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Lately, I like baking the cake more than I like eating the cake, so to have a baking session turn into 90% disaster is pretty rare and pretty disappointing.

Chocolate Cake 1971 by Wayne Thiebaud born 1920I was gifted with Modern Art Desserts for Christmas (a cookbook where the sweets are inspired by modern works of art), and determined that I should make everything inside it immediately. Or at the very least, over the course of this year. This weekend, mission #1: the Thiebaud Chocolate Cake. This would be a challenge mainly for the buttercream, which is a Swiss, involving egg whites and sugar syrup. I’d never done a buttercream like that, but wanted to very much.

The challenge with baking in Colorado is the same challenge every visiting football team faces when they head to Mile High: the altitude. Food chemistry is different in this thin air, and when the cookbook referred to having the sugar syrup temperature at 248 degrees “at sea level,” I knew I might be in trouble.

With all the recipes I try, I attempt them as they are written the first time out of the gate, feeling that’s only fair. And this one made a beautiful chocolate batter, indeed. The buttercream also began perfectly. But then, everything went straight to hell.

Well, except for the ganache. I have loads of ganache…


Our batter started perfectly, and went together without a complaint. But by the time it emerged from the oven, it looked…well…it was a disaster. It collapsed in on itself, withdrew from the pan, and dried out.


I’m sorry — such things are hard to unsee and cake is not supposed to look like that. Was it the baking soda/powder combo that killed it? Was it the length of bake time? Given that I’ve cooked similar cakes at similar temperatures, I don’t think it was that…but it’s hard to know.

The buttercream also started wonderfully — there’s some magical about whipped egg whites and how they get all peaky. The hot syrup went in just fine, and they whipped and whipped until they’d been gently cooked by that heat. But then came time to add the room temperature butter, and the mix broke. It cracked. It curdled. Whatever you want to call it, I didn’t take a photograph, because wow the hideous. Was my syrup not hot enough for the altitude? Was my butter too warm or too cold? I just don’t know.


The ganache came out perfectly, however…so that’s sitting in the fridge. With, you know, the caterpillar.


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