Pie in the Sky, Susan Purdy

329 pages; Black and white, with sketches. Hardcover
William Morrow, NY, NY, 2005
Reviewed by Vivian Liberman for Good Cooking

Note: Do your cakes collapse, souffles slump, cookies crumble, and fruit pies fail? For those living at high altitude, baking can be a challenge at best, or a total disaster. More than thirty-four of the fifty United States, plus many Canadian regions, have cities and towns at altitudes of more than 2,500 feet, yet there are hardly any cookbooks that address the special needs of these local bakers. Until now. Award-winning cookbook author Susan G. Purdy has written the first-ever guide to high-altitude baking.

The review---Many cooks will agree that baking is complicated. Those who have attempted to bake in altitudes higher than sea level know that there are many other variables that affect the result of a baked good. Susan G. Purdy's Pie in the Sky is a book written to aid home cooks baking at higher altitudes understand the chemistry of the ingredients. She not only includes recipes of her own that she has tested in five different altitudes, but also explains how to alter recipes of your own to make it work at each specific altitude.

The book's cover is a pie floating on the background of a sky. Besides the picture on the cover, the book has only two or three illustrations. It is divided into four main parts. The first part of the book is completely anecdotal. Purdy takes us through her travels in the different cities of the United States and the different altitudes introducing us to her friends and taking us through the testing of some of the recipes that she had the most work with. The second part of the book introduces us to different ingredients and equipment that play a major role in a successful baked good based on her experience. Next are the recipes that are divided into muffins; quick breads, scones, biscuits, and popovers; yeast breads; cakes; cookies; pies; and souffl s. The last part is the appendix, where she goes into more detail about the science of baking and has charts that illustrate the adjustments that need to be made with each ingredient at different altitude.

Each recipe page includes a brief description of the finished product referring to the flavor and the texture. She also lists the yield of each recipe, the equipment needed to prepare it, how to prepare the pan, and the changes made to the recipe from one altitude to the next. At this point, It'sometimes gets repetitive because much is similar from one recipe to the other. The recipe is listed in a chart with six columns. The first one lists the ingredients, and the other five list the quantity of each ingredient at each of the different altitudes that she tested the recipes in (sea level, 3000 feet, 5000 feet, 7000 feet, and 10,000 feet). So, what happens to those who live somewhere in between? Not to worry, she makes suggestions as far as to which recipe should be followed if you live at an altitude in between those listed previously.
As I looked through the book, many of the recipes sounded good, but I wanted to test two of them that I knew had given her some trouble as she was developing them. So, I tested the Smoky Mountain Raisin Bran Muffins, which according to her "... were the most difficult to perfect at each high altitude location... " due to the weight of the ingredients. The result was great in my kitchen; they were moist, somewhat light considering the amount of fiber, and had nice round golden tops when they came out of the oven. The sweet aroma filled my kitchen and attracted my neighbors who agreed to the beautiful taste and texture. They had a perfect amount of sweetness and make a perfect breakfast item or snack. The second recipe I tested was Anna's Butter Cake. This was better than the muffins. It was rich, soft, and had a great butter flavor. I followed her suggestion to add a little bit of almond flavoring; which added more character.

Although both recipes I tested turned out great in my kitchen, I do not believe I have been fair in my review of this cookbook. After all, I do live in Boston, at sea level, and the entire purpose of this book is to see the results of these recipes in higher altitudes since they were already working recipes at sea level. All the work she put into this book was in making these great sea level recipes great at high altitudes and because I was not able to travel to any of these altitudes, I believe this review is not completely accurate. So, based on the recipes at sea level, I would say this book is good, but for those of you looking to bake at higher altitudes, I apologize for not being able to tell you the outcome of the recipes at any other altitude.

Mom's Blueberry Muffins
Makes: 12 muffins

Blueberry Muffins were one of my mother's specialties, and I dedicate this recipe to her memory. These are the muffins I dream about, and wake up hoping someone has whipped them up for my breakfast the way she used to. Their presence makes any morning special. I often double the recipe to put some in the freezer. There is no limit to the variations you can create with this recipe: try combining different types of berries, or use blueberries and peach or nectarine slices, or sliced plums and raspberries.

High Altitude Notes: Oven temperature, baking times, and liquid all increase with altitude. This recipe was totally stable at higher altitudes, needing only more liquid, until I reached 10,000 feet-then it gave me a very hard time. It took at least six batches before I found a formula that gave good rise and texture. I tried various amounts of leavening and replacing the whole milk with buttermilk, but I ultimately rejected that because it resulted in too much leavening action-it made the muffin tops rise, then fall as they cooled. To get the desired results, I added a little salt for more flavor, cut out one egg, and reduced the leavening as well as the sugar to strengthen the structure.

Special Equipment: 2 1/2-inch muffin cups, sifter, wooden skewer or cake tester

Pan Preparation: Coat the muffin cups with nonstick vegetable spray. (Then wipe the top of the pan with a paper towel) or coat with solid shortening. At 10,000 feet, coat with non-stick spray, then dust with flour and tap out the excess flour; or use paper muffin cup liners.

High Altitude Notes:
At 3,000 feet and above, increase milk as the elevation climbs.
At 10,000 feet, omit 1 egg, reduce the sugar and leavening, and increase the salt.

1. Position the rack and preheat the oven as indicated for your altitude in the chart above. Prepare the pan as directed. If using fresh berries, pick them over and remove the stems, rinse, and gently blot dry on paper towels. If using frozen berries, remove any ice particles. Set aside.

2. In a large bowl, whisk together the eggs, milk, and melted butter. Place a sifter over the bowl and measure the flour, baking powder, salt, and sugar into it. Stir/sift the dry ingredients onto the wet, add the berries and stir everything together just to blend; don't over beat.

3. Divide the batter evenly among the muffin cups, filling them nearly full. (I-lalf-fill any empty cups with water.) Sprinkle a generous 1/4 teaspoon sugar on top of each muffin. Bake for the time indicated for your altitude in the chart above, or until the muffins are golden brown and well risen and a cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean. (Muffins made with frozen berries will take a few more minutes to bake through.) Cool slightly on a wire rack, and serve warm.