love them. I’ve never been affectionate, so my time spent hunched over the stove and dusted with flour is how I show affection. The decadent dinners I spend weekends at home preparing for my parents are as much an opportunity for me to use exotic ingredients and teach myself new skills as they are a way of showing my love for them (and gratitude for all that tuition money!). Making my brother’s wedding cake was thus the perfect way for me to welcome his fiancée and her family into ours. So, her constant reassurances of “Don’t worry, you know we only really care if it tastes good!”, although welcome, did nothing to calm my nerves. Until we sliced into that cake on their wedding night, that was about all that occupied my mind.
The wedding day came and, wouldn’t you know it, everything was perfect. Vows were exchanged, a few tears were shed, champagne was poured, conversation flowed over an afternoon snacking on a smorgasbord of cheeses, meats, and caviar. And at the end of the day, I was thrilled to present my rich cake to the happy couple and our families. No better way to celebrate the union of the Kirillovs and the Rockwells than with some chocolate.